Paul Jewell’s departure from Wigan Athletic was never going to end happily for all concerned. There had been debate, throughout the seven year success story, about whether Latics had been successful because of the man at the helm or he had managed what he had because of the club he was at. In the end, as always, it appears that it was a bit of both and that we had genuinely gone as far as we could together.
The only regret is that it took so long to get a proper replacement in and then one that we could, perhaps, have had much cheaper in the past. That and the pain of watching two men best suited to life in the shadows trying to get the club some momentum.
The notion that Jewell would return to the Latics manager’s seat was only ever laughable but with the money on offer, and everything that’s gone on since, he must have wondered, at least briefly, how different things would have been if he’d stuck with what he knew and played the prodigal son.
Sex scandals aside, Derby fans have seen quite quickly what it took us 7 years to find out, that Jewell is not without his limitations. Tactically he’s been proved naive and although his greatest strength is motivation, when faced with players who can’t or won’t be spurred on to better he struggles and is liable to lash out.
At Latics it was the fans who found out what he thought of them, given the full houses he so craved, he turned on the players. At both clubs he failed to admit that maybe he deserved some blame for what had gone wrong.
We should leave Jewell there; over analysis can only further sour the memories of the club’s most successful period.
Instead let’s move on to the start of the new era, or maybe that’s too brave a term to describe Chris Hutchings’ tenure as manager. Despite a feeling of freshness in approach, Jewell’s shadow loomed large over his replacement and his influence was clear, both on and off the pitch.
The start was bright enough, but when things went wrong the belief of both fans and players was in short supply and it was downhill from the point that we started to lose games. There was a feeling of inevitability about proceedings and when Hutchings was given a game against Chelsea to prove himself you knew that Whelan was simply sharpening the axe that he’d put into storage a few years back.
If you are looking for indications of a club in decline then they surely don’t come bigger than a caretaker manager who can’t be bothered pretending that he’s in with a chance of keeping the job. Frank Barlow’s history suggests that he really didn’t want the limelight and that the pervading feeling that everyone at the club was waiting to see what would happen was more than justified.
When it did the first thoughts of many turned to deja vu. Many of those who had been there at the time of Bruce’s period in charge remember the turmoil that his departure left us in rather than his achievements over the two months he was manager. To put it shortly, he took a team of what were increasingly looking like dead-legs and a season in dramatic decline and took them to the verge of a play-off final.
That Bruce then chose to bugger off to Palace taught Dave Whelan the biggest lesson of his time as chairman, that if you want to keep managers then you have to give them contracts and some trust. Jewell followed into the seat after this lesson was learnt, and hey presto.
Throughout Jewell’s time at the club there were those who insisted that he wasn’t actually Latics’ best manager, that Bruce was and though few took it seriously you couldn’t see him struggling to deal with Kevin Nichols in the same way. The Derek Stillie incident? Even if any of the players thought they were in a better position than a man with Bruce’s record, could you see him having to pull the chairman in to sort it out?
But that was the past, this time around the job at hand was much bigger. Latics were fare from mid-table obscurity and the players looking more clueless a side than we’d seen for over a decade. Not only was it a thankless task, but a shed load of money would have to be spent just to put us in with a chance of staying up.
In the end, Bruce’s January spending wasn’t much more than the compensation that Latics had been forced to pay to get their man, and, in reality, it took just a fraction of what was taken out of the war chest to make us look a better team. Yes, only one of Bruce’s signings had any sort of impact, but what a bargain.
Taking that into account makes it harder to say what Bruce got right that his predecessors didn’t. The man himself points to the return of Emile Heskey but he’s rarely been fully fit since coming back into the team and his return in either goals or assists suggests that, if Marlon King had settled in at all, then Heskey may have got plenty more time to recover from his ills.
People point to the tactical master stroke of moving Paul Scharner into defence, but he was a liability in midfield and it was probably Boyce’s return in place of Bramble that added the much needed stability to the back line.
What Bruce did manage was to take the team back to basics, to get the whole team defending and playing together. He brought honesty an endeavour back into our style of play a sort of back to square one for Latics Premier League life, but don’t knock it, with points to show for games against Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea, it obviously worked. Add a few more goals and who knows what could happen next year.
The change is very apparent off the pitch, when things go wrong the Bruce usually seems to know where and why, when he doesn’t he says he doesn’t. He recognises that there are reasons that our crowds are like they are and that he has a part to play in doing something about that.
I’m wary of giving out too much praise when there’s plenty still to be done, but the simple fact is that, in five months, Steve Bruce has turned Latics round from what was looking more and more like a shambolic boys’ club into a professional outfit both on and off the pitch.
He’s succeeded, not only in the nigh on impossible task of keeping us in the division but in leaving us with a platform to build on next season. Plenty can happen to bugger that up before August, but, as things stand, you wouldn’t bet against him doing it.
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