Inside the Opposition: Wigan Athletic

Robert Pollard

Wednesday night sees City take on Wigan at the DW Stadium. It’s a potentially tricky match, with Wigan playing some decent stuff so far this season, including in their 3-2 win over Reading at the weekend. There’s much to admire at Wigan. It’s a club with few resources who are seemingly a near-permanent fixture in the Premier League, with a highly-rated young manager in charge. I spoke to the man behind Wigan fan site This Northern Soul ahead of the big game.

Wigan have one of the most well liked and well respected managers in the league. How good is Roberto Martinez? And how much of a loss would it have been had you lost him?

Bobby is one of the most intriguing young managers around, he’s a thinker, he’s got a brilliant football mind and a real solid focus and positive attitude towards the game.  If you watch him and listen to his thoughts it’s hard to imagine him not managing a Champions League side in the future.

But, and I was like a stuck record on this point throughout most of last season, most of that barely matters. As well as being a good young manager, Bobby is the right manager for Wigan Athletic. He has a real affinity for the club, where it has come from and what it is capable of and, most importantly, is prepared to work within that and solve his problems on the pitch rather than in the transfer market.

It doesn’t always make for the most comfortable watching, but to a great extent we have the best of both worlds.  By day sharp brained schemer, by night bargain hunter. Like a cross between Dominic Littlewood and David Dickinson.

Seriously though, the last three managers’ approach to solving the Premier League puzzle had been to throw cash at it. The problem was it had left us in a no-man’s land, we’d over extended ourselves and found that we didn’t have enough money to break through into the mythical next level. I think it got to the stage where the manager wanted to spend more when the chairman wanted to balance the books and never the twain shall meet.

It’s hard to imagine a manager who would come in without bringing that tension with them and I’d hope there isn’t a Latics fan out there who would want to return to the dying days of Steve Bruce’s reign when the club felt like it was slipping into a deep abyss. We’d done so well in the first half of the season and then it quickly became apparent that the manager didn’t want to be here, half the players didn’t want to play for him and the financial reality started to dawn on people.

Your chairmen is another well respected man in football. I love how much patience he shows when things are difficult. How important has he been to Wigan’s rise?

He’s not necessarily universally respected away from football, his Bradley Hardacre-esque reputation does him no favours amongst a lot of Wiganers whilst within it, his tendency to engage mouth before brain must really piss some people off. But you’re right in that I think a lot of clubs do envy us for our chairman, if little else.

For our club, at the time he took over he was the perfect man for the job he set himself (and the fact that none of us would ever have even joked about Latics playing in the top flight before 1995 is an important part of our relationship with the chairman).  At that time we just craved some stability and here was someone with a bit of cash who might be able to bring that. His reputation and his connections with the town’s ‘other team’ made it feel like he’d ever be one of us, but there are some strange symbiotic relationships out there and if his quest for kudos (or profit) meant that our club had a future, then so be it.

From that point, the club has never really looked back, and that’s down to Whelan: his vision, his bloody mindedness and the money he’s spent. Some fans forget that too easily, some will never accept that he’s done anything positive for the club and others see what he’s brought to the club as the be all and end all of football life.

For me, what Whelan has given us is like one of the best kind of Christmas presents, the one that you did even know that you wanted and I’m grateful for that, but what I’ll be more grateful for is if he can now turn us into a stable, ongoing concern with no need for a sugar daddy. It seems that’s his current aim and will be the real answer to the question “yeah, but what did Dave Whelan ever do for us?” If he manages it.

How important is a good relationship between chairman and manager? Whelen and Martinez seem to have a good one but does it actually make a difference?

That answer to that for Wigan Athletic lies, not with Martinez but, with Paul Jewell. Whelan had been in charge of Latics for six years at the point Jewell came in and had seen the back of as many managers (not including caretakers) and the chairman had gained a reputation as either a hatchet man or someone who was difficult to work with, depending on which way the wind was blowing. Jewell came in and faced a squad that had had some of it’s better players (Roberto Martinez included) released and was left with an arsey bunch of senior pros, riding the gravy train and thinking they were bigger and better than the manager.

Jewell had his low points that season, famously leading to Whelan bucking the trend by sitting the players down and backing the manager, basically making it clear that Jewell was his man and they’d either have to like it or bugger off. It was the first real sign of Whelan trusting a manager and it paid dividends.

To me it’s that trust that’s important and I think that’s what makes things work between Bobby and Uncle Dave. The chairman trusts the manager and the manager won’t abuse that trust. It’s worked differently this time around, but four more years in the premier league is still success for a club of our size and there are some signs that we might see some steps forward this season.

Is it realistic for Wigan to finish with mid-table security as opposed to facing a relegation battle?

You can’t imagine how nice it would be to have a peaceful season of mid-table obscurity and I think there’s something of a realistic ambition in managing it every so often, but there’s no hiding from the reality that having that as the norm would mean Latics were over-achieving. As a club we simply don’t have the foundations or infrastructure to place us in that sort of bracket. The club are trying to do things to increase our stability and build for the future, but at the end of the day, our fan base, and their spending habits mean that we’ll continue to struggle.

Who’s been your best player so far this season?

Football being a fickle world, it has to be Jordi Gomez, scorer of our first league hattrick since 2007 who helped us to a deserved three points (not that you’d know from Match of the Day, like) on Saturday. But in reality It’s a toss-up between Ivan Ramis, who exploded onto the English scene by gifting Chelsea a two goal lead but has improved to the stage where no one is questioning him getting the captain’s armband in Gary Caldwell’s absence and Franco di Santo, who has belied his previous goal scoring form by looking a real threat, both in terms of creativity and goal scoring.

The cynic would point to the timing of Franco’s resurgence, coming, as it does, at the start of the final year of his contract. But it’s hard to fault him for effort and at least he seems to be playing for a contract here, rather than playing his time out, which a couple of players could have been accused of last season.

It seems from the outside that football is very much second to rugby in Wigan, which means Wigan struggle to fill the DW. Do you think that makes it difficult for Wigan to hang on to good players?

Like Basil Fawlty we don’t mention the rugby around here. There is, and pretty much always has been, little crossover between the crowds of the town’s two teams but it’s not right to see them as a drag on our crowds. There might be 10k rugby men who would never support Latics, but that’s not to say they’re not football fans. The bigger draw on our potential crowds are those people who travel to watch you, United, Liverpool, Everton or one of the Lancashire clubs every weekend. You can’t begrudge the match going fan anything though and the beast that really gets our goat is the one that aligns himself with a top four club and would rather spend money on his Sky subscription or an afternoon down the pub (and 15 pints to boot) than spend £20 to come down to the DW stadium.

That said, I’m not sure how much the size of a crowd is an immediate draw for players. They’ll see the cheque book and chance of silverware well before they think about empty seats, which there are plenty of around most Barclays Premier League grounds these days anyway. Where the lack of fans really doesn’t help, is with the additional income they bring.  My favourite stat a couple of years ago was that your rivals took more cash on a single match day than we did all season. We only have one way of improving that (Whelan tried raising prices in our second season and it failed, badly) and that’s to get more people through the door, and regrettably they’d have to ‘the right sort of fan’ too, i.e. ones that are happy to buy three replica shirts each, as well as a hot dog, two cokes and a programme every game.

Frankly though, I reckon our crowds are what they are, we fair well when you compare actual attendances against local populous and it may well be that what we have is the best we can manage. As I suggested above, it’s how we live with that which is important and part of that leads us to look at players that aren’t stars any way, so in turn the crowd becomes less of an issue all round.

I happened to be seated right next to Di Santo (and Rodallega) in a restaurant once and we had a right laugh together. How’s he doing in a Wigan shirt?

Until the start of this season, Franco’s time at Latics has best been described as mixed. He seems to have an infectious personality that comes across in his play, can’t really be faulted for effort, but he’s never really had the end product. Early signs are that he might have discovered a bit more of that this year. Three goals in 13 might not look great, but if he can turn that into 10-15 then it’ll be as good a record as any striker has had at Latics in recent years.

The problem with Franco is that his contract is up at the end of the season. We’ve not got a great record of keeping hold of key players in that position and unless an agreeable offer can be made, which his recent call-up to the Argentina squad might make difficult, then chances are we’ll lose him in January. That would be a great pity, because I reckon there’s much better to come from Franco and, above all else, who doesn’t enjoy watching someone who obviously loves playing the game turn out for their team.

What is your perception of City from the outside?

Before our game last year, I did a Q&A and said that I don’t even see the game that City are involved in as the same as the one Latics are. It’s a different world, not one I want to be part of or particularly understand even.

There’s not one bit of it that I envy you for, having all those wonderful players on show just can’t be worth all the expectation and soap opera that comes with the money and that’s without getting started on having to watch Carlos Tevez, knowing that he’s taking home enough money to keep a small European economy afloat.

None of that’s the fans’ fault mind and apart from a few idiots I came across who thought they were too big for the third division, the City fans that I’ve met have always been decent lads. I just hope that what the club is going through now doesn’t spoil things permanently for you.

If I could offer you one City player for free who would you choose?

I was planning a convoluted attempt at justifying two players, which would have been the sheer class of Silva and Aguero, but at the end of the day there’s one City player that everyone covets (or are lying) and that’s Balotelli. Yes he’s capable of petulance, but all the greats have their flaws, and one way or another, I reckon among the greats where he’s going to end up.

Before then you just have to put up with mad skills, crazy antics and goals. Yep, I have found something I envy you for.

Match predication?

Heart 2-2, head 0-2, crazy hunch 3-1

You can check out This Northern Soul for information about Wigan and follow them on Twitter

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