Kris Radlinski on the highs, lows and challenges of Wigan Warriors' 2020 season

When Kris Radlinski predicted in January that Wigan were set for a memorable season, he couldn’t have envisaged how prophetic those words would turn out to be.
Kris Radlinski with the Wigan badge which was released this yearKris Radlinski with the Wigan badge which was released this year
Kris Radlinski with the Wigan badge which was released this year

It turned out to be both the shortest – in terms of matches played – and longest, starting in January and finishing in November.

And at the end, the craziest campaign had the craziest ending, as they lost a Grand Final with the last play of the season.

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Three weeks on, in a near-empty Robin Park, Radlinski was able to reflect on a snaking campaign which, as executive director, has challenged him and the club like no other.

“You’ve got to win with dignity and lose with humility, and everyone understands we took part in an epic, didn’t we?” he says, referencing the dramatic 8-4 loss to St Helens at a deserted KCOM Stadium in Hull.

“The bigger picture is we want a new TV deal and that game was as good as our product gets – if we don’t get a TV deal off the back of that, we’re in trouble.

“As a player, yes, you should be hurt from that – they have short careers and it’s a chance of a trophy taken away. They should be disappointed from a career record point of view.

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“But it’s hard to get too down in the changing room afterwards when the captain is content, we had players going the extra mile, Oli Gildart had a broken thumb, Budgie (Joe Burgess) had a dent in his face where he’s broken his cheekbone...

“We’d just taken part in something wonderful, and our chairman (Ian Lenagan) phoned me afterwards and said, ‘Make sure they’re happy’, he thought it was one of the greatest games he’d ever seen.”

Wigan didn’t finish the season empty-handed, having secured the League Leaders’ Shield in the middle of November during a period when they exerted their dominance, flexed their muscles and played with style.

Liam Farrell and Sam Powell, already high-calibre operators, found another level while Bevan French frequently sprinkled his stardust on proceedings – even if he did miss out on the Man of Steel to Castleford hooker Paul McShane.

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The Covid-19 pandemic froze the season in March and forced players to train on their own until they were able to return to some sort of normality in the summer. Even then, the hope of fans returning to venues didn’t materialise, and clubs and officials were presented with a raft of challenges as the virus began making its impact on squads.

Toronto dropped out of the league, the campaign was trimmed, fixtures were rearranged and the format to decide the champions was changed twice.

And before that, clubs – worrying about their survival – had to negotiate pay-cuts with their squads.

“When you think back to before it all, nobody had heard of ‘furlough’,” said Radlinski.

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“When we started the journey of salary cuts, we were talking to players and it was hard, we all probably thought we’d be back in two or three months.

“It was one of the hardest things ever to have them over Zoom and tell 35 players what we wanted to do, and I was grilled by them all. I had the answers because I wasn’t lying about anything.

“And we were true to our promise, we said if things improved we’d look at increasing (their pay) and season ticket holders donating their money allowed us to give some of it back to the players.

“Financially, it was a hard time for the sport. Someone who owns a rugby league club will often have a portfolio of businesses and no one was immune to Covid, so all their other businesses are affected.

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“Throughout it all you learn so much, and at some point we’ll look back and think, ‘We got back playing through that, and maybe we have taken things for granted’.

“When we can come back, I hope the fans come back in numbers... and forgive me for the badge.”

Ah, the badge.

Wigan’s decision to shelve their traditional crest and introduce a bold, Warriors badge certainly polarised opinion.

Did Radlinski expect the backlash?

“It didn’t help that it leaked out because we didn’t get to tell our story about why we were doing it,” he said, pointing to a sketch design circulating on social media.

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“I knew it was going to be a significant change. Once people heard our story, I think they understood it and now we see the (sales) figures, we’re blown away.

“We’ve got a new range coming out, and another kit coming out in January which is a beauty.”

Christmas is the calm before the storm of preparing for another season.

Players have been given their own fitness programmes to follow before reporting back for duty next month, ahead of a new Super League season in March.

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This off-season will be more evolution than revolution, with the bulk of the squad – and coaching staff unchanged, and the considerable addition of England forward John Bateman. “He’s a pretty unique character, he’s not from Wigan but he represents Wigan people well,” said Radlinski.

“He wears his heart on his sleeve and people can relate to him. He’s got that competitive nature – Sam Tomkins has it, Jackson Hastings has it, Zak Hardaker has it.

“If you go to Wakefield on a cold Sunday afternoon you’ll have a chance of winning because players like that don’t have a day off.

“I thought one of our strengths last season was we competed in every game. At our worst, we were six out of 10, and that shows how competitive the players are.”

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And the big question many fans want to know is whether they will be back to watch matches next season.

The club plan to start selling season tickets next month.

“I think we’ll be in a far better place than we originally thought, but it’s obviously a live situation and it depends on the government,” added Radlinski.