Wigan Athletic: The 12th Man - 'It is a bold, different appointment and one that we, as Wigan Athletic fans, regardless of initial reservations, must all buy in to, and the rewards will follow...'
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It was the late, great Tony Wilson who said about Manchester 'we do things differently here'. I’m sure if you ask the residents of Liverpool, they will claim the same. Indeed, any other part of the country where there is any element of defiance or self-built culture. Nevertheless, here begins a meandering ramble intended to perfectly intertwine the challenge facing Wigan Athletic and the progress of the England football team in Qatar and the impending, if possibly short-lived, WORLD CUP FEVER!! You see at Wigan Athletic, we also do things differently here. We have to do things differently because we don’t have the resources of other clubs, we don’t have the profile, and dare I say we don’t have the support. I’ve read all the pros and cons of appointing Kolo Toure and now, on the eve of his first game, I have decided it will be a good thing. Why? Firstly, because we’ve got to hope it will be. But also, because we do things differently around here. We have to think out of the box and go with what, on paper, might seem a strange appointment. We have to use somewhat different methods to gain a competitive advantage because we haven’t got zillions of fans across the globe, who spend millions of pounds on replica shirts. We are a small town in Lancashire, so hemmed in by surrounding bigger clubs that even many locals choose to look elsewhere. But those of us who do watch Wigan Athletic are a welcoming bunch who embrace anyone who buys into our team, our town and puts an honest shift in for us. We’ve seen it with James McClean - nobody cares about his views, his background or his politics. They care that he cares for Wigan Athletic. Of course, I’m sure someone who is reading this might pull a smirk and point out that our fans would be hurling the same abuse as everyone else if he didn’t play for us, but that’s not the point, is it? The point is, as mentioned above: he buys into us, so we buy into him. So we’ve got Kolo Toure, the EFL’s first African manager, and we are exactly the sort of club that will embrace everything he has got to offer. Indeed his continent of origin barely matters any more, because he will become one of us - a de facto Wiganer. Unless it all goes a bit wrong of course. But let’s not worry about that right now. It is a bold, different appointment and one that we, as Wigan Athletic fans, regardless of initial reservations, must all buy in to, and the rewards will follow. Football is a global sport and we are embracing that fact with this appointment.
To this end, it is wonderful to see the England team progressing to what looks like a tough quarter-final tie against France this weekend. While I’m full of the milk of human kindness right now already, you will not find a single cynical word about this from me either in this column or on social media. I was very lukewarm towards the tournament, due to the circumstances and location, but that is no slight on the players or manager wearing the white shirt. Not only have I not been cynical, I’ve found myself holding my tongue with people who are being cynical about it. I understand the reasons why, but if you can’t see why England’s progression in the World Cup is good for the country, good for the morale of millions of football fans, and good for the economy as a whole, least of all, the hospitality sector, which has taken a right battering, then you are very selfish and self-centred. There’s over 40,000 football clubs at all levels of the game in this country, and this sort of stuff can benefit all of them - not just the two or three at the top who typically rake in 50 per cent of the money anyway. Ironically, it’s the supporters of those two or three capitalist machines at the top, that generate billions from the hordes, who are the ones to sneer the loudest in many cases. The old me might well have been tempted to join in having a pile on over those kids throwing ale about at Croydon Boxpark, but there’s a clue in there - they are young, they are having a good time, and they probably don’t care what sneering middle aged men think. It’s not just good for football fans, it is good for the players. You can pump all the money you like into the Premier League, or the Champions League but somehow - in spite of all FIFA’s chequered past or continual innovations such as VAR, that are meant to improve the game - somehow, the World Cup remains pure. Your billionaire owners can’t buy the World Cup. And it is a trophy worth winning. You can earn billions a year, play for the biggest club in the world, be the best player in the world, but the World Cup is still the biggest trophy in football, and in sport. It is telling that during all these years debating who was the better player out of Messi and Ronaldo, neither of them has got their hands (yet) on the prize they would love to win the most. Oh, and neither was a patch on Sir Andrew Liddell anyway. I’m not getting carried away at all, I am not about to utter those three fateful Baddiel and Skinner words, I’m just saying the World Cup is a big deal whether you like it or not. It is a cause for celebration and excitement not cynicism. And if you are 'scouse not English', or you think Manchester United are bigger than England, then you’re the ones missing out. And you’re also not quite correct, because there is no bigger spectacle than the World Cup. It happens once every four years and it is all the better for it. If you’re under 60 years of age, you probably won’t have ever seen England win the World Cup, and you might never do so either. But it’s that rarity of opportunity and occasion that makes it truly unique. Not just in England but across the world. Of the 32 finalists, 31 go home empty-handed. Five different countries have won the last five World Cups. With exclusivity creates great excitement, and it has captured my attention in a way that Premier League football long since waned from. It is the greatest sporting event in the world, and if just a little bit of it can rub off on this small corner of Lancashire for the rest of our own football season, with the Ivory Coast’s finest at the helm, then there will be plenty to enjoy in the coming months.
And so here we are, with Saturday bringing the start of a new era. Or the continuation of an old one. One way or another we’ll find out before we hit 2023. It took forever to see a picture of Kolo Toure in any kind of Latics gear after his appointment was announced, so let’s hope we get going a bit quicker on field, at least. As sad as it was to see Leam Richardson gone, this is what happens in football. Managers lose a few games and they get sacked. Loyalty is a little bit of a dirty word these days, when every penny gained by a single table position can literally mean life or death for any club outside the PL. A three-and-a-half-year-contract, though, is excessive these days, especially for a man who has never actually managed before. And I know all managers, at some point, had never managed before but still, a contract I’m sure will be pretty considerable could end up costing us dearly if things don’t work out. Add in the cost of compensation to Leicester for Toure and his team, and it’s an expensive gamble. By all accounts, Kolo Toure may not be quite wired up properly, so at least he’ll fit right into the town on that score. But, while we might be quirky, it’s a quirkiness that has seen us through a lot worse than this before now. All I’ll say is don’t be screaming for his head if we’re still struggling up to Christmas. He doesn’t know the players and they don’t know him. I doubt he’d even heard of too many of the squad before joining, never mind knowing what they can do. Finding a way of playing with the players he has isn’t a quick process. The World Cup break will have helped a bit, but he came into that quite late, so we’ll see. We should still all only be looking not to be relegated, frankly, but some fans seem upset we’re not already promoted. If we finish out of the relegation spots by a better goal difference of one, that’s all we need, and we should be happy with that. We’re not a Premier League club by right of history, we’re a mid-table Championship club and not much more. Let’s accept that, and hope for seasons where we win as many as we lose, chucking in the odd cup run for a bit or extra curricular excitement from time to time. As Latics fans, the Confucius curse of living in interesting times has been hanging over us for as long as anyone can remember. We don’t really do normal, unless normal is only ever being in the top or bottom six, with equal amounts of celebration and panic. I’m not sure why we would expect that to change any time soon.
So it's back to league action, and Kolo's first game in charge. Hopefully he and his staff have had a good 10 days getting their feet under the table and getting a general outline to the players of how they want us to play. After leaving the Den with three points it'll be back to a decent pub to watch England France. Due to the train back, I'll probably only see the first half but that's okay, we'll be 4-0 by half-time, to cement a top Saturday day out. Stay safe.
I’d be lying to you if I said that there wasn’t a weird energy surrounding our official return to action this weekend. While these past four weeks have flown by quicker than many of our prior two-week international breaks, the excitement for a big away day in London and Kolo Toure’s debut seems relatively subdued. England are taking the pitch in Qatar for their biggest match of the tournament just two hours after Latics are set to conclude play at Millwall. Many Latics fans, along with those from other EFL clubs across the country, had to make big decisions about whether to continue their travelling support or stay home for the weekend. Considering the World Cup schedule conflicts in addition to the long and expensive journey one would have to make to get to South London, it should not come as a surprise that our away section at the Den is expected to be anything but full. No explanation is needed from any fan who is choosing to sit this fixture out. Credit given to every fan who is able to support the lads in person, however. You will play an integral role in starting this new era of Latics football on the best note possible. Every voice will be needed on Saturday to propel Latics to a result in a tough environment. Millwall haven’t lost at home since mid-September and, as a result, only sit right outside of the play-off places in the league table by goal difference. Their match against Sunderland was broadcast in the States last weekend, and I was able to catch a full glimpse of their team for the first time this season. They provided a constant goal threat from set pieces, but Sunderland’s defence still kept them at bay. Their own defence made several costly mistakes in the second half, which led to their undoing and, ultimately, a 3-0 defeat. The match did provide us a blueprint for success on Saturday: mark well in our own box and beat the Millwall full-backs off the dribble to create chances at the other end of the pitch. Regardless of whether our next result is deemed positive or negative, Kolo’s first match in charge marks the start of a long adventure ahead. If we still find ourselves in this division by the time the full-time whistle blows against Rotherham on May 6, then this season should go down as a success. Even if the return of Latics football is not the most exciting event on your calendar this weekend, I still hope those butterflies reappear in your stomach at some point leading up to the 3pm kick-off. A wild five months of Latics football awaits us. I wouldn't have things any other way.
As a mark of respect to Tom Flower, I begin this 12th man column on a sombre note. My thoughts are very much with Tom’s loved ones after he passed away. As a fan of Wigan Athletic, it is very evident Tom was an exemplary member of society and he did a great job as the Head of Community for the Community Trust. Difficult times in recent years have shown just how much our club means to its fanbase and local community, and Tom was at the heart of that. Events such as this really put the importance of football into perspective. It's nice to have Championship football back, though, despite the fact the World Cup is providing us all with great entertainment as the North West winter grows more and more bitter by the day. I’m not too sure what to expect when it comes to Kolo Toure as our manager, but I wish him and his coaching staff all the best as we embark on a new era. Perhaps Toure will get Latics playing a similar style of football to that of a Brendan Rogers side, having been his assistant at Leicester City. It will be interesting to see if Kolo can implement the ‘modern football’ chairman Talal Al Hammad has spoken about. Perhaps the use of that phrase ‘modern football’ infers Talal believes Richardson’s style of football is no longer fit for purpose. If so, that could be interpreted as being somewhat disrespectful to Richardson. However, there are a lot of fresh up-and-coming managers who are helping to evolve Championship football. It’s probably as necessary as it is sad that the likes of Neil Warnock and Mick McCarthy are done with Championship management, while younger managers such as Vincent Kompany and Michael Carrick are thriving. It seems as though the second tier of English football is becoming more about tiki-taka and Brazilian full-backs than it is about lumping it to David McGoldrick! Maybe it wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world for Latics to join this revolution which is leaving nostalgia and traditional Championship football behind. Lastly, it’s just so odd Latics are playing on the same day as England are playing in a World Cup quarter-final. I’ve never had the Tics so little in my thoughts prior to a weekend with a fixture, and that’s because at the moment England seems to be more important to me just because it’s the World Cup. Generally speaking though, I’m club before country.
Another chapter in the history of Wigan Athletic has begun, with the appointment of Kolo Toure. He will not have had much time to get his feet under the managerial desk to work with the squad. With the cap on what Latics can spend, due to going into administration in 2020, he will, for the time being, have to make do with the players he has at his disposal. Maybe in January's transfer window it will be possible to bring in new faces to strengthen the squad and create competition? After the one-month break, it is back to work for Latics, hopefully it's given the players an opportunity to rest and recharge their batteries as well giving time for injured players to recover. There are no easy games in the Championship and it won't get any easier for the new manager in charge of his first game, as he takes Latics into the Lion's Den at Millwall, who are outside the play-off spots in seventh place. Latics have won there before, but it has never been a happy hunting ground. After that it will be a home match against second-placed Sheffield United. Will our new manager instil a new feel-good factor, with an energy and purpose that was lacking under Leam Richardson? We shall see. No doubt there are those among the Latics faithful, with a change of leadership will hope Kolo will emulate what Steve Cooper did at Nottingham Forest last season, where he took them out of the bottom three to promotion, via the play-offs. I doubt if that will happen but, right now, I would settle for Latics finishing fifth from bottom! Then next season, try to build a squad that can compete and hold its own in the Championship.
It’s been a while hasn’t it? The first winter World Cup has provided a relief of sorts, but nothing to ever replace the domestic football that it so foolishly replaced thanks to FIFA’s grubby decision-making over a decade ago. With the bottom two divisions of the EFL carrying on, alongside the second round of the FA Cup it’s been a very uneven bit of down time for English football, and one I hope we never have to repeat. As exciting as the football has been in Qatar, it’s come at a huge cost, both human and reputational. Anyway back to Latics, and it’s been a very quiet three or four weeks in Wigan town as the club look to build on that win over Blackpool before the break. Well that’s probably how it would have gone in an alternative reality but not for us. As Anthony H Wilson once said, 'We do things differently here'. So it’s with a genuine bit of excitement and some trepidation that we look ahead to the trip to Bermondsey on Saturday and the first match in charge for Kolo Toure. It’s been good to see Kolo on the training pitch in recent days, first off at the training camp in Turkey and now back at Christopher Park. Somebody commented earlier this week that Toure is probably the biggest name we’ve ever attracted to Wigan, either as a player or manager, and I think that’s a fair assessment. He is indeed a huge name, and it represents a complete sea change and a big departure from Leam Richardson, who was anything but a big name (comparatively speaking), but had fostered a fantastic team spirit at the club. Perhaps that big departure from what went before was required. Talal spoke earlier this week about the need to transform the club both on and off the pitch. In fairness to Phoenix 21, we’re well on our way to doing that off the pitch, and many believed we were doing so on the pitch. Sadly that wasn’t to be the case, but if the arrival of Kolo and his backroom staff can help that transformation on the pitch, we’ll be all the better for it. From the photos we’ve seen and the warm words we’ve read, Kolo certainly looks raring to go. I know little about his character other than what his team-mates and former managers have said to the press. What comes across is a warm and pleasant individual, but also a winner and someone who has always strived to do better. In Wednesday’s first press conference, Kolo spoke about finishing his career as a player and knowing he didn’t have a divine right to become a manager. So he spent five years working alongside Brendan Rodgers, first during the highly successful spell with Celtic and latterly at Leicester City, where European qualification and an FA Cup win followed. Someone who has been willing to get that sort of experience should be applauded. We may not have been the club Toure envisaged, but we’re definitely a decent place to start a career. Perhaps we’re doing ourselves a disservice there, of course. We spent 10 years in the Premier League, won an FA Cup, played in Europe, and launched the careers of household names across the Premier League. Maybe we’re exactly the sort of club someone like Kolo Toure would be attracted to. Either way, the time for talking will soon be over, and it’ll be time to see how he can transmit his ideas onto the pitch. It’s not going to be easy, and fans shouldn’t expect some magic wand that will solve all of our issues. Leam achieved miracles last season and, for the early part of our season, it looked as though we would stay up comfortably. But football is a fickle game, and within five weeks we had gone from play-off contention to relegation-threatened, and Leam had lost his job. There’s no guarantee Kolo will be able to turn this ship around quickly, and we as supporters can’t expect miracles. If we can keep in touch with the sides above us over the Christmas period, see progression towards a more possession-based ‘positive football’ if you will, and manage to strengthen in the New Year, we should be well placed for a strong second half of the campaign. Kolo’s ready. Are we? Bring it on!