Horse racing can be a cruel sport, so forgive the analogy but we’re over two-thirds of the way around the course, the pack is slowly starting to spread out and it’s getting close to the time when Paul Cook needs to get the whip out and give it a crack. Saturday’s home game against Ipswich is a vital fixture.
There are plenty games we look at in the run in which we look at and do a sad “hmm, we’re probably going to lose that” but as long as we win the battles against the teams in and around us, then we can not only secure safety, but perhaps even creep to mid-table. Of course, the other teams around us will be desperately trying to do the same, but just like that horse race, as we come around the corner and hit the last few furlongs, some horses find that extra gear to steam through, whereas others seem to be wading through treacle and only succeed in giving a passable impression of flailing backwards.
It was around about the same time two years ago when we were in a similar, perhaps slightly worse position, when Warren Joyce was in charge in critical games against Forest, Bristol City and Blackburn Rovers. They were all in and around us and from a Wigan Athletic perspective and they were three of the most dreadful, spineless performances I have ever seen. We set up to play with fear, when it should have been a case of “he who dares, wins [Rodders]”.
I’m not saying that we need to go completely gung-ho. After all, I’d like to think it won’t come down to goal difference but you never know. We owe Ipswich one from earlier on in the season, and with our home form strangely miles better than our away form, we have three home games in the next four weeks to really put on a show and take aim at QPR in 18th place and upwards.
This would have the two fold effect of dragging other teams into the relegation scrap and pulling ourselves further away from it. Reading away will not be easy, nor will Blackburn but by the time we play Rovers, we could be in with a chance of overtaking them in 14th if we can find a burst of form. Another three or four wins between now and the end of March and we really will be in with a chance of that mid-table finish come May and be able to enjoy a nice, quiet stress-free end to the season.
There’s a bit of me that thinks that we don’t want that. As Wigan Athletic fans, I wonder whether the last few years have turned us into masochists; hopelessly dependent addicts, who need that year on year fix of a relegation battle, a cup run and/or a title chase. Yet we are in transition, on and off the field. Despite earlier concerns, I am warming to the new ownership. They are pragmatic and that is what we need. We’ve been there and done the whole rich owner thing and in twenty years later it would take twenty times the cash of a Dave Whelan to even break the seal of a Premier League promotion charge.
There are clubs who occasionally circumvent the model of throwing hundreds of millions of pounds at it but they are increasingly becoming few and far between. It’s not impossible but it is becoming increasingly hard. The sooner we can pull ourselves clear of danger this year, the more time we will have to start preparing for next year and working on making the sum of the parts greater than the whole. This is a stability Wigan Athletic have rarely been afforded in recent times.
The luxury of having the time to work on and embed those core values of player development and a tight knit squad which never seems to happen because we’re always changing division and never know our fate, cannot be under-estimated. We just need to get there first, and this Saturday represents an excellent opportunity to make a leap in the right direction.