Friday, 30 May 2014

Wigan Athletic - From Russia To Yeovil In Two Days

Welcome to the unpredictable world of Wigan Athletic - a season which saw us play in the Community Shield, Europa League, the Semi-Finals of the FA Cup and The Championship Play-offs, is finally at an end. Along the way we beat Premier League champions, Manchester City, away and we were also totally outplayed and well-beaten 3-0 at Doncaster Rovers. Despite the madness of playing in Yeovil barely 2 days since playing away in Tatarstan (Russia), some ridiculous defending and less scoring than in a run-down brothel, I wouldn’t swap it for anything.

After battling through 62 games this season, the players simply couldn’t give any more. We’ve had a season of ups and downs – being cruelly knocked out of the Europa League, FA Cup and now the Championship Playoffs. But in between those events, we’ve collected more wonderful memories that some clubs’ supporters have never experienced. My personal highlight was beating Man City in the FA Cup (again!) and then wondering what might have been if we’d have had a couple of decent penalty-takers on the pitch against Arsenal. I would easily swap a FA Cup win for a place in the Premier League (again!) 

The problem we’ve had this season, apart from appointing the wrong manager last summer, was that of rotating the squad properly. Injuries, coupled with signing a couple of ‘bad eggs’ put paid to any momentum we needed to collect to give it a real go in the league. Personally, I would have selected two completely different sides for league and cups, but there’s a reason why I’m writing this rubbish and Owen Coyle is shopping for some holiday shorts. Much like the previous 12 months in the Premier League (when the ridiculousness of our season was summed up in a week which saw us win the FA Cup just a matter of days after gifting a Swansea reserve side 3 goals) injuries cost us. I’m not using it as the only excuse, as we had the time and the funds to bring in replacements, but the amount of injuries and the resulting turnover of players didn’t help the squad to settle down and that’s why our season was as patchy as Frankeinstein’s Monsters’ body. 

Shaun Maloney being out for most of the season was a blow, the experience and leadership (but not the lunges) of Gary Caldwell was missed at times and the defensive qualities of Ivan Ramis, who has been struggling to be fit all season, belongs in the Premier League. Having Ben Watson and Chris McCann out for the last few months was probably the main reason our hopes of promotion ended though. The pair of them featured heavily in the team winning 8 games in a row and they were both coming into form at just the right time before they were injured. We had to bring in loan signings such as Ryan Tunnicliffe, Josh McEarhen and Jack Collison and none of them managed to replace the workrate and ability of Watson and McCann. At times, it seemed like James McArthur was doing the work of two men in the midfield and I was genuinely worried that he’d injure himself. Which he eventually did - his season came to an end early on in the away leg against QPR, with the team leading and looking comfortable, with McArthur being the only midfielder who was capable of keeping hold of the ball. Sadly, we couldn’t hold on to the ball - or our lead (or extend it when we had the chance!) - so we’ve got another season in The Football League on our hands.

The summer brings many things, mostly people who look uncomfortable in shorts and a t-shirt but in football terms - it’s the transfer window, or silly season if you will.  Between now and the end of August it’s going to be wall-to-wall rumours on television, radio, the internet and in the papers. I’m not worried about losing many players, even though Jordi Gomez has already signed for Sunderland after his contract expired and it seems like Jean Beausejour won’t be renewing either. Two great players at this level, but I feel that we’ll be able to find sufficient replacements – the pair of them would have been on high wages and I also suspect that Ivan Ramis is likely to be moved on too, for exactly the same reason. Don’t be surprised if he ends up at Everton.  

In an ideal world, I’d love to keep them at the club, but with the cut in parachute payments kicking in, it’s very difficult to offer them better contracts. I think it’s admirable that the club, which is ran at a profit these days, doesn’t stretch beyond its means. With a new training ground and academy coming in the next year or two, it’s more important than ever that the club keeps a clean balance sheet. Being in the Premier League will undoubtedly speed along that progression, but why risk taking a bumpy road at high speed in a rush to get there, instead of taking it slowly and avoiding a crash? I’d rather cruise along and enjoy the ride. We can watch our journey progress, we can have a laugh and we can wave sarcastically at people who hurl abuse at us for having an ‘unfashionable’ vehicle, as we pass their old and clapped-out ‘classic’ on the side of the road.

Other than that, barring any ridiculous bids for any players under contract, Uwe Rosler should retain the bulk of the squad and with some astute, younger signings this summer, I can see us challenging for a place in the top 6 again. The main position we need to strengthen is undoubtedly upfront. Grant Holt and Marc-Antoine Fortune just haven’t been the answer and there’s an argument to say that if we’d have gone out and bought a ‘proper striker’ (not a 32 year-old on a THREE YEAR CONTRACT, who’s more interested in greyhounds than playing football) then we’d have been in with a shout of challenging amongst the top 4 (which would leave us, at the very least, with a more ‘favourable’ tie in the play-offs).

Our strength lies in midfield, but with Gomez leaving, we need a new creative influence in there. Shaun Maloney should be back fully-fit and hopefully we can get a full season out of Callum McManaman, who has also been disrupted by the odd injury. Being in no way biased at all, I strongly believe that the pair of them, along with a decent striker, would be as good a front three as there is in The Championship.  After a difficult season of squad rotation, I just hope we can put together a close-knit squad in the manner of Leicester and Burnley. It was no surprise to read recently that they were the two sides who used the least amount of players last season.

From a supporter point-of-view, I think most Wiganers are fairly happy to be staying in The Championship. Obviously we all want success for the club and losing in the play-offs was a set-back, but supporting the club hasn’t been this good since 2005, save for a couple of days in May 2013. There seemed to be an element of boredom being in the Premier League, travelling to the same grounds and getting ripped off and cheated out of a point or three. Believe me, The Premier League isn’t the be-all and end-all for football supporters.  At least in The Championship, we’re guaranteed six new trips a year and the chances of actually winning a game are pretty decent.

We all watch football because we love it, we support our clubs and want them to win, we want them to be successful. For me, The Championship represents that more than The Premier League. Yes, I would like the club to be in the top division as soon as possible because that represents success, but to say that the Premier League, a division where 15 of the 20 clubs have no realistic chance of winning it, is the ‘best league in the world’ is laughable. What I’ve learnt during our first season back, is that The Football League, its clubs, supporters and the unpredictability of each game, sums up football for me and I’m more than content that we’ve got another season of it to come.

First published on Football League fansite 'We Are Going Up' on 30th May 2014