Talking football: No laughing matter for Wigan Athletic
Football, as Jimmy Greaves famously pointed out, is a funny old game.
Only not too many Wigan Athletic fans will have been laughing as they left Pride Park in midweek.
Latics had arrived in Derby looking to extend a five-match unbeaten.
They left a few hours later having not won in five matches.
The four draws in a row since the win over Aston Villa last month were always going to be a test of ‘glass half-full’ or ‘glass half-empty’.
Naturally, Paul Cook was quick to accentuate the positives, saying any five-game run in the Championship was a good achievement.
But at the same time as Latics were doing this, relegation rivals Reading and Rotherham were closing the gap to a mere three points.
And the failure to make the most of an encouraging first hour against Derby leaves Latics vulnerable as they head to Reading this weekend.
Latics have never been in the bottom three all season.
But their gradual decline since climbing to third spot at the end of September has left them with plenty of work still to do to secure their Championship status.
Cook will rightly point to the injuries that robbed him of key personnel for a period of several months.
But those players are all back now – and as he is the first to acknowledge, the time for action is here.
I wouldn’t go as far as to say this weekend’s clash is ‘must win’.
But it is absolutely ‘must-not lose’.
Unfortunately the utterly dismal away record this term – played 19, won one, drawn three, lost 15 – doesn’t give rise to much optimism.
The frustrating thing is this group of players is far better than that record would suggest.
Whether the problem has been tactics, mindset, injuries, bad luck or that rotten yellow shirt...it needs sorting – and fast.
Because the psychological blow of dropping into the bottom three with only 10 games to go would ramp up the pressure...at exactly the worst possible time.
How good was it to see Gavin Massey and Michael Jacobs back in the starting line-up in midweek, and dovetailing nicely for the goal that put Latics ahead at Derby?
It was reminiscent of the Stoke away back back in August, when Massey scored his only other goal this term before injury wrecked his (and Jacobs’) campaign.
That Stoke game was, of course, Wigan’s only away win in 2018-19 – which only adds to the feeling of ‘what might have been’ for Paul Cook and co.
Nick Powell also came off the bench at Pride Park and, despite looking way off match sharpness, his return provides a timely boost ahead of the run-in.
This is the ‘holy trinity’ Cook spoke regularly of as he explained the absence of Will Grigg, and his ambition to one day get them all back in the side together as they had been at the start of the season.
That, of course, will never happen now with Grigg having departed.
But hopefully they can forge an understanding with Leon Clarke, Josh Windass or whoever in the important weeks ahead.
Sam Morsy is the heartbeat of the Latics side, Paul Cook’s on-field general, the glue that keeps it all together.
But his desperation to win the midfield battle has left him walking a disciplinary tightrope at the worst possible time.
Morsy’s caution at Derby in midweek takes him to 13 for the season.
No-one in the country has more – and he’s two bookings short of a THIRD suspension of the campaign.
Latics can ill-afford to lose the bite Morsy gives them in the engine room.
But they can ill-afford even more to have him missing for three vital fixtures that could make or break the campaign.
Somehow player and manager have to get together and work out a way of maintaining that edge, while somehow reducing the regularity in which he finds his way into referees’ notebooks.