The 12th Man: How on earth has it come down to this?
Where do we go from here? It depends on your point of view and general leaning in life I suppose.
But if you’re looking to me for words of wisdom then look elsewhere (nothing new there!) as I simply don’t know. I have continued to put my weight behind Paul Cook when others have faltered, but maybe all the BMWing from elsewhere (bitching, moaning and whining) has been justified. Maybe some of the great visionaries among our fans have seen this coming, their direct criticisms of Mr Cook have been absolutely spot on, and now the League One chickens are coming home to roost. In terms of outcomes, there now looks likely to only be two. Firstly, we continue to match or better Rotherham’s results, or collect a few more points than say QPR or Millwall and finish above someone else – unlikely given our points run rate. Essentially, we ‘do enough’ to stay up and the naysayers can move on to their stock argument of ‘well, it was only because there were three teams worse than us’ (generally this supposedly incisive analysis is factually true about any relegation-based scenario). Those of us daft, remaining happy-clappers can say ‘well, the aim in August was to stop up and we’ve achieved it’. Again, technically true, but there can’t be another club in the country with worse away form than us. The more the weeks go by, the more it seems barely staying up maybe the most likely outcome and, although I’m sure we would celebrate if that happened. Well, effectively, we’re celebrating nine months of pure dismal mediocrity interjected with the odd great performance. Of course, the other outcome is we drop into the bottom three we have avoided all season and stay there. It could even be we only spend one day in the bottom three and that day is May 5 – the only day which matters. The culmination of all those continual gripes at the manager will be justified by those people who have expended considerable effort criticising Cook, whereas those who have (mostly) stuck by him, like myself, end up looking like a right wally. Well, anyway, it wouldn’t be the first time and I’m not changing horses now. Furthermore, perhaps implying we could avoid the bottom three before the last day is hopelessly optimistic given the opposition in our next two or three games, which is why so many have been fretting over our inability to pick up more points again Hull, Bristol City and Brentford. In both home and away games, we have been quite consistent in a way. At home, we usually seem to match our opponents without necessarily putting them to the sword, the awful Bolton excepted. Whereas away, well I’d go further than just say we have an away-day phobia. It seems to be we aren’t necessarily afraid of scoring and (attempting to try) to win away from home. The panic actually seems to take over, once we have taken the lead – as if they know collectively what’s coming. It is a managerial problem we cannot figure out the art of holding onto a lead, but it now seems to have reached fever-pitch psychological levels, and I don’t know the answer apart from perhaps (here comes the brickbats again) re-grouping in League One and learning how to win away again. In this respect, if League One is our destiny, well to quote that awful Catherine Tate character – ‘Am I bothered?’ Yes and no. Or rather no and yes. No, because a football club is about so much more than which division you are in. I have been so tied up organising the Joseph’s Goal ‘Walk to Leeds’ next week and trying to get a fanzine off to the printers that I have barely had time to sit there ruminating over the lacklustre performances of Wigan Athletic. However, indirectly, Wigan Athletic is still consuming nearly every minute of my spare time, but in a more productive way than the stuff I can’t control, like the results on the pitch. I mean we’ll all still be here next season right? Regardless of which division we are in, so why get so upset about it? I think it will now come down to the last three games and, if the players and manager can approach them like the FA Cup ties of last year, maybe all the indifference that has gone before will be forgotten. If we fail to stay up, I fully expect Paul Cook to walk. But as I said in my last robust defence of him a while back, maybe that was the plan all along, seeing as our form and approach to games turned dramatically downwards soon after the new owners came in. All we are left with is speculation as to what has gone wrong and how we fix it but, as I say, whatever the outcome, we’ll still have a club to support next season, and that’s the bit that matters, right?
When Paul Cook did his coaching badges, he clearly missed the ‘how to see out a game’ day. The number of points Latics have thrown away from winning positions this season is just incredible. The defence has been suspect all season, so why not bring back a goalkeeper who has looked like a shadow of the player he was last year? If teams were much better than us all over the pitch, I’d accept we’re not good enough and move on – but I don’t think they are. We hand goals to them like it’s part of the game-plan. If we had a game-plan, that is, which we almost certainly don’t. The game at Hull certainly wasn’t helped by losing Nick Powell at half-time. But then Cook settled into his usual tactic of talking off any attacking threat we might have, and handing control over to the opposing team. Hull’s winning goal came because they, like every other team, know we offer nothing going forward once Leon Clarke is wandering about up front. This time Clarke went one better, and was wandering about in his own box when Jordy de Wijs came strolling past him to win the header and score. Cook is blaming individual errors for costing us games, and he is right, but only up to a point. Eventually, he – or someone – is going to have to look at his own errors. Errors in team selection which left us in this position in the first place once we reached September, and errors in having no way to control a game for longer than 50 minutes. We could be four up at half-time, and we’d all still be expecting to walk away with no more than a point. That’s how bad we are. Ẁe have a defence that is too slow and lacks any kind of organiser and leader. We have a midfield that collectively think going forward is for other people, and we have a centre forward on loan who must be laughing every time he’s told to go on. A point at Hull might well have seen us safe. It would have left Rotherham needing to win two more games than us, due to their inferior goal difference. As it is, our persistent failure to play for 90 minutes leaves them just one win from going above us. This situation can’t go on. In fact I’ll say it, we were better under Owen Coyle than under Paul Cook. Not under Warren Joyce, but the end result might well be the same. Cook seems to have no idea how to fix things, and seems utterly unable to look at himself and where he’s going wrong. Roll on May 6 , whichever league we end up in, and let’s just get this nightmare over.
It isn’t losing against Hull that’s the problem, it’s the manner of it. Latics have given away a startling number of points from winning positions away from home this season, 19 at the last count. The fact we haven’t won away from home since August tells its own story. Both mentally and physically, we’re shattered. It isn’t we can’t score away from home, or indeed get a lead it’s that we can’t hold on to it. As the clock ticked down on Wednesday night at Hull, it looked like another decent point for Latics against a side battling for a play-off place. To concede as we did – like we did against Reading, Derby, Villa and countless other sides – was unacceptable. Our game management is absolutely non-existent, and that sees us in this position. Individual errors have been present all season but, over the last few weeks, they’ve increased tenfold. Paul Cook looked like a broken man at Hull. There’ll be inquests galore post-season as to the manager’s future but, with five matches left, this must be the toughest test of his career. Can he live up to that and, in return, can his players? Injuries have once again reared their head, and it’s going to be a patched-up Latics side trying to get over the finishing line. Injuries have haunted us all season, but we’ve still had plenty of opportunities to get out of this mess – and for one reason or another have failed to take them. With five matches left to go, and only two points separating ourselves and the relegation zone, thoughts turn to just what we need to escape this mess. Two wins? Two wins and a draw? That may just be enough to see us over the line – but where exactly do those results come from? If we match or better Rotherham’s results over the coming weeks, we’ll stay up. It’s as simple as that. The worrying thing is Rotherham have shown a lot more heart and fight than we have this season. They may have lost in midweek like we did, but they have momentum. Sunday has become a huge match, one that no-one will expect us to win. The only two positives I can think of are Norwich may well be showing a bit of nerves as they edge to the finish line.
Equally our home record has been fantastic, in stark contrast to that horrific away form. Time is running out, but amazingly it is still in our hands. There needs to be some honest words and some fresh thinking on the training ground this week. Something needs to change, so let’s start it Sunday with a performance like we had against Bolton. Paul Cook is a fighter, and I want to see that fight in his side. Starting on Sunday. Come on Latics. It isn’t over till it’s over.
As I sit here on my sofa watching the closing stages of Manchester United-Barcelona, a couple of things spring to mind. One is that even the best players can have off days, and the other is that when we see the world’s top players playing week in and week out, we often expect all footballers should be able to do the same sort of things that they do. I hear this latter sentiment at the DW Stadium, when fans question why players did that with the ball, rather than something more effective. It never seems to enter their minds that it may well just have been a poor pass rather than a conscious decision. Or they were just doing what they are capable of doing rather than attempting what Lionel Messi is capable of. On the former point, it is certainly true that when we Latics players have an off day, we are in trouble! Yet when it comes to Latics away games it doesn’t seem to matter how we play. We just cannot win. Saturday apparently was a very good performance. Yet having been in the a winning position, we ended up losing, until a late goal salvaged a point at Bristol City. During the week, again having been in a winning position, we managed to lose the game against a pretty poor Hull side. This was doubly disappointing as the three points would have put us five points above the relegation zone with just five games to play. As it is we have a two-point advantage, though with our goal difference that is effectively three points. And we only have ourselves to blame for dropping some of these points. We have thrown away so many points from winning positions. Obviously some teams just play well and come back and beat you but, more often than not with Latics, it seems to be us shooting ourselves in the foot. Clearly there is must be a psychological problem. An away run like this, dropping so many points in such a manner, cannot be a coincidence. There must be a root cause and it must be be in the mind. The belief we cannot win away is turning itself into a realty. And that is a real problem because it is not easy to solve. After such a bad run, even one win might not be enough to change the mindset and break the pattern. We might need a run of results to prove to ourselves we can do it. That can take time and we are rapidly running out of that. We have not been in the drop zone at all this season, but we could be if Rotherham beat Stoke on Saturday. That would heap further pressure on the team going into Sunday’s game, which we seriously do not need in what already looks like like the a mammoth task against Norwich.