Saturday, 18 October 2014

International Class?

I think it’s fair to say that the recent International break has been very interesting. Not for England, mind, but the other British nations have been doing quite well and have set themselves up for great campaigns. England on the other hand, if you believe the media, have been playing some Under 8’s teams and only beat them 5-0 and 1-0. The teams in question are San Marino and Estonia, two nations with a population smaller than the vast majority of British cities. Many a journalist and pundit has been questioning, should these teams even be allowed to play? Should they be put in a pre-qualification group first? England shouldn’t be playing ‘the likes of’ San Marino.
I want to be all negative about the idea, dismiss it as arrogance, but I’ll admit that I can’t decide whether or not the idea of a pre-qualification group would be a good or bad thing for football in these countries. I'm on the fence. I can see the argument that it will give those ‘smaller’ nations a greater opportunity of playing attacking football and getting a result, but on the other hand, let’s just say that San Marino do win a couple of games and progress to the ‘proper’ qualifying stage, with no recent experience of playing the top sides, they are more than likely to receive another heavy beating anyway. So what’s the point? 

I’ll admit that the two games weren’t great to watch, but that’s the luck of the draw. England’s group isn’t the most taxing (which is probably a good thing, because the quality in our play isn’t good enough at the moment) and we’ll probably breeze through, winning all of our matches. Saying that, is playing San Marino and Estonia good for where England want to be? Is it a good enough test? At the moment, I’ll probably say, yes it is. We need to learn how to playing attacking football with a squad that is very young and inexperienced and I think, especially travelling away, a less-taxing international football game would quietly slip them into a confident style of play. Eventually. Hopefully. On their day, Estonia are a dangerous side and similarly in this group, Lithuania are also capable of springing a surprise. But where does that leave San Marino? All they seem to do is pack men behind the ball and try to keep the score down. What’s the point? Is it worth it to potentially see our millionaire darlings to pick up an injury in a match that you could play League Two players in and still win handsomely? I think we sometimes forget what football SHOULD be about, it was about representing your local area, your workplace, your school in a game of football. It didn’t matter how rich or poor you were, where you were from or who you knew - you were all equal on a football pitch. It then got more organised, national teams were formed, players got better. You may not be able to play for your hometown or workplace anymore, but you could still play for your country. You could still be proud to represent the people who made you what you are, in an environment of fun and fair play. And even though they aren’t very good at football, I think it’s worth remembering that these smaller nations have more pride than the England players do at representing their country, their people and themselves, even when they get battered every match, I can guarantee that. That’s ‘the point’ in San Marino. 

I think it’s interesting to learn that Iceland, with a population LESS than Wigan Borough, beat Holland during the week and are looking good to qualify for Euro 2016. England beat them 6-1 in a friendly prior to Euro 2004 and the Icelandic team were seen as on a par with ‘the likes of’ (how I despise that term) a smaller country with no footballing hope, like a Estonia or taking it further afield, perennial struggles, Malta, by the general football media. So what’s changed? Investment in coaches and facilities in a country where outdoor sports like football is extremely difficult to play all year round, has seen a production line of players that are just starting to come to the fore. Iceland, coincidentally, is a pretty well-off country and is able to afford these facilities and offer youngsters organised football. For smaller countries, who don’t have the ability to trade huge amounts of goods, so are therefore relatively poor, the ‘likes of’ Estonia (whose population is over 4 times the size of Iceland’s) and Malta (twice as many people as Iceland) struggle to offer people the same facilities that the people enjoy in Iceland. There’s also the fact that many of these smaller countries are relatively recently-formed or independent (Estonia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991) so are already behind many countries with organised governments, let alone their football.

Personally, I think UEFA, who want to continue the message of football is for everybody, need to step in and work with governments to try and start investing and offering people proper facilities and organisation in these countries. It’s the only way that their football will get better, just cutting them off from the so-called bigger boys, patting them on the head, and abandoning them in another class, probably won’t teach them anything. It may not help countries with tiny populations like San Marino and Gibraltar (who have lost all of their qualifying games heavily so far) to improve massively, but it'll at least give their people the opportunity to improve. And I think not giving out opportunities to everyone, no matter who they are, is one of the worst things about the world.

I think I've decided which side of the fence I'm sitting on!

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Keep The Faith - Keep Uwe

When clubs’ are in trouble, with rumours that their manager is about to be sacked, I always think back to Latics’ early times at the JJB Stadium. The first two seasons saw us managed by no less than 4 different managers, with many over-paid and over-the-hill players just content with picking up their wage. In the third season, Paul Jewell arrived. Like a Scouse Cowboy, in a fancy tracksuit and a intolerance of lazy players. Jewell was a former Latics centre-forward with a reputation of playing quick, attacking football as a manager. It didn’t go well. For the majority of the first 6 months, we were crap. We even spent a week at the foot of the table and were knocked out of the FA Cup by non-league Canvey Island, as we had two players sent off for basically, losing their discipline. Things boiled over after a 5-1 defeat to Wrexham in the LDV Vans trophy when a player (allegedly) told Jewell “Don’t know why you’re so pissed off, we’ll be here longer than you”. It summed up the club at the time – we were like a lottery winner that didn’t know what to do with all our money and just threw it at everything and anyone to look good. We didn’t build anything. That defeat was the turning point. Jewell didn’t go, Whelan had a go at the players, many of them left and the manager was able to replace them with young and hungry players. 12 months later, we won the league with 100 points.

The point with this tale is thus; is it right to keep changing the manager when things don’t go according to plan? Should more than just results be taken into account?
Now, I truly believe that Uwe Rosler is the man to take Wigan Athletic back into the Premier League. You may call it blind optimism, but I prefer to call it ‘realism’; a man who can tactically out-think Manuel Pellegrini with a Championship team, a man who picked-up a beguiled squad who went within the width of a post to making it to a play-off final, should be worth more than 6 months-worth of inconsistent performances. He needs a proper opportunity to mould his own squad.

Yes, we are struggling at the moment, but a large part of that is because we’ve had a huge turnover of the squad and it takes time, months, to see the best of them. You may say that it’s him who is signing the players – well yes of course, because of the way we are ran, we have to constantly rebuild the squad and this summer was no different. Constantly sacking people and bringing in someone else, with different plans and ideas, would only leave us with an expensively-assembled, hotchpotch of an house that will be blown over by any passing storm. Well, a storm that’s decent at knocking around a football. What we want is a strong squad, built by the same person with the same footballing philosophy and attitude running all the way through it. No matter how decent at football a storm is, it’ll struggle to knock that house down. The problem is, something like that takes patience and time, something which I fear, the world (never mind Wiganers!) doesn’t possess these days.

Why wasn’t Owen Coyle given the same opportunity and time? I honestly can’t give you a definitive answer. Rumours of dressing room unrest and fallouts with the board suggest the true nature of Coyle’s exit. Even the man himself has recently admitted that he shouldn’t have taken the job, because he didn’t feel a connection with Whelan in the interview. I think that’s one thing we all forget about football sometimes - it’s a job. Yes it’s ridiculously highly-paid, but it’s a job like any other. How many have you been in a workplace where you didn’t feel comfortable or didn’t agree with how things are run? The only difference is that we can't get sacked with a heavy pay-off. If you believe that not giving Coyle a proper chance wasn’t fair, or a mistake, then why should we be repeating that same mistake with Rosler?

My belief in Uwe comes from his interviews. To be honest, I don’t think we’ve been that terrible on the pitch. We’ve been inconsistent - if we were terrible in every game, I’d say fair enough, but we haven’t. One of the first things he said when he took the job was his long-term plan for the club, a plan that involves re-building the team with young players, improving them and getting them to grow together as a team. Sound familiar? It’s along the lines of what Paul Jewell said when he took the job in 2001 (he also said something about ‘weeding out the culture that had developed at the club’) THIS is why Rosler needs to stay. If we keep changing the manager every 12 months, then we’ll achieve nothing. The squad will break up and it’ll be a constant waltzer ride that won’t stop, with Dave Whelan screaming ‘do you want to go faster’ from the booth to keep us interested. No Dave, the ride is a bit rubbish and we as supporters, (as well as ‘we’ as a club) can’t really afford it anyway.

The biggest criticism of the manager remains that he ‘doesn’t know his best team’. Again – we’ve had a huge turnover in players, of course he doesn’t know his best team! The team changes from game-to-game and I think that’s a strength: clearly he thinks that each and every player can suit a different role in any tactic he wishes to employ against different opponents each week. Take Marc-Antoine Fortune for example. He won’t get you 15 goals a season, so why is he in the team? Especially when you consider we’ve spent a few million on two strikers in the summer? Fortune is a prime example of a ‘defensive forward’ (don’t laugh – there is such a thing!) he’s a player who is physically able to hold the play up, bring other players into play and close down the opposition. Goalscoring remains his secondary job, as daft as that may sound. Now I’m not writing this to explain Rosler’s tactics, or disagree with anyone who disagrees with Rosler, I’m just giving an example as to why he makes so many changes. He’s tried to play Oriol Riera and Andy Delort upfront, but at the moment, we lack confidence and lack any real understanding in the team (due to all the new players), so Fortune playing upfront on his own, away from home, makes sense to me. Hopefully we’ll start seeing the best of the new players as they adapt to a new country and a new league in the coming months and we won’t need a ‘defensive forward’ to keep the ball away from the opposition!

We may not go up this season and for me, that isn’t really important. What IS important, is that we have a competitive team, debt-free and with a manager at the helm who truly cares about the club and his profession, always striving to improve. And that’s what Uwe does. If things don’t improve in the next few weeks, then we will have to start asking questions, but I fimly believe that getting rid of him would send us backwards. I believe we’ve already seen an upturn though – two battling draws against 2 of the top teams in this league so far this season, hopefully indicates that we’re getting better. We’ve got a nice break now – and not many excuses left not to start picking up wins.

Remember - it took Jewell 2 full seasons to get us out of the Second Division. 2 years later we were kicking off the Premier League season at home to Champions Chelsea. Just think about it.

Keep faith and support the club!