Talking football: One step forward, one back for Cook
It's been a case of one step forward and one step back for Paul Cook and Wigan Athletic this pre-season.
Last Friday, there was massive cause for optimism as Latics gave as good as they got for the majority of a thoroughly absorbing opening friendly against a very strong Liverpool outfit.
Four days later, the same squad struggled to assert any sort of dominance over a Southport side that were relegated from the National League at the end of last term.
Let’s be fair, the 0-0 draw at Haig Avenue was up there with the poorest games of football that I – and the near-900 travelling fans – have had the misfortune of witnessing.
In mitigation, of course, the fact the game meant nothing - it’s pre-season, it’s all about getting minutes into legs, results are utterly immaterial.
But as boss Cook was the first to acknowledge, after the high of the Liverpool game, when Latics asked questions of their Premier League opponents, it was frustrating to see the same players struggle to open up Southport.
As far as positives go, again the rookies on show – Owen Evans, Luke Burgess, Luke Burke, Callum Lang, Sam Stubbs and Chris Merrie – all continued their development with displays of varying encouragement.
Stubbs in particular will look back with satisfaction on the way he stood toe to toe with Southport’s big No.9 Jack Sampson – a Wigan-born, former Latics academy graduate, no less – and didn’t once take a backwards step.
And it’s important to point out the number of players – key first-teamers – who still have to come into the fold.
Nick Powell, Will Grigg and Shaun MacDonald all watched on from the stands, while new goalkeeper Christian Walton wasn’t risked after picking up a slight knock.
Powell and Grigg in particular will help address the problem of a lack of creativity and goal threat in the final third, and Cook will be counting down the minutes until the end of the transfer window, hoping both are still here.
With two pre-season friendlies left – at Notts County this Saturday and Grimsby the following week – there’s still plenty of time to put things right ahead of the big kick-off.
And plenty of time for players to show Cook they deserve a central role in the new-look Wigan Athletic.
The departure of captain Stephen Warnock will leave big boots to fill down the left-hand side of the Latics defence.
But the return of Reece James from his injury nightmare means a replacement may not be required.
James hadn’t missed a game for Latics before damaging his ankle 18 months ago.
Since then, he has battled hard behind the scenes, only to suffer setback after setback on the long road back to full fitness.
A few aborted attempts later – including a couple of non-playing substitute roles last term – James looks to finally be ready to show the form that led to then-boss Gary Caldwell calling him as the ‘most consistent player’ in the squad before his injury.
There’s nothing James can do about his lost year-and-a-half.
But, judging by the way he’s slotted back in during the two pre-season games to date, he looks ready to make up for lost time.
It’s early days, but Alex Gilbey looks set for a big year having been the stand-out man in pre-season.
I could have saved time and cut and pasted that line from last year’s paper, because that’s exactly what I wrote on these pages 12 months ago.
Sadly, and after a hugely promising start to his Latics career, Gilbey was cut down by a serious ankle problem that wrecked his campaign.
By the time he returned after six months on the sidelines, Latics were already hovering over the relegation trapdoor with both hands tied behind their back.
Hopefully this time Gilbey will have better luck with injury, and a full season from the all-action midfielder will hopefully have Latics in the hunt for another shot at the Championship.
Most pre-season clashes generally don’t live long enough in the memory to last the journey home.
But for young Latics goalkeeper Owen Evans, the two games so far could prove to be the making of him.
The half-hour he played after replacing Christian Walton against Liverpool gave him a real baptism of fire at first-team level.
Helping to keep out the likes of Sturridge, Origi and Henderson will have done him the world of good.
And to follow that with his first senior clean sheet at Southport on Tuesday night – including one vital save right at the death – will only have boosted his belief.
As I entered the Merseyrail Community Stadium, Southport, on Tuesday night with an hour to go to kick-off, the unmistakable figure of David Perkins walked in just ahead of me, weaving in and out of home and away fans.
“Must be injured,” I thought, as I made my way up to the press box, to be handed a team-sheet...including the name of one David Perkins.
If you can find a more laid-back, no-frills player in the game than Perks, you’ll do well.
But as we saw two seasons ago – and hopefully again next term – he doesn’t half get the job done on the field.