Wigan Athletic boss opens up on Joe Gelhardt conundrum

Joe Gelhardt scores his first senior goal at Hull last September
Joe Gelhardt scores his first senior goal at Hull last September

Paul Cook is adamant his ‘softly, softly’ approach to blooding Wigan Athletic’s stars of the future will pay dividends – while also understanding the ‘clamour’ for Joe Gelhardt and Co to be given more game-time.

Gelhardt, who has captained England at Under-18 level, is still waiting for his full debut for Latics, despite scoring a brilliant goal at Hull in September and providing a sparkling cameo at Nottingham Forest last month.

The 17-year-old was part of the Latics side – alongside Young England team-mate Jensen Weir – which knocked Tottenham out of the FA Youth Cup at the DW Stadium in midweek.

Cook, who was in the directors box on Wednesday night, is well aware of the quality coming through at a club that this week also opened the doors of its new Football Academy on Stadium Way.

But he insists exposing the teenagers to too much first-team football too soon would be counter-productive.

“You’ve just got to be careful, you really have, because it’s Championship football,” Cook said.

“And if you look through the country in relation to 16,17, 18 year-olds playing in the Championship, you can count them on one hand.

“We’ve got to be so careful with the young lads, especially with Joffy, who’s been brought to the fore.

"I know there’s a clamour for him to play, but it’s a massive thing for a 17-year-old to be playing regularly in the Championship.

“We feel Jensen’s also an excellent young player and young man, and he’s also got a very good future in the game.

“But they must be brought along at the correct time.

“Sometimes people’s impetus to get people into the side can be very, very quick. You look at Liverpool beating Everton last week... suddenly all those young lads should be in the first team every week.

“It’s not the case – they’ve had a good day. Our young lads will be sprinkled with magic moments and days, as they are, but there’s a procedure for that.

“If you look at most people’s careers, you follow a pathway.

“And there’s not many 17-year-olds go straight into the first team and shoot for the stars immediately.

“You think of (Wayne) Rooney and (Steven) Gerrard but I can’t think of many others.

"So while the importance of our young lads is how much we like them, we’ve got to make sure we’re correct with their progression towards the first team.

“But if I had to pick Jensen Weir for the first team this weekend, I’d sleep well tonight.

"The pathway is there, and the belief in our players is there. They’ve just got to be brought on at the right time.”

Cook also dished out high praise for the coaches behind the scenes who are making big waves on the development front.

“The Academy’s done great for a period of time now, ever since I’ve been at the club,” he recognised.

“From Gregor (Rioch, Head of Academy) right through to Nick (Chadwick, Development Squad boss), Peter (Murphy, Under-18s coach) and Kenny (Williams, Head of Academy Recruitment), there are a lot of people there who do a lot of good work.

“The players play in a really good manner, a good spirit.

“Joffy and Jensen are probably the two highest-profile players at the minute, but they are in the midst of a lot of very good players.

“One of the things we like is that our Under-18s and Development Squad are regularly here at Euxton, playing against the first team in 11-v-11 games.

“And that’s great because it gives us a chance to have a look at the players coming through.

“For example, Joffy was coming up here, scoring goals against the first team in practice matches, and it’s something he’s carried on doing.

“It’s also about seeing them in terms of physicality, and how they look. But that underlines the pathway and progression that is here at our club.”