Wigan Athletic: The 12th Man - 'This isn’t the Latics I have loved, and occasionally hated, over the years...'
Our panel of 12th Men use the international break to gauge where Wigan Athletic are at the moment - and where they're headed between now and May...
I suppose now is as good a time as any to take stock and look where we are. Oh look, we’re top of the league, fancy that! I’m not sure we will stay there, and this rivalry with Sunderland is already getting a bit tedious, but it is very rare that the two teams who are in the top two in October will stay there until May. So it is pleasing, but we shouldn’t be getting carried away with ourselves just yet. If you asked us where we would like to be now at the start of the season, then it has definitely exceeded expectations, although I’m sure somebody, somewhere will gripe about the eight dropped points. Looking at those in a bit more detail...at Sunderland, we were just a bit naïve and came up against a promotion rival, just a bit too soon after the rebuild. Wycombe and Rotherham, were again strong sides, newly relegated and had retained the bulk of their squad, whereas we were still getting settled. Since then, it has generally been superb, the speed at which this team has come together and pulled off results. They haven’t all been convincing but, again, we are still forming those team relationships and you would like to think there is more to come. The Sheffield Wednesday game, I would say, was more of a run of the mill defeat, and shows exactly what happens when you don’t turn up and match the opposition in terms of fight. And also when you gift them sloppy goals, from what has been a very solid defence so far this season. Of course, at Gillingham, we did stand up to a very physical side, and that is exactly the way to do it. Win the physical battle, stand tall, and at some point, make and take your chances. A clinical performance with a little bit of quality separating the teams in the end. I hope the management will bear that in mind when it comes to our next league game too, as our record at the whatever-they-are-calling-it-nowadays hasn’t been the best. Mind you, I hear (from the radio) that the club who brought us managers such as Allardyce, Megson, Coyle, and Parkinson are now re-inventing themselves as some kind of total football visionaries. A new one on me, I must admit. I’d half expect to see the two Bros brothers up front, Reeves and Philliskirk, still elbowing centre halves out of the way for that cultured centre forward, Kevin Davies – favourite band, Elbow – to barge his way into folklore. And now they’ve apparently invented passing the ball to each other. Lovely stuff, the gift that keeps on giving. Enough on them lot, except to say the fact we are taking 4,000 fans to a place which is about as hospitable and welcoming as the South Pole speaks volumes.
If we turn up and stand tall, then let the form take care of itself. As ever, I would take a draw against them all day. They can even win the passing, if it allows nuggets on Radio Bolton, er Manchester to ring up and compare their manager to Pep Guardiola for more comedy value. Beyond that, I guess all we can remember is that it is just one game and we have two more that week against the fake and real Dons. What would we like to see from those? Well, first and foremost, points would be nice. And as I have already alluded to, I don’t particularly care how many passes we make to get them. This is League One, and winning the physical battle is the most important thing you can do. If I was to compare what a successful season would look like in comparison to the three previous title-winning campaigns, I think I would prefer the Jewell title over the Cook and Caldwell ones. I need to caveat and say that it was a long time ago, that so much in football has changed in the past (near) 20 years, and that was a truly exceptional bunch of players that Jewell had assembled. However, what can apply now as much as it did then is that we were hard to beat. There may have been 100 points but there wasn’t a hundred goals. How many did we score? A measly SIXTY EIGHT. Not even 1.5 a game. But we only let in 25 all season. Being hard to beat involves having a decent ‘keeper, rock solid centre halves, a midfield that never stops, full backs who can defend firstly but with a bit of attacking verve, and someone to pop the ball in when the chances come. That rigid spine from back to front. On the rare occasion we do get beat, they bounce back furiously. I am hoping some of this sounds familiar. It is still early days for Leam Richardson. As a man, he has shown himself to be exceptional. As a manager, I am interested to see how things unfold. Will we see a similar approach to Paul Cook’s sides in the Championship, where we went from just falling short many weeks to dramatically improving both the style of play and results post-Christmas? Or will we continue to play a more direct style at times, mixed up with settled passages of passing with the ball and pressing without it. I genuinely don’t mind, so long as it works. And even when it didn’t work against Sheffield Wednesday, well, who I am to argue (as I did) that Leam needed to change things if we bounce straight back the next game?
These are all nice problems to have. Indeed, they’re not even problems at all given where we are compared to a year ago. We’re in a good place now, on and off the field, so let us enjoy it.
Anyway, back to the top of the league it is, then. The nice thing is that, after a below average performance against Sheffield Wednesday, nobody sulked about it. Everyone just brushed it off and got on with the job. It still all feels a little bit odd, knowing one game is just that, and we’ve got a better than even chance of winning the next one. This isn’t the Latics I have loved, and occasionally hated, over the years. There’s always been that nagging doubt that it’s all about to go wrong, but not this season. This season it all just feels right. I don’t know if that’s simply a result of anything being better than administration, or whether new owners doing and saying all the right things means we’re a completely different club from the one we’ve all been used to. Either way, it’s getting harder and harder to be miserable about the football, and that just doesn’t seem right. No game this week, due to us being a massive internationally recognised team (just ask the New York Jets), so we could technically be as low as fourth at Saturday teatime. But so what? It just means it’s another game to win in the middle of the week at some point. It also gives the players a well-earned rest, and lets any minor knocks clear up. It does mean a bit of a fixture pile-up will come along later, but these international breaks mean our still-not-especially-big squad gets a chance to avoid the inevitable injuries and fatigue that 50-plus games bring. The other benefit having a week off brings is that we won’t have the opposition manager moaning about how rich we are. Those same managers were curiously silent last year, of course, about us having an average age of about 15 and a half. I’m not saying we wouldn’t be saying the same, but it’s still funny watching Steve Evans try to scream about how unfair it is. So anyway, it’s onwards and most definitely upwards for Latics, and 4,000 away fans going to Bolton shows the optimism about the place. I assume Steve Evans and Ian Evatt have their own WhatsApp group to cry into their respective mid-table finishes.
It had been over 17 years since Latics last won at Priestfield. And one didn’t need to reach too far into their bag of excuses to find a reason for that winless streak to continue last Saturday. Between the cross-country trek to Kent, the horrendous weather, and the lingering disappointment of last Tuesday’s loss to Sheffield Wednesday, it came as no surprise Latics did not look sharp for the first hour. Despite controlling the game early on, to the tune of nearly 75 per cent possession in the first half, Latics demonstrated very little in the way of a goal threat. With each passing minute, it felt more and more likely Latics were destined to commit a fatal mistake and ultimately suffer a negative result. Grumblings about the left side of our starting XI grew in voice (and text) over social media, as our fanbase sought to identify an official scapegoat for the inevitable loss that was to come. The rain did not let up, but neither did the 430-odd Latics fans who made the exhausting excursion to see their beloved club play. With Sunderland falling behind 4-0 at Portsmouth, a glimmer of hope appeared through the clouds. If Latics could score one goal, it may just be enough to see us reclaim the top spot in League One. Our players didn’t leave it to chance. Two goals later, along with some wild poncho-filled fan celebrations, three points were confirmed. Fuel shortage or not, nothing was stopping the ‘Believe Bus’ from bringing a victory back to Wigan after a 500-mile round trip.
Our second international break is here, and Latics have four players featuring in senior international squads that will compete in World Cup qualifiers next week. While I wish all Latics players success on the international stage, I can’t help but take a special interest in Will Keane and his Ireland call-up. Saturday marks the one-year anniversary of Keane re-joining Wigan on a short-term deal after he last appeared for the club seven years prior. To say he has revamped his career with Latics would be an understatement. He has emerged as one of the best attacking players in a very talented league. As a result, we have risen to heights in the league table that were unimaginable at this same point in time last season. Will’s twin brother Michael has more than 10 caps for England and even scored in a Euro 2020 qualifier two-and-a-half years ago. Now, Will can create his own legacy as an international footballer. I am confident he will take full advantage of any opportunity presented to him. The break from league play has its perks, but also poses risks for a team in our position. The rhythm and form that our first team has worked so hard to establish could easily be disrupted by the two-week hiatus. It’s also possible we lose our spot at the top the League One table, if certain sides below us win their fixtures this weekend. We’ve approached the part of the season where it has become very apparent that nothing will come easy to this team going forward. It’s still great to be a Latics fan whether home or away – with rain or sun – in the Premier League, Championship, or League One.
Good to see the team bounce straight back against Gillingham which in my time watching Latics has never been an easy place to get a result. And a weekend off now could be no bad thing. Now on to the EFL Trophy, which holds very little interest for me since the addition of Premier League Under-21 sides. People are saying we haven’t much strength indepth due to results and performances, but this a team that played together twice. They are not all going to be in the first team at once, so no need to panic on that front. Time to take stock – if you’d have said the team would have settled this quick and had this points tally on the board by now, we’d have snatched your hand off. It’s a cracking start but that’s it, it’s only a start.
Keep our feet on the ground and take it one game at a time. A final note, is it not about time Leam got a star in Believe Square the way he’s led and held the playing side together the last 18 months? Come on Wigan Council, get your finger out!
After the defeat against Sheffield Wednesday, it was important Latics bounced back and went in to the international break on the back of a positive result and what a way to do it. In horrific conditions, Leam Richardson’s side utterly dominated proceedings on a ground we hadn’t won at since 2004. Seventeen years is a long time and, although we hadn’t played Gillingham for a lot of those intervening years, the fact we hadn’t got a positive result at the Priestfield on our more recent visits in League One show just how difficult a place it is to visit. Returning to the summit thanks to Sunderland slipping up at Portsmouth made it all the better. Big credit goes to the near-500 Wiganers sat in the rain who celebrated Power and Keane’s goals with such force. It’s an away day I bet many won’t want to repeat, but one that will go down in Latics folklore. I keep preaching the need for patience and seeing the bigger picture in how much progress we’ve made in such a short space of time, but even I’m astounded at the start we’ve made. Leam and the coaching staff deserve every credit for the way they’ve managed to get everyone up to speed so quickly. The 2-0 reverse against Crewe in the Pizza Cup is here nor there. Another game played in awful conditions, but a good opportunity to get minutes in for those on the fringes alongside the latest Academy graduates. I imagine Leam will be more disappointed that some of the senior pros didn’t make the best of that opportunity than the result itself. But hey, a win against Shrewsbury next month and we progress. Not that many will be that interested, a fine competition for the lower league clubs ruined by the introduction of the Premier League Under-21 sides. So it’s another international break right at the time when you don’t want a break. I’d much rather be in the pub on Saturday than Tuesday, but that’s just me. With just Darikwa and the Irish and Northern Irish contingent of McClean, Keane and Jones away, it should be a good opportunity for the majority of the squad and first team to take a breather ahead of another non-stop period of fixtures. Beginning back with our friends up in Horwich, some 4,000 Wiganers will be making the short trip up through New Springs and Aspull. With the home side well up for it, it should make for a good atmosphere. The sold out signs went up at the DW ticket office earlier this week a full 10 days before the match.
This led to one Bolton fan to proclaim ‘You wouldn’t have sold that if it wasn’t 30 minutes away’. Well yes, Einstein. But at least we’re now being criticised for being so close to Horwich rather than having no support. The last time we won at the Reebok/Macron/Unibol was when Gary Caldwell and James McArthur scored. A whole nine years ago. If ever there was a season to turn that record on it’s head this is it.