The final task for our ‘expert panel’ this season was to pick out the three biggest bad guys of the season. After a season of turmoil you’d think there’d be plenty to choose from, but when it comes down to it, incompetence just isn’t the same as crimes against the club. It may be tempting to point fingers at the likes of Hall and Kilbane, but their only crime was being picked, and that was hardly their fault was it?
In selecting the recipients for this award, it’s easy to slip into conspiracy theory mode. Of course they’re all against us, but it’s nothing personal, the Premier League was set up by the big clubs, for the big clubs and, rightly or wrongly, teams like Latics are expected to see membership as a privilege.
Where referees are concerned, that means that decisions against the big teams come under more scrutiny, it’s harder to shake off the attentions of a Ferguson or Mourinho than it is a Boothroyd or Warnock.
So when it comes to that big decision, it’s always easier not to make one, to wave play on and ride the storm that will only last for the morning after. With that in mind, enter stage left Mr Phillip Dowd of Staffordshire, a man who has done much to keep Paul Jewell’s alone pressure high over the last few years.
On the face of it, his (and his assistant’s) view on the Heskey/Flamini clash at Arsenal was little more than him giving the big club the benefit of the doubt. But you can take anything too far and he was quite clearly wrong. A couple more bad decisions later and Flamini’s involvement in the equaliser made it even more so.
In the normal run of things, we could pass this off as the type of incident that never goes the way of the little man, but Dowd has previous, the Blackburn game last season being just one example, what makes it even worse is that this game and that moment became the turning point of Latics’ year.
If Dowd had done the right thing and awarded the penalty, even if he hadn’t sent the defender off, Latics would have surely won that game (they deserved to). If they had won that game then the back end of the season would have been a happier place. As it was, Latics left Ashburton Grove with a look of beaten men and the defeat was something they never recovered from.
If things have been fairly dire on the pitch, then they’ve been a farce off it. Last season’s crowds were a by-product of on-field success but were helped a great deal by the club keeping the prices low. Similarly the shirt sold out because of promotion, but also because it represented a return to something the fans associated with. So, faced with the challenge of maintaining those successes, what do you do?
Whoever it was who thought that Wiganners would stand a 40% increase in matchday ticket prices and would buy another full priced shirt is obviously short of a screw or two. Either that or they saw a quick buck and decided to sod everything else. As it was, the fans decided to bite back.
For the first time in over ten years Latics’ fanbase didn’t grow this year, reduced season ticket sales and some ridiculously low attendances saw journalists rubbing their hands and dusting off the old “rugby town”, “doesn’t deserve top flight football” cliché’s, even our own chairman and manager saw fit to join in the fan bashing. In one fell swoop all the good work that had been done over the previous 12 months had been wiped out.
Things were no different in the shops. The initial reaction to the shirt was it looked cheap and didn’t compare to the stripes of the season before. The reluctance on that count may only have been short lived, but you can never underestimate the prudence of the northwestern man and sales never really picked up.
The reaction? Well there was little the club could do other than follow the lead of the chairman’s stores, i.e. cheap crap at low prices. “The Magnificent Seven” may have been sold as a lovely piece of marketing, but it was the only reaction that would have gone any way to getting people through the door. Even then it’s debateable how well it worked.
The shirts? Well they started off as a “get them for half price” Christmas special and quickly turned into a 70% off January sale. BY the time we finally get to see next year’s effort, they’ll be paying us to clear the JJB superstore rails.
Finally, it would be remiss of me to leave without mentioning the Tevez affair. There are a few bad guys involved in this one but, at the end of the day, shady agents and dodgy chairmen are things we have got used to and the real ire on this occasion is saved for the Premier League.
We shouldn’t forget that this is a body that was set up to represent the best interests of all its members. So when a panel set up to examine transfer irregularities comes up with a judgement that basically says ‘we should have deducted points but didn’t want to upset the chirpy cockneys, gawd love em’ it is wrong of them to stand by and accept a punishment based on it.
That the judgement didn’t take into account it’s own, and the indiscretion’s effect on other members of the league was wrong. That it took so long to get to that stage was even more so.
From the moment the signings were announced, it was obvious to the watching world that something was wrong. This was further highlighted in January when Mascherano signed for Liverpool. Yet it still took until April for a judgement to be made. A delay that was given more significance when timing was quoted as a major factor in the panel’s decision.
With his heart before mind approach to public announcements, the Chairman doesn’t call many of these things right, but this time he is spot on. The judgement wouldn’t have been the same if Latics or Sheffield United were involved and the Premier League have failed in what surely must be their first duty.
In the end the decision may not have affected our survival, but the affect it had on all the relegation threatened clubs in those closing weeks cannot be under estimated. For that season, the winner of the “Not a patch on” Lee van Cleef Black Stetson for 2007 is the FA Premier League.