Wigan Athletic: The 12th Man - 'I’d even be willing to organise the newly formed 'Phoenix Ultras' and rally the troops, if I hadn’t said at the outset that I am a 48-year-old man who needs to calm down...'
Our panel of 12th Men pass the time during another long international break by discussing the rent issue at the DW Stadium, the #BELIEVE campaign, and this weekend's visit of rock-bottom Doncaster...
Latics’ recent break from competition did not guarantee a drama-free period for the fans thanks in part to comments that were made one week ago during a Warriors fans’ forum. On a positive note, the fans’ forum taught us Latics are due for a revenue boost as the rent will be raised for our rugby tenants. We also learned Warriors owner Ian Lenagan did not have intentions of saving the football club last season, but was only committed to purchasing the stadium and training ground at most – a move that would’ve crippled our future. I will never fully understand the animosity that exists between these two clubs but, as a New Yorker, I can say in confidence the only ‘Warriors’ I will ever cheer for are the ones who fought off street gangs while riding the train from the Bronx to Coney Island in 1979 (I highly recommend the movie). We didn’t need another reason to thank Phoenix 2021 for all they have done for Latics over the past six months, but expressions of gratitude for Abdulrahman Al-Jasmi and Talal Al-Hammad will never be unwarranted. Two additional people who Latics fans will have the chance to thank soon are Joe Dodoo and Dan Gardner. Both are new signings for Saturday’s home opponents, Doncaster. The duo represent a few of the many heroes from last season’s ‘miracle’ team that also just happened to pull off a League One double over Rovers last season. Doncaster have not beaten Latics since April 2016, and currently sit at the bottom of the League One table after five matches. They are also coming off the receiving end of a 6-0 drubbing at home to Rotherham in the Papa John’s competition on Tuesday. Every league match is important for a multitude of reasons but, for the first time this season, Latics will be seen as overwhelming favorites to win. Saturday will present an immense opportunity against a side that has conceded 15 consecutive goals across all competitions since scoring their lone goal of the season against Wimbledon in their League One opener. That statistic should bode well for any of our deadline day defensive signings, who may happen to make their debut. It also should inspire strikers Charlie Wyke and Stephen Humphrys to score their first league goals of the season, with the hope both can maintain positive goal-scoring form for the duration of the campaign. We’ve made it through this initial fixture gauntlet with few bumps and bruises, figuratively and literally. However, we know well from recent seasons that a bottom-of-the-table team can present serious challenges for us when not approached with the right mindset. Leam Richardson rightfully earned a ‘Manager of the Month’ nomination for leading the team to a stellar start, but his real work is just starting to get cut out for him. He is tasked with balancing what may be our most talented League One squad of the past decade and ensuring we perform to our best ability against our most daunting opponents in addition to our less intimidating foes. I have all faith we’ll pick up our league campaign exactly where we left off two Saturdays ago – on a winning note.
It’s been an odd week in many ways. No game on Saturday, thanks to us being internationally massive, and an interview with Ian Lenagan regarding the goings on around his desire to buy the DW last year. I’ll be honest – and it surprises even me that I’m saying this – but I’m minded to believe what he says. If the situation was reversed, and we’d been tenants at a rugby-owned stadium for over 20 years, Lenagan was doing exactly what we’d all have wanted any Latics chairman to do. We’d have wanted to get our hands on the stadium and reverse the landlord/tenant arrangement overnight, and all for relatively little money. The difference is that we wouldn’t have been all that bothered whether the rugby club survived or not. Let’s face it, £300k a year isn’t a huge amount, even to a League One club, but this is where things start to diverge. To Ian Lenagan and the rugby, £300k is a huge amount. Not just for Wigan Warriors, but for any Super League club. The TV money is buttons compared to most ‘major’ sports, and crowd numbers are falling for many clubs. Our £300k might well have been the lifeline they needed. Which brings me to that £300k. For rental of a new(ish) 25,000-seater stadium, £300,000 (and falling year on year since 2017) is ridiculously cheap. The Latics owners, led by Mal Brannigan, appear determined to raise that to something like a figure that is more appropriate. We hear negotiations are ongoing, but it’s a pretty one-sided set of talks. It surely amounts to little more than Brannigan telling Kris Radlinski what the number is, and Radlinski trying to talk it down a bit. Or a lot, if it’s pitched at true market rates. Ultimately, there’s no doubt who holds the cards here, and it’s not the rugby. Finally, I can’t finish without mentioning our friends from across the M61. After losing to us on penalties after a 0-0 draw, their manager was adamant they had won, with even Radio Manchester claiming a moral victory for their pet team. Now after another, even more drab, 0-0 at Burton, ‘the whole country knows Bolton are on the way back’. Even their fans are claiming Bolton are the closest thing to Manchester City in the football they play. It’s well documented that hysteria is infectious, and Bolton appears to be riddled with it.
So the truth is out about Ian Lenagan’s intentions. I’ve no interest in what he says and don’t believe a word that comes out of his mouth or his son on social media. The rugby say amicable discussions about the rent increase are ongoing, but the first thing they do is get Wigan Council involved. Now I’m not bothered if the rugby still use the stadium or not – as long as they pay fair rent. And opening up Robin Park and taking drink and food revenues away from the stadium should be taken into account. Back to opposition figures still aiming sly digs at us, we are definitely rattling cages on that front. The standard of football in League One has been set by those who think a 0-0 draw at home to Burton is on a par with the 1970 Brazil World Cup-winning team. Sadly I’m still in self isolation for the Doncaster game, so enjoy it and get behind the team. Stay safe.
As we are mid-international break, I thought I’d go off on a slight tangent about an initiative which has certainly created a few headlines. I signed up to the #BELIEVE campaign, I did it quietly, while realising I have now undone that by mentioning it here. As it happens, I was asked to be one of the 50 ambassadors as well, but I politely declined. Whereas I’d like to think I’ve put in the hard yards running a fanzine and supporting and writing about the club for over 30 years, I’m just not sure I wanted to be a face of it. Time for some different, new faces while 48-year-old me sits in the background, enjoying watching my club and sitting back and doing the fanzine. I do heartily approve of this as a concept though, on a number of fronts. Firstly, we got used to getting everything on the cheap under Dave Whelan. Older heads will remember, prior to this, at Springfield Park in the pre-Whelan era, there was a scheme called the Blue Chip where fans put a tenner a month in and they’d draw out a few prizes each month, with the winner getting a cheque for a cool £1,000. That wasn’t the important bit, however. The important bit was that over half the money went directly back into the club to support running costs, and that is something that we may or may not need to do in future. Of course, our new owners Mr Al Jasmi and Talal Al Hammad don’t need our money, at least I hope not. However, as a principle, there is nothing wrong with us getting used to handing a bit extra over, IF, and this is the biggest caveat of all, if you can afford it, because there may come a time again when the club does need it. Something that everyone was made acutely aware of when that lot pulled the plug on 1st July 2020. It also has to be acknowledged, sadly, that there are many tens of thousands of Wiganers, who don’t or won’t (but not can’t) put their hands in their pockets to support their local football club. They spend their money on shirts and Sky subscriptions, and very occasionally, match tickets for the glory football clubs from nearby big cities.
Football clubs who barely need or care about the money shelled out by people from this small town in Lancashire, because they are too busy using their massive tentacles to suck up billions from every corner of the world in a bid to gain world domination. So, in summary, it is up to us again, the fans of Wigan Athletic, to get behind Wigan Athletic in anything and everything we do. In some senses, Phoenix 2021 are as equally impressive owners as Dave Whelan ever was. Whereas Whelan gave us unbelievable times, he bought the club when it’s stock was low and his investment was a huge, personal vision. Which we, as Wigan Athletic fans, reaped huge dividends from. The Bahrainis wanted to invest BECAUSE we are Wigan Athletic, because we have this small and passionate fanbase, because we have an impressive infrastructure and pedigree for developing players and because of our recent history of punching above our weight. Which, of course, to bring this full circle, is mainly down to Dave Whelan and the elevation he gave us. All we can do as our part of the bargain is to support the club to the hilt and be grateful we do have what looks like a superb group of owners, whilst other clubs continue to tumble into crisis. The #BELIEVE fund will only ever be a token gesture compared to the overall cost of running a football club, but in essence, it proves we are willing to do our bit. Over time, those moderate sums will accumulate and we will be able to point to specific improvements to the club that this funded. My only quibble about the scheme is that it is not quite what I thought it was, or what I’d hoped it could be. Though that is not to say what I hoped to see introduced, could not happen alongside it.
Let me explain: I think there is perhaps a need for another scheme, which costs a minimal amount, say £10 a year, rather than £18 a month per person but entitles those occasional fans the opportunity to also receive some benefits and play a bigger part. This might include fans who were unable to buy a season ticket this year due to the absence of a direct debit option for example. The £10 would perhaps enable them to get a small (10 per cent?) discount off match tickets or merchandise, or give them some level of priority on the rare occasion where demand is high. Not like season ticket holders but “members” who have a vested interest in the club and can make just a tiny investment, which gives them (and the club) a little back every time it is used. My other, more gregarious idea surrounds the East Stand massive, whom we saw in great effect at the Bolton game and have a huge part to play in generating a brilliant atmosphere at the DW. There is still a big void under the East Stand, several years after the promise of another fans’ bar failed to materialise. Maybe that needs to be opened up as a fanzone? This would be in no way in competition to the existing Supporters’ Club bar, but more a place where the younger and dafter fans can lubricate their throats pre and post match and build up an atmosphere. Make it a hub for pre-match, and it also meets the criteria of getting fans to spend money at the ground rather than in town. It could be the home of the newly formed Phoenix Ultras, a passionate bunch of supporters who come together to make noise and generate atmosphere under the banner of Wigan Athletic FC. I’d even be willing to organise it and rally the troops, if I hadn’t said at the outset that I am a 48-year-old man who needs to calm down. I just can’t help getting excited about it. Come on though, how good would it be as we emerge from the storm and build our future?
International breaks are a real pain aren’t they? Don’t get me wrong, I love watching England and I enjoy international football. I’m not one of those who would do away with the international calendar. I understand why it’s so integral to world football. But nonetheless, when an international weekend comes along, and inevitably ruins a weekend off work where we could be watching Latics, it’s mightily frustrating. As was the case last weekend, a late summer trip over to the Fylde coast, out the window. The ones earlier in the season are particularly galling. The season has barely got underway before we have to take a break and, with how well we’ve been playing, no-one wants a break yet. This season feels particularly pertinent after the last 18 months – I’m eager to get back out there and to an away day on the train. So instead of a Saturday in September it’s a Tuesday in November, and a chance to see the lights for the trip to Fleetwood. Still, at least the lads will have had a decent break before another heavy run of matches over the next few months, if nothing else. All attention turns to Doncaster on Saturday and the chance to keep up with the leading pack at top of League One. It’s been a fantastic return over the first month of the season and, with the squad now looking complete, it’s going to be fascinating to see how Latics gel over the coming months. Latics will be up against a few familiar faces when they face Donny – Joe Dodoo did so well for us at the end of last season, Jordy Hiwula was equally impressive while on loan to us back in the heady days of 2015 when Gary Caldwell’s side marched to the League One title, and Dan Gardner who deserves a great reception. Both Gardner and Dodoo played a massive part in us surviving last season, and we haven’t been able to thank them properly. I was surprised both departed at the end of the season, with Gardner not offered a new deal and Dodoo turning down a new contract. Similar to George Johnston, I wonder if Dodoo didn’t expect our recovery to be as swift and as strong as it has undoubtedly been. Viv Solomon-Otabor, who also didn’t sign a new contract in the summer, is currently training with Latics as he looks to return to full fitness. He was the first name on the team sheet for most of last season, and played through the pain barrier to help Latics stay up. I wonder whether we may look to offer him a contract again (as a free agent, he could sign outside of the window), although where he would fit into the side is another matter. Doncaster have undoubtedly had a difficult start this season under Richie Wellens. They come into this game on the back of a 6-0 defeat in the Pizza Cup against Rotherham, with a certain Will Grigg on the scoresheet so they’ll be wanting to get back to winning ways on Saturday. We’ll be favourites, but don’t dismiss Doncaster. We know from personal experience how that favourites tag can be turned around in this league – as last season showed us.