Let me tell you what I can’t get my head round. Our young players. We simply haven’t brought a single bad egg through the academy.
I’m not talking about ability here, I am talking about the fact that they are almost all, to a (young) man, superb human beings. They are a nice bunch of lads, and they have been absolutely superb in their attitude.
I was planning to write a piece solely about Callum Lang. Let’s look at that situation: he came through our academy system but has never really broken into the first team and has been farmed out on loan, here, there and everywhere. It has to beg the question: why does he even care about Wigan Athletic? You could understand him being a bit resentful, given he has been seen as surplus to requirements and sent out on loan repeatedly. But he does care, he’s a softly spoken lad but what he says means more than how he says it. He had spent maybe a decade at this club dreaming of being our number nine, and now he’s got it, he is sweating blood for the shirt, in the most difficult of circumstances.
There’s another elephant in the room here. If Stanley Choi hadn’t pulled his ultimate card trick, we may not have ever seen Callum Lang in the number nine shirt. Nor Chris Merrie, Alex Perry, Luke Robinson, Kyle Joseph, Adam Long or Thelo Aasgaard wearing the blue and white. I’ve noticed that the Latics press team are reticent to ask this question, even though I’m not sure what the question is. It’s more of a comment really: You’re only in the first team because the club got sent up s**t creek without a paddle last summer, aren’t you?
So if you’re looking for positives about getting put into administration and relegated by a bunch of Far East crooks and an incompetent EFL, who fell for a cheap card trick, then this squad of largely academy players taking to the field have been the highlight of the season. An amazing success story. Let’s not forget Jolley, Obi, Crankshaw, Baningime or Webber either, who have all played their part too.
We have, of course, bolstered the squad with more experienced free transfers as the season has gone on but if we can somehow stay in this division, with what was essentially an Under 23’s and reserve team, then it will represent the biggest miracle of all.
I’ve not even mentioned the fact that Weir, Devine and Gelhardt were all flogged for a knock down price before they really got near our own first team, to sit in Premier League development sides but the paltry £1.5m combined we received for them, literally kept the club going when the Far East f***wits suddenly emptied our bank accounts.
The thing is with building an academy, is it is not a one year or even two or five year project. It is a ten year project. And for most of the past ten years, we have been a Premier League side, a Championship side or a League One side, desperately trying to get back up into the Championship and also in receipt of parachute payments for several years to aid that goal.
When you are constantly trying to win titles, get promoted or avoid relegation, then the emphasis always leans towards going tried and trusted. You simply don’t have the luxury of blooding untried youngsters in the first team.
Cook took untold stick for not playing Gelhardt more, but even though Leeds are now raving about him, he is still only their 8th choice striker. It might be two or three years before he is a regular in their first team. We have also seen with Kyle Joseph and Aasgaard that too much football too young in a competitive environment can burn them out or cause serious injury.
The physicality takes a while to develop but the mental side of their game, has been exemplary.
I’ve no idea when this started but so the story goes that it was Roberto Martinez and Jonathan Jackson, who twisted Dave Whelan’s arm to invest in and upgrade the academy.
I could be wrong but I would be surprised if it had his predecessor, Steve Bruce’s paws on it.
It was Bruce who gave Callum McManaman his Premier League debut in an end of season dead rubber (for us) against Portsmouth but I don’t think hie emphasis was on youth in general.
Don’t get me wrong, he put together a fantastic team at short notice, that probably had us as good as we ever were in terms of League form but they were bought in from around the world and we paid top wages for them.
And of course, as mentioned above, when you are playing at that kind of level and want to maintain that level, then that is what you have to do. Everyone is at it in the Premier League, you buy the best in the world, the best you can afford to stay competitive. Bruce and Martinez were no different in that respect. When you are a small town club in the Premier League, you have one priority which is to stay in the Premier League. Trying to upgrade your academy so you might have some decent young players coming through in ten years’ time is the least of your priorities.
It’s implausible that any football club in the Premier League would have a high proportion of academy players in their first team. I’d wager 80-90% of Premier League players, ultimately get sold to lower division clubs or lesser Premier League clubs. Everyone buys ready made, the finished article. The financial stakes are too high to do otherwise.
Yet somehow, we quietly built this academy. When you look at The England U18 & U21 tournaments in recent years, you will see the familiar names of whom the players belonged to and it would be United, City, Chelsea and WIGAN ATHLETIC, and you can’t help feeling proud.
Whether it was his idea or not, Martinez being a Catalan probably took notice of the Barca way, and for years, our academy teams all played the same way through the age groups. He was also hugely influenced by Johan Cruyff, father of his friend Jordi Cruyff, and both proponents and products of the famed Ajax youth system. Probably best to use Ajax as an example rather than Barca right now!
Now, I know plenty Latics fans didn’t universally like Martinez’s style of football. (If so, be glad you don’t support MK Dons after their display on Saturday!!)
But this article isn’t about what happens on the pitch, it is about what happens off it. It has become clear that over the past decade, we have brought through several crops of immaculate players. The Academy has not just brought them up to be decent footballers but it has brought them up to be very decent young men as well.
Even the ones who have been unceremoniously booted out of the club in order to meet the ridiculous EFL squad regulations when in administrations, have said nice things about the club.
These young lads have saved this club and history will look upon them as favourably as every single one of our Premier League icons.
I’ve not even mentioned the other major catalyst for all this yet. I’ve no idea why Gregor Rioch moved here from Coventry City but I’m bloody glad he did. My guess is they were also going through another spell of the perpetual financial turmoil they seem to be in for most of the 21st century. It’s easy to forget that Coventry were historically a top flight club. When I was growing up in the 80’s, my first proper FA Cup final I watched was THAT game against Spurs, whilst little old Wigan were playing in front of 3,000 at Springfield Park.
Would it be an over-exaggeration to suggest that Gregor Rioch could well be the most important signing ever in our history, given the pattern of the past nine months?
Even if Leam Richardson leaves in the summer (hope not) to join Paul Cook, I really hope Gregor stays. I am kind of hoping in a greedy sense, that there is another crop of young players, even better than the current ones, lurking behind the curtains that we have yet to see and that we can build a team around. A group who will be tight knit, a group that already love this club and will help to fight tooth and nail to drag us back up the leagues to redress the injustice that this football club has suffered.
Maybe I’m getting carried away there. Either way, it is still massively appreciated. I’ve still not fully listened to Jay Whittle’s podcast with Gregor but I will do. I would love to hear his ethos on matters as he has undoubtedly revolutionised this club behind the scenes and it took a major crisis for us all to fully appreciate this.
I’ve no idea what the future holds for Leam or Gregor, but I think it is no exaggeration to say that the work of Gregor Rioch and his team and the young players they have produced has saved this club from extinction, or at the very least, a fate far worse than we have already suffered, and history will acknowledge this feat. They have stood solidly behind this club and kicked every ball from the sidelines.
They understand that you don’t have to be the biggest club in the world to be the greatest club in the world.
As a smaller club, we have always been superb at excelling in different ways. We know this, as Wigan Athletic fans but this also seems to be acknowledged by so many past and present players, and it is clearly drummed into younger players. Long may it continue.
I’ve read this through again, and there is no mention of the T word. Clearly, it is reported as being close, but I’m sure I’m not alone in being ultra cautious and nervous, now more so than ever.
I just hope if (WHEN!!) it does go through, the work of those two men is fully acknowledged, for they have truly excelled in what has been the worst situation any football club can find itself in.
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