Wigan Athletic: The 12th Man - 'That’s when they really do need our support, rather than opening up those old grudges and looking to prove you are right with that criticism you made three months ago...'

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Our panel of Wigan Athletic experts reflect on their table-topping side's 18-game unbeaten run ahead of Saturday's tricky trip to Cheltenham...

Martin Tarbuck

They say it is hard to write when there’s so little to complain about. So I will apologise in advance that the only thing I have to complain about is that small but very vocal section of fans, who have continued to complain (online) throughout this season. Trawling through social media constantly finds them with egg on their face and subsequently going all quiet after the event, only to pipe up again, the first time that we aren’t steam rolling someone. They never learn, but let us, let them get on with it. The sort of people whom, if Usain Bolt ran 100 metres in nine and a half seconds, they’d say “well, he really should be doing it in eight, if he got his start right”. If you can’t enjoy this season we’re having and feel the need to bitch, moan and whine your way through games then that is your prerogative. All the more so after what we’ve been through the previous year. Nobody is stopping you from having that opinion, for whatever purpose it serves. Feel free to keep nitpicking at Leam, but personally I think he needs knighting. The angst towards certain players I can sometimes see. Some are more limited than others, but they are all making a contribution to this team, that is top of the league and racing through cup ties. I’ve also seen this angst around this squad or that player not being good enough for the Championship. So what? We need to get there first and if/when we do, there will be this thing called a transfer window where we will ship out, bring in and strengthen. Until that point, I’m not going to be worrying about it. Why find fault over something that hasn’t even happened yet? It is a squad game, and the fact the squad seems such a tight unit is again, absolutely to Leam’s credit. As a bunch of chirpy Irish songstresses might opine, players are only happy when they’re playing. Yet somehow, things seem harmonious throughout. It is telling that hardly any players have been sent on loan though, even now the squad is getting back to regulation size.

Which brings us nicely on to Tuesday night and a fantastic performance by the recent and emerging academy players. When you look at the stats of the games, the chances and the possession, well on paper, Arsenal probably edged it. But then it’s Arsenal, it is what they do – all foreplay and no finish. A young Wigan lad took his chance, surrounded by his mates who he has grew up playing football with and it meant the world to all of them. That spirit runs throughout the club and the fringe players are in a competition of their own right now. The next nice problem to have is whether to stick with the same team for the next round (or two!) or reintroduce first team players. I’d like to see the former happen as it would be a terrific story and they have earned the right, but then obviously having got to this point, we want to win the thing which advocates playing our strongest team. Tricky eh? But well done to everyone on Tuesday night, who again were written off by some of our social media overlords prior to kick off, claiming the team selection has cheated them out of a trip to Wembley. Tickets were five English pounds for Heaven’s sake! On that note, I have referenced it in the past, but I have some sympathy with the club for the chaos outside. The problem is that the day before the game, there was only a thousand or so tickets sold, and then everyone piles in at last minute. I wonder how many of those moaning about queues had only bought their ticket an hour before kick off? It’s not an easy situation to manage or prepare for really is it? And I speak as someone as guilty as anyone else of being a last minute Larry at times. It is us, the fans, causing that chaos by buying 3,000 tickets all at once, not the club for not opening enough turnstiles. I have always joked that if we ever got to the Champions League final, there’d be some daft Wiganer turning up at the Camp Nou, two minutes before kick off saying they “thowt tha’ could pay on the gate.” These are all nice problems to have I suppose, and I am sure the club appreciate the support and will be able to predict future turnouts as time goes by.

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The youthful Latics side celebrate their victory over Arsenal Under-21s in midweekThe youthful Latics side celebrate their victory over Arsenal Under-21s in midweek
The youthful Latics side celebrate their victory over Arsenal Under-21s in midweek

The other one I’ve seen mooted is a suggestion we could try and fill the home ends by doing cut-price tickets for the crunch game against Sunderland. Again, I don’t think the club could, should or would do this. It goes back to knowing the pricing has to be the same for the away end as it is in the home end and they would be daft to let 5,000 Mackems in for a tenner, when they will undoubtedly pay £25 a head anyway. There was an interesting view on this from Andy Holt, before he lost the plot at the weekend and it was backed up by Ben Kay, who is an ex-Latics player and now the Accy groundsman. Essentially, fixtures aren’t just Cat A, B or C depending on who the opponent is, it is more down to the associated policing costs. If your police bill is thousands of pounds higher because a large, unruly away following is in town, then you might have to slap a few extra quid on the ticket prices to cover it. Of course they make a bit back on food and drink sales, but we all recall the extortionate at play when Dave Whelan was in dispute a few years back. And if you don’t remember, you can still read the graffiti. Perhaps there could be another way around this, whereby the club could let season ticket holders bring a friend for a quid. If not, for that game then maybe another between now and the end of the season. Of course, this puts the incentive back on the fans, but it would also mean that hopefully the tickets would fall into proper hands. Regardless and even though they’d probably been on the ale all day, that Sunderland away following in the League Cup was noisy enough with just 2/3000, let alone a full away end, so our vocal chords will need to be at our very best that afternoon. It might even need us old fogeys in the West Stand to join in. As I say, all nice problems to have but I’m sure the players and backroom staff aren’t looking beyond the next game or two with another crucial Saturday and Tuesday game coming up. If we can continue our good form, then we will stay top, still have those games in hand and have less games to play. You don’t just see off the challengers by beating them, you break their resolve just by continually winning your own matches. Fingers crossed we can remain professional and committed with strong performances against Cheltenham and Oxford. And if it doesn’t all go our own way, then I can personally accept that, at some point, it is going to happen. And if we hit a rough patch, that’s when they really do need our support, rather than opening up those old grudges and looking to prove you are right with that criticism you made three months ago. They have never failed to bounce back from every little setback so far this year, and long may that continue.

Matt Auffrey

It likely wouldn’t have come as a surprise if I told you one week ago Latics would beat Gillingham and the Arsenal U-21s to extend their unbeaten streak to 18 games. Many fans would’ve considered those two outcomes to be near absolutes. Some may not have bothered to attend or even tune in to either match if they knew we’d win. However, did we forget which club we’re discussing here? It only took 26 different players and two separate match-winning goals that both came after the 75th minute, but Latics did it. They won both fixtures – just as expected, right? Who knew that starting 2022 with six consecutive victories would also bring along such great levels of parody? During a season that has already produced many special goals, Divin Baningime’s 83rd-minute winner on Tuesday night instantly wedged its way into an elite group of moments. Divin’s contract was ‘mutually’ terminated exactly one year ago today in order to clear space for incoming first-team players while the club was still in administration. It was devastating to see Latics part ways with Divin and other academy graduates in order to keep the club alive. It was only a pipe dream during that moment in time that our club would stabilize to the point where players like Divin would be able to return again. One could say that it was a nice gesture by the club to host a pizza-themed ‘Welcome Back’ party for Divin with over 3,000 attendees masquerading as a tournament quarter final match. Divin’s feat was remarkable, but numerous other young players had equally impressive performances against Arsenal. At the moment when the winning goal was scored, every player on the pitch for Latics was 22-years-old or younger, aside from goalkeeper and captain Jamie Jones. Leam Richardson bravely put our academy on centre stage and was rewarded with a fearless effort by all. We’re now one match away from Wembley and the greatest pizza party we’ve experienced yet. We’re over two months away from the cup final, but it’s not too early to warm up the oven and start prepping the dough. Like every recent cup triumph we had, we can only celebrate for a short period of time before turning our attention back to Cheltenham and the league campaign. Throw out the Robins’ recent form and disregard their position in the league table. After our last three league matches, we should know well by now that nothing will come easy no matter who, when, or where we play. We’re top of the league again and the target on our back is growing at an exponential rate. We’re one victory away from completing a perfect January. There’s no reason for the party to stop now.

Emma Peters

Revolving Doors... First and foremost, a big welcome home (again) to Curtis Tilt! After we've seemingly been playing the transfer hokey cokey for the better part of two years, it's been nice to see the official permanent return to the club of Tilty this week. Find me another player that has signed for the same club in FOUR consecutive transfer windows. That has to be some sort of record? Fully expect the tradesmen to be uninstalling the revolving doors at Christopher Park as we speak... type... read...you know what I mean!

TP3... On the subject of happy business, I am delighted that Tom Pearce has opted to extend his services to the 'Tics for another two-and-a-half-years keeping him at the DW until the end of 2024! With alleged offers from League One rivals and a sneaky bid from the Championship, it speaks volumes to me that a player still in the baby stages of his career has chosen to stay put and even declared that he is the "happiest he's been in his career". We really are a special little club.

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Dizzy Heights... The grit, determination and character of this squad to continually push to the very end of every single game regardless of the scoreline is absolutely remarkable. We just don't know how to lose at the minute. The #BELIEVE bus is firmly out of the garage and undergoing its MOT in prep for its tour of the town! This time last year, if someone had dared to proclaim that we would be top of the league table with four games in hand, into the semi final of the Pizza Cup and round four of the FA Cup come January 2022, I'd have voiced a concern for their mental welfare, but here we are! Phoenix 2021 Ltd really are taking us all the way to the very top. No wonder the skipper is getting nosebleeds!

Divin-e Intervention... Okay so I robbed that caption, but it's a good'en so we'll allow it. What a way for young Divin Beningeme to announce himself to the club! From training though summer by himself, almost exactly 12 months to the day he was released from the club to allow space for senior players during administration, in the dying minutes of the Papa John's cup game he goes and bangs a winner like that. Some winner, too! Poor Leam must be having kittens with these lads at the minute. With yet another fixture to play and inching ever closer to a day out at Wembley, I have visions of him with his head down on his desk praying for a loss against Arsenal Under-21's, but apparently even the little 'Tics are massive! Someone should really tell the gaffer...

Walk4Joseph... Morecambe --> Wigan. 18th/19th March '22. Get involved if you can, that's all!

Tony Moon

There’s a lesser known Who song, “The Kids are Alright”, (Youtube it, it’s a belter)

I hummed it goin’ home after t’ game, Tuesday night.

Cos our kids had beat Arsenal’s, “the cream of the crop”?

Not on Tuesday they weren’t, cos we came out on top.

Every man jack of em stood up, tall and proud,

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Cheered on by the West, for once, raucous and loud (well, at times, and by “normal” standards!).

Of course, they had their chances, but they didn’t get through,

Cos of Carra, and Longy, and Jamie Jones too.

All the defence played their part in the game,

Repelling the arsenal of Arsenal was th’ aim.

The midfield and forwards were there to make chances,

Headed by Thelo, with his little tricks and dances.

Then in th’ 83rd minute, up pops young Divin,

To run through on goal, a shimmy, it’s in.

After being discarded, in that God awful year,

He was brought back in t’ fold, to the club he holds dear.

The first team’s on top now, but isn’t it great,

To know that th’ Academy can still generate

More players for the future, who can clear the high bar

Required to make it, succeed, be a star.

We lost Joe and Alfie, and Jensen Weir too,

And then sold Kyle Joseph, for a quick buck or two.

But watching the current crop scramble and fight,

Relax all you Tics fans, cos the kids are alright!

Sean Livesey

It’s been quite the re-introduction to football hasn’t it? After the self-enforced break last month, Latics have come roaring back, with the country stepping back from the precipice of further restrictions that seemed inevitable after that Oxford match it’s made the last few weeks even more exciting. Tuesday’s win in the Pizza Trophy makes it six wins from six matches in January. An enviable return, and when you consider we’ve not been at our best in a lot of those games and have missed various players, it’s all the more remarkable. Some may well have thought our run in the Pizza Cup would be at an end after naming a near full academy side to face Arsenal, but once again Gregor Rioch’s impressive results since he arrived at the club shone through. I don’t think it’s dramatic to say the academy saved our club and, despite the heartbreak of seeing those depart, there’s a whole new generation ready to take their chance. Chris Sze, Charlie Hughes and Jamie Carragher chief among those, not to mention the match-winning Wiganer Divin Baningime. Born in the Republic of Congo, raised in Worsley Mesnes and schooled at John Fisher, he was one of the victims of administration last year, as he had to be released to free up squad places for January signings. Thankfully he returned to the club in September and, after a number of impressive performances in the Under-23s, he now looks like he’s another ready to step up. The future is definitely bright. So it’s one step from Wembley, and would you bet against this lot getting there? Saturday’s win over Gillingham was far closer than it needed to be. If Latics had taken their many chances before half-time, it could have been three or four. All credit to Gillingham for not rolling over and making a game of it but, as we keep saying, Leam Richardson’s team keep finding a way to win and how relieved we were to see the imperious Will Keane pop up again with the winner deep in to the second half? No one represents the change in fortunes here more than Keane. Having the season of his life, he’s picked up where he left off last season with some key contributions that helped to keep us up. He’s often compared to Nick Powell but I think his play this season has been even more crucial than his old mate in 2017/18. It’s another packed week ahead, starting with a trip to a Cheltenham side who haven’t won a league match since November. Although Cheltenham have struggled in recent months, they’ve picked up valuable draws against Rotherham and Oxford in recent weeks, while anyone who watched us against Doncaster, Morecambe and Gillingham knows a win isn’t a given. After Cheltenham, it’s a return to home comforts and the rearranged match with Oxford – a game we should’ve played in November. Let’s hope the hard work being put in means we can keep getting those points on the board.

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