ROBERTO: THE SEASON, THE SQUAD, AL HABSI, BOSELLI & SAMMON

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It’s been a while for me. The last time I pressed the flesh with Senor Martinez was bizarrely in the establishment formerly known as the Boulevard and now currently known as, The Boulevard. He’s about the same age as me, and we were both youngsters then, out on the town, me a drunken idiot, the young Martinez, exactly the same as he is now: charming, polite, embracing and pleasant.

We were invited to meet him at 3pm in the Players’ Lounge at the DW the Tuesday after the Stoke game with the fans’ forum set to start immediately after the more regimented press conference. However, due to the events of the previous Sunday, it seems the men and women of the media all wanted a piece of our Bob so a half an hour delay became an hour, which became an hour and a half. By my reckoning, Roberto Martinez entered the room at around about 4.43pm, not a bit jaded and clearly eager to get around the room, shake everyone’s hand and wind down by having a chat with some fans of his football club.

 

In the interim period, both Jonathan Jackson and Ed Jones had sat with us, firstly Jonathan asking very openly, what the club does well and what it could do better, what the fans thought of the idea to open up the South Stand Bar for the Stoke game, an open, honest request for feedback. Ed then took over by explaining the club’s often difficult role with the media and how it operates, commenting again on the reluctance to put players’ forward for interview due to those mischievous journalists eager to turn the line of questioning towards when said players would be leaving and joining a bigger club.

Credit was given and noted towards the two lads amongst the local press now, Paul Kendrick and Greg Farrimond, who are far more Latics friendly than previous incumbents of the role of Sports Reporters at the local press and all helping to raise the profile of Wigan Athletic in the town.

 

The first question to be fired at Bob was not the most demanding one but an obvious one and that was to ask about the general health of the man.

 

“I feel great, when the final whistle went, my first thoughts were to immediately focus on the next season as it felt like we were never in danger of losing our status in the Premier League. I felt an enormous amount of pride and satisfaction because the football club and it’s players got a massive amount of credit from outside which we’ve never had before. By fighting to avoid relegation and the manner in which we did it, we had so many neutrals behind us and I felt that the way we’ve been playing this season we deserved to get out.

 

I always felt that we were, and wanted to be, the kind of team that the neutral attaches itself to due to the story that we are. In the past we’ve always had the negatives: an easy target, the empty seats, what are they doing in the Premier League and I like to think we’re changing that and now people are getting excited about Wigan Athletic, as a great story, how we try to play attractive football and how brave we are and seeing that come together is probably the best feeling for me about the whole season.”

 

Football as ever is a learning experience, whether you are young or old, we’ve certainly seen players developing during the course of the season so what have they and Roberto learned during the course of the season?

 

‘From the outset the way I wanted the team to play was to be able to think, this sounds a bit stupid but there needs to be a clear understanding between the players. There’s no point just having good individuals and relying on a system, with players just ‘doing their job’. We need to think about how to retain possession and how to stop the ball and in the early part of the season we had cultural differences in the team, you could see that. Last season as well, when we were faced with adversity, we often struggled to find a solution. If everything was going fine – OK no problem, when there was adversity, we folded.

 

For those first five months of the season, we developed something special on the training ground. Yes we still have different characters and nationalities but people now work together as a team. You look back at the performances now: the point against Aston Villa, the point against Spurs, the point against Everton – they were phenomenal performances and they only ended up in a draw because we had the fear of losing something. If you’re tenth in the table, that’s a victory. Villa beat Liverpool last day of the season, Everton beat Manchester City and Chelsea at home, we were playing teams that were at the peak of their season and we matched them. We clicked as a team, we were a team and we were prepared to die for each other. That’s being the most pleasing aspect, that we are a united dressing room.’

 

Time for me to jump in: Surely he must have had doubts that things might not have gone his way given the precarious position we were in at numerous times over the course of the season, none more so than being 2-0 down at home to West Ham at half time?

 

‘No, never any doubt, I know we only got safe in the last fifteen minutes of the last game of the season but if you look at the stats we only had 14 defeats, which is the lowest ever for Wigan Athletic in the Premier League and we’ve finished 10th and 11th in the past, we’ve had 15 draws and I’m sure we all agree that 90% of them could have been victories so we were not far away from being a top ten side this season so I always believed in the team. Aston Villa at home was the lowest point of the season for me [in January, lost 2-1], but even then, I saw that with a couple of substitutions that we made that we would be fine.’

 

It was pointed out that maybe the lack of experience in the squad could be costing us due to the number of draws conceded in games where we were winning up until the last ten minutes of the game and Roberto was keen to explain his philosophy on this:

 

‘I think we need to develop experience within the squad and it would be a mistake to bring in that type of footballer, we need players who can think, and I’m looking at young players like James McCarthy who is only 20 but got the experience now, Victor Moses is another who will have a fantastic season the next campaign, Momo Diame is another just 23, yes they are young but they have got the experience in the last six months and that will serve us well.’

 

Moving on to the next season, does Roberto have any targets in mind, with that man Al Habsi top of the list and is he confident that the players we’ve got will stay?

 

‘I’m hoping that all our players will stay, Jonathan will tell you that financially, we don’t have to sell anyone. If we make a decision to let a player go it will be because a player isn’t happy and by happy I mean, as a player you are not confident that the next season will see an improvement for you, if there are no fresh challenges ahead then it can be unhealthy as a player but if we sell anyone it will be for the right price and for the benefit of the football club.

 

We always have targets in mind, we’ve been working with Jonathan since January, I’ve been really pleased with the recruitment department as we’ve got a long list of players we’ve been following for a long time who we feel can improve the squad. We don’t just want good players, we need characters who will improve the squad and become ambassadors for Wigan Athletic. I’ve been very pleased with the two loan signings we had last season and hope to get two equally good ones in next season.

 

Al Habsi is a priority but we’ve been so good at improving Ali that it’s mad

e the job of signing him a lot more difficult! He’s been very good, the way he understood his role with the football club, the way he has connected with the fans and how important he has been in saving us points. The way he reacted at the end of the Stoke game, you’d think he’d been at Wigan Athletic for fifteen years. Jesus Seba was in the crowd and even he didn’t react that way! But we’ll be trying our best to make him a Wigan Athletic player.

 

Tom Cleverley is ready to go back to United and play, he’s ready to play anywhere to be honest, he has a great profile and behaves exactly how a professional footballer should do, he has exactly the sort of profile we should invest in but I don’t think he’s going to be available. There’s only a little chance, a hope because I still feel he could develop with us for another 38 games but is he ready for Manchester United? Yes – they’re in four competitions, that means plenty of games for him so he’s ready to play for Manchester United but Tom knows that he’s always welcome here as well. I don’t think he’s for sale though, I expect him to start as a squad member but break into the first team during the season. He will be in the England Under 21 squad this summer as well and will continue to shine but we can still be proud that we have played our part in helping to develop what will be a great English talent

 

At the moment we have a well balanced squad, so we will look for a bit of both over the summer [experience and younger players]. If we lose an experienced player, I don’t believe in replacing him with a youngster, that is a big gamble, we need to replace him with another experienced player’

 

One of the gents from Vital mentioned the five year plan that Roberto spoke of when he joined the club and whether it was still on track

 

‘I feel we are ahead of it or at least we are where we expected to be which is to be competitive in the Premier League. The plan for next season is to start the way we finished the last season and the aim is to finish top ten. That doesn’t mean we have to finish top ten, that there has to be pressure to achieve it and there will be disappointment if we don’t but it is our ambition as a football club. Staying in the Premier League again will be a great achievement, but internally we will set a goal of trying to reach the top ten and developing this squad of players, who have an average age of only 24, [which it was quickly pointed out includes the 39 year old Mike Pollitt] only Arsenal have a younger squad. That is where as a football club we’ve had to be brave and you could see the energy in the last few games and the challenge that they’ve got, that will be the future of our football club.’

 

And how are the youngsters doing?

 

‘This is one area where we’ve seen a big improvement with our young players beating the likes of Arsenal and Man United in Reserve games. Callum McManaman is ready to play but unfortunately due to the importance of the results I have been a little protective of him and it’s not been fair to throw him in to high pressure games. Lee Nicholls has a specific position in that he’s a goalkeeper, we will involve him in the first team pre-season and then look for the right loan move for him to get games under his belt and there are two or three youngsters who will develop this year and have a chance of getting close to the first team and I’ve been very pleased with the job that Graham Barrow and Dennis Lawrence have been doing with the youngsters.

 

We’ve got other clubs looking at our young pros and sold a product of our youth team in Jon Routledge for the first time in years. We now have young players who play who are from Wigan and are born in Wigan and they will have a great future. It is another ambition of mine in the next few years to have a few more local lads playing in the first team.’

 

At this point the thorny subject of Mauro Boselli came to the table…

 

‘He was finding it difficult and after the Newcastle game we had a chat, and Genoa was one of the clubs who had also been trying to sign him so we felt it would be a good challenge for him. Remember that South American football and European football are very different, the Italian league is completely different again but has some similarities so mentally it felt like the right thing for Mauro and financially it was a good deal for the football club and gave him another six months to settle in.

 

From here we’ll sit down with Mauro and have a chat, I think he’s had a good experience in Italy, he struggled for a bit and then scored one of the most famous goals in Italian football [for Genoa, the goal which sent cross city rivals Sampdoria down and earned him the nickname ‘The Relegator’], he’s going to be on free holidays in Genoa for as long as he likes…but he’s a goalscorer and that’s the hardest thing to find in football. He found the English Premier League difficult, a little too physical for him and I need to see how he is mentally but he is still only 25 and a big, big asset so we’ll sit down and decide the next step.

 

The incredible pace of the Premier League and the amount of contact the referees allow, in other countries, 50% of the balls he receives would result in a free kick, not only that but there were two or three key moments if you remember; the disallowed goal versus Chelsea, the header against Sunderland – if he’d have got that first goal it could have been a different story, how these small things affect a player’s career and from there on in he’d have been a winner. He was one of the best players in South America and coveted by every club and as it is he is still a fantastic goalscorer, I need to find a way to get him enjoying his football again and if he can do it with Wigan, he will be a big, big asset’

 

Was the failure of Boselli the reason Conor Sammon was brought in?

 

‘Conor was a player we had been watching for over eighteen months, as you know we follow the SPL closely, along with the Dutch leagues and German leagues and he was the most improved player in the SPL last year. With Mauro going out on loan, we needed a striker who could bring us something different and Conor has got all the attributes to be a top, top player in the Premier League. Again, we have to be patient with him as it’s a big step up but the goal he scored against West Ham was as good as it gets, he’s got great ability in the box but he also has power and strength and the fans have taken straight to him. He’s not the finished article yet but he’s going to be a big, big player for us. We spent £400,000 on him and it’s fair to say that he’s worth four or five times that already but we still need to be patient with him.’

 

Coming tomorrow in Part Two: Roberto considers Ben Watson’s future England prospects, we talk about the dreaded crowd conundrum and signing big name players on short term contracts

 

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