Wigan Athletic: The 12th Man

Our panel of experts give their views on a momentous week for Latics...and whether it's the platform for the next step, or merely papering over cracks?

Friday, 26th April 2019, 1:20 pm
Updated Friday, 26th April 2019, 2:40 pm
Paul Cook and his backroom staff celebrate at Leeds

Martin Holden:

What a superb week that was for Wigan Athletic, something that very few would have forecast and final proof that we do indeed have a team of scrappers. The players (and the manager) take great credit for their efforts to achieve Championship survival, given the way things have gone since Christmas.

The Leeds United game was something else, wasn’t it?

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The players gave absolutely everything for those 90 odd minutes, up against it once the sending off happened, they dug in and battled for every ball and won most of them too. Every single player was immense in different ways, from the goal threat of Massey, the non-stop work of Morsy, the sheer brilliance of Reece James, the “throw yourself at everything” attitude of Dunkley, the safe hands of Walton but for me the stand out player was Kal Naismith, filling in at centre back – I thought his performance was just incredible.

We fought so hard for those three points and thoroughly deserved them against a Leeds team that really do seem to have run out of steam.

Rotherham are fighting too, but it’s just not going their way and we have started doing what I said we needed to do months ago and that is take chances. All too often we have squandered them, but in these last couple of games we have taken the opportunities and that has given us the results.

Millwall are down there now too and they always fight. Enough said on that front.

I was worried that although clearly enthused and full of adrenaline we might not have the legs against our local rivals PNE in a game played just a few days after the miracle of Elland Road. The match in Leeds was played with a man short in hot sunny weather, but we had enough in the tank to see us home with another solid performance and with other results going for us, it was wonderful to hear the final whistle and know that we will be there again next year playing in the Championship.

It’s going to be such an important summer for the new owners and the transfer window. The loan players including our stand out player of the season (maybe of all seasons) will go back to their parent clubs and others out of contract may well leave – there are some huge holes to fill and this is the first test of the new owners and how deep their pockets are.

Sometimes I think we forget that we are in a division with some huge clubs and whilst we have been up against it, we have survived against them and achieved some great results as well as suffering plenty horrendous ones too. It’s a tough league for sure.

It’s not quite the time for an end of season report, but I am sure that most Latics fans know where our strengths and weaknesses are and that includes the manager – will the new owners replace Paul Cook as well as making other changes through the summer, only time will tell.

Most of the fans like him and I think he has the backing of the players, but sometimes his selections and especially his substitutions have cost us this season, but then again his job was to keep the team in the division and he has achieved that – will it be enough for him, I’m not sure.

The final words of congratulations need to go to everyone involved in the Joseph’s Goal walk to Leeds which has raised over £30,000 to date and proved that our fans really are something special – great ambassadors, for the club and for the town of Wigan. Brilliant, just brilliant.

Kieran Makin:

It’s a strange feeling being safe with two games to go, isn’t it? I’m not complaining, not by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s not ‘quite’ Wigan Athletic.

We’ve been survival specialists before, don’t get me wrong, but leaving it to the last day of the season against Millwall did seem like it was written in the stars.

Anyway, less of the jokes. It’s time to talk about how remarkable the last two weeks have been for our special little football club.

We hit rock-bottom at Hull and, I must admit, it’s the first time in a good while that football has truly annoyed me, but, if anything, it was the best thing to happen to us.

Soaking up pressure in a deep defensive shape had not worked all season and that was the final straw.

Up next was Norwich at home – surely still the Championship champions-elect? It looked ominous and I honestly felt as though we would lose heavily live on Sky Sports.

However, that wasn’t the case and here’s where I tip my hat to Paul Cook. When the going got really tough (and it had been tough for a while) he out of everyone was both calm and brave.

It was a drastic team selection but boy did they cover blade of grass. It was the Wigan of the first months of the season; high pressing attacking football and playing without fear.

And it snowballed from there. That win at Elland Road was nothing short of unbelievable. I’m a firm believer of good things happen to good people and that win was for the Joseph’s Goal walkers, the players replicated their spirit on the pitch to earn a monumental three points.

Of course, the win over local rivals Preston sealed the deal and you could feel and see the relief all around the DW Stadium.

It is hard to put into words just how big of an achievement avoiding relegation is. It’s vital for the club in many areas. Forget what we need to do in the summer, it’s party time at Birmingham on Saturday.

To finish I’d like to say congratulations to the board, the manager, the staff and the players for always believing. It could have been easy to make rash decisions but in the end they made all the right ones.

I’m a believer I couldn’t leave her if I tried...

Stuart Glover:

Isn’t it amazing what a bit of sun and a long weekend can do for the feel good factor amongst football fans?

Oh yes, and six marvellous points!

It has been a fantastic Easter for Wigan Athletic. A lot of fun, very profitable and nerve settling.

Quite apart from the two great wins and mathematically securing safety, Latics also dished out lashings of revenge on Preston (though another couple of goals would have been perfect) and the team from Horwich were officially relegated.

The Leeds result was legendary. The sort of thing that gets written into the history of a club. The heroic walkers for Joseph’s Goal. The unfortunate Kipre and the heroes in the team who battled and battled. Giving everything for the cause and being rewarded. They deserved to make the national headlines with that one.

At half time I questioned whether Rotherham simply wanted to stay up more than our players did.

That question was based on the previous few weeks, but also the fact that on Good Friday itself they had fought hard and taken the lead twice. They seemed to have the sort of character that has been missing from our team for the a lot of the campaign.

It was for Latics to use the next 45 minutes to prove me wrong. They did. And how?

Rotherham, having been ahead twice and then trying, and failing, to battle back from two down on Friday, meant that I expected them to lose on Monday. They will have been physically and mentally shattered. But I also expected Latics to the lose as well following the heroics against Leeds.

Yet they proved me wrong again and, while perhaps not at their best, were good enough to triumph in a pretty competitive local derby.

Shows how much I know, but also how unpredictable football is.

There is suddenly a lot of optimism around Latics fans but when you are riding the crests of such waves it is easy to forget that our form and performances were very poor until the last few games.

There was a three week period not very long ago when the entire Latics squad had only scored one more goal than Tranmere’s David Perkins!

But we are entitled to enjoy this. That is absolutely fine. Staying up is an achievement for Wigan. It is one that we have failed to accomplish on our last two attempts. While we may not have played the most exciting football, this is progress and it is a foundation to build on for next year.

The summer will be interesting and then we have another year of this to look forward to!

Martin Tarbuck:

What on earth have you all been worrying about?

Sean Livesey:

How do you put the last couple of weeks in to words? Words won’t really do the events of April any justice.

Following the Hull game where Latics were so cruelly robbed of a valuable point on the road Paul Cook’s side were truly looking down the barrel. The turn around from that night has been nothing short of amazing.

I was over in Germany for the Norwich game, the Fox und Hound was our home for the afternoon and as kick-off approached the nerves kicked in. Every single permutation was whizzing through my mind ahead of that match, but never in my wildest thoughts did I see Latics staying up with two games to go.

If the result against Norwich was a surprise what transpired against Leeds was out of this world stuff.

On a beautiful spring day we travelled over to the Pennines hoping for the best, but expecting the worst. That feeling of expecting the worst only increased as Cedric Kipre was incorrectly sent off. It was no surprise to see Leeds take the lead a few moments later.

So it went on, Wigan Athletics’ retched away form. No way back from this my Dad mused at the side of me - ‘they’ll score a ponful’. I couldn’t disagree as wave after wave of Leeds attacks threatened to put the ten men of Wigan to the sword.

But then we got a goal on the stroke of half-time, a wonderfully worked goal from the impressive Kal Naismith and Lee Evans who found Gavin Massey racing in to space. The celebrations were something else and clearly gave the lads confidence. But the fact remained as the whistle blew for half-time that this was the side with the worst away form in the football league, up against the side with the best home form and they had a one man advantage.

Surely we wouldn’t manage to hold out for a point? Every time Leeds went forward they were resisted by a Wigan side literally putting their bodies on the line - with Christian Walton in fantastic form in the Wigan goal.

On the rare occasions Latics managed to launch an attack we looked like scoring and as the ball was nodded down by Leon Clarke in to the path of Gavin Massey that’s just what we did. Surely this couldn’t be right? Surely we weren’t leading at Elland Road.

34,000 Leeds fans were silenced as a small part of Lancashire screamed for joy. Now came the hard bit, half an hour more to see the game out. The referee missed a blatant penalty for Latics as Reece James was hacked down which would have made it easier, whilst James also hit the bar but hang on the lads did and the heroes of Elland Road danced for joy in front of 800 Wiganer’s dancing for joy.

Maybe it was written in the stars again for this very special club of ours? As last year the wonderful walk for Joseph organised by Martin Tarbuck and joined by over 75 special people had provided inspiration for our lads. It may have been promotion in the sun at Fleetwood but it felt just as important to celebrate survival in the sun at Leeds.

Joseph has provided such inspiration for Latics over his life and I’m sure he was at the forefront of the players minds as they shocked the footballing world on Friday afternoon.

Of course survival hadn’t been sealed against Leeds, but a massive step forward had been made. No it would fall to our old rivals Preston and a date with destiny on Easter Monday. The change in atmosphere was notable ahead of the Preston match, it felt like a weight had been lifted and Latics went on to play exactly like that.

A 2-0 win where Latics totally dominated against their Lancashire rivals, coupled with results elsewhere meant that Wigan for the first time in five seasons would start a consecutive season in the Championship.

As difficult as this season has been - be it for the away form, be it the individual mistakes, be it for not taking our chances when it really mattered Wigan Athletic neigh Paul Cook’s Wigan Athletic turned it on when it mattered.

He’s faced a lot of criticism lately has Paul Cook, some valid. Some not so valid but I think we can all agree he has done what was expected of him and it is some achievement to keep Wigan Athletic in such a competitive league.

The key now is to progress next season and after the experience of this season there is no man better placed for that job than Paul Cook.

Well done Paul, to your staff and all of the players. It’s a job well done and Latics can truly make it a party atmosphere in the next two games. Who would have said that after the Hull game two weeks ago? Football – it’s a funny old game.

Paul Middleton:

It’s probably more than fair to say that I’ve been very critical of Paul Cook over the last few months.

In fact, people have been very keen to point the fact out to me over the past week. The thing is, as great as Easter was, there’s a lot of papering over the cracks going on here.

The performance and result against Leeds was incredible but, at least to my mind, much of what happened was forced upon Paul Cook by the (wrongful) sending off of Cedric. It meant that tactics had to be reassessed, and Cook couldn’t just make seemingly random substitutions that did more harm than good. Churlish?

You may think so, but the proof is there for everyone to see. The game against Preston is equally misleading in that they clearly weren’t interested in making a game of it, even before their man went all Saudi justice on Kal Naismith. They also gifted us the first goal.

We’re now safe for another year in the Championship, of course, and that was always the aim. But it really shouldn’t have been as difficult, or as tight, as it ended up being. Most of the season was

excruciating to watch, and only Ipswich and Bolton both being comically car crash-like has helped up to where we are now. Effectively, it has meant that we only needed to have one team actually be worse than Latics. Even then there have been times when we were struggling to find one. I don’t know if Cook will still be here next year or not. If his sole task was to keep us up, then he’s done that. It won’t be as easy next season though, without Ipswich and Bolton to help us along.

But, and it’s always the big question, if he isn’t here who do we get? The answer is that I don’t know.

The pool of talent at the price we can afford isn’t exactly brimming with quality. Does that mean we should hang on to Cook then? No, not really. I can’t sit through another season where, as soon as the sun goes in, so does any resemblance of a team trying to win games.

But, to wind up this contribution on a positive or two, I’m going to single out a couple of unsung heroes of the 2018-19 Championship season. It’s easy to look at Reece James and nobody else, but there have been players who have contributed way beyond what we had a right to expect from them. Gary Roberts, although largely absent in recent weeks, is one of them. A 100% grafter, Roberts did a lot of the hard work which too few of the rest of the team seemed to want to do.

Another is Kal Naismith. For the first few games, he looked like a fish out of water as a professional footballer. But he adapted to left back increasingly well as time passed, and at left wing – his natural position – he has been excellent. His left side partnership with Robinson has kept teams on the back foot, and meant that it stopped them piling forward every time they got the ball.

These are not players that will ever win a Player of the Year award, or trouble the football pundits too often, but every team needs them. We won’t have Reece James next year, as his performances have not only doubled his value, but also brought the top clubs running to see what the fuss has all

been about. It’s likely we also won’t have Nick Powell, who is soon to be out of contract. Without those two, it will be a tough year. We don’t have the money to replace them like for like, nor are we a draw for top players at this level. Cook has had his own team for most of this season, with very mixed results. I’m not sure I trust him not to pay another £2m for another Josh Windass, if I’m honest.