Joker’s Wild

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“A laughing stock”, “you’re a bloody joke Wigan”, “we need to sign some proper quality”.   If I’d had a quid every time I’d heard those sentiments over the last six years then I’d have a few quid in the bank, or I might have pissed it all up the wall.  No, I’d almost definitely have pissed it up the wall, but that’s by-the-by, my point is that we’re on a seemingly endless spiral where the club sell some players, then buy some more and all to a soundtrack of mass panic from the boys and girls of the East Stand Hot Air Marching Band.

I’m not sure whether the hysteria reached its peak with the signing of Emile Heskey or Titus Bramble, but as their stories are essentially the same it barely matters.  Throw in the fact that these are possibly the only two signings where anyone outside of the Latics family have paid the blindest bit of notice to the club’s transfer policy since the three amigos splashed onto the inside back pages of the odd tabloid then these two guys probably represent the only real sign of us being the comedy piece that so many of our fans seem so quick to write us off as.

Of course, it would be wrong of me to try and tell you that Emile and Titus weren’t derided before they joined the good ship Wigan Athletic.  Heskey’s stock had been in decline since his early days at Liverpool and he’d just been relegated with Steve Bruce at Birmingham, Bramble’s tendency towards making gaffs had seen Alan Hanson copyright the phrase “he’s got all the physical attributes, but…” and the young lad that Bobby Robson had so much faith in chased out of the toon.  Both came to Wigan with the probable assumption that it was the sort of backwater where no one would notice their sins, or maybe the sort of club where the fans would be pathetically grateful to sign a player that we’d heard of.

Of course that’s the cynic in me speaking.  Both players saw the club as somewhere they could rehabilitate, be a bigger fish in a smaller pond re-establish some kind of reputation and see where that takes them.  For Heskey that was the England squad and a starring role in World Cup qualification, for Bramble it was a three years solid graft and less time being closely examined by pundits.  Latics got god service from both and in the meantime they became new men.

Or that’s how history will remember it.  Because the reality of things is that Latics got bloody good deals on both these lads, who, lets face it, had pretty much nothing wrong with them to start with.

Heskey might have been England’s favourite boo-boy and the media’s favourite thing to poke a stick at, but ask the people he plays with what they think, ask most Liverpool fans whether they blame the player or the manager for his poor performances.  For all the legitimate debate about his merits, Emile is bloody good at what he does, and what he does is bloody useful for a team like Wigan Athletic.  I’d struggle to believe any argument that said we would have got better value from the £8m we were about to spend on Andrew Johnson before we splashed £5.5 on Heskey.

Similarly, Titus’ “chase” out of Newcastle wasn’t exactly the closing scenes of the Blues Brothers, it was probably not even like a Benny Hill sketch.  Some of their fans were glad to see him go, some of them less so, especially on a free.  Although Bramble got a regular kicking for his mistakes, he was not on his own.  Magpie defenders before and after him had similar problems and for every five second blooper you could find a couple of hours of good, hard, solid defending.  For every goal conceded a raft of last ditch tackles. 

Titus rarely had a solid partner alongside him and the smart money was as much on good proportion of his mistakes (by no means all of them as we have seen at Latics) being down to having to cover for his mate as well as himself.  Put him in an arguably more stable defence, with less pressure and ask him to do what he’s good at (defending) and hey presto, he appears a different player.  I say appears because he’s only really what he was doing all along but we’ve been tricked to look in the right direction this time.

James Calder in When Saturday Comes does a good job of explaining why players like Heskey and Bramble can be perceived has having some kind of problem.  Unsurprisingly it’s down to the industry that has sprung up around modern football, the cult of the pundit and the general gullibility of the man on the street, tabloid reading football fan.  It’s plainly wrong, but if Latics can carry on profiting from it both reputationally, as the footballing equivalent of the priory and financially (through stays in the Premier League) then long may it continue.

Bramble’s exit though isn’t as clear cut as Heskey’s get what you can before he can go for nowt disappearing act.  As things stand it’s a sideways(ish) move that neither club nor player had a real reason for needing.  Bobby’s talk of “financial” reasons is confusing, especially considering the rumoured (and probably unrealistic) transfer fees involved, but consider what a couple of million in the bank and £30k-odd off the wage bill can do for a club managing its finances closely.

I remember Bobby talking about how the days for selling players for the sake of it being over, how, if he was selling someone, it would be to bring in 2 or 3 additional players.  Here you have just that sort of deal.  I remember, as well, his words on Titus Bramble, how he was at an important stage in his career, where he needed to decide what sort of player he was and step up and be a leader.  In his eagerness to scoot off to his mates in Sunderland maybe Titus has answered those questions for Bobby, or maybe Bobby answered them for him.

After all, his position in the team is much less certain than it was this time last year.  The emergence of Gohouri and the signing of Alacaraz may not answer all our defensive problems, but they make places in that part of the back four much more competitive.  I would never have put Bramble down as being one to shirk a fight, but who knows? 

Now’s not a time for bitterness though.  I’ve enjoyed having Bramble at Latics and feel that he could have gone on to being an all time great.  Whether he or someone else decided otherwise is a little irrelevant so it’s probably best to leave it with a thank you to the big fellow, all the best in the North East, but hopefully not at our expense.

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