Greetings from down under! No, not that down under – the league below! Like our convict forefathers, the often persecuted Wigan Athletic have eventually been ejected from the land of milk and honey and told to start a new life elsewhere in a different world. And you know what? So far, so good.
Some of the 2,500 strong away support at Barnsley started up a mischievous chant of “Are you watching Martinez?” late in the game on Saturday. A bit harsh maybe as his legacy lives on in the form of a forthcoming Europa League campaign, that magic piece of silver collected in May and yes – a campaign in the Championship by proxy of relegation. It could be that the latter has been the greatest gift of all though.
For so long, we’d been living in fear and struggling through the grind of the 40 point scramble. Overachieve and our best players get picked off, underachieve and they leave anyway half the time. The transformation over the summer has been phenomenal and although he wasn’t everyone’s first choice as manager, full credit must go to Owen Coyle for taking on the job which Roberto Martinez didn’t fancy.
With the best will in the world – and I speak as a fan of Martinez – I could not have seen him injecting such a necessary burst of motivation as Coyle has done. Not only that, the new man has adopted the kid in the sweet shop approach to transfer deals and acting swiftly to plug the gap of players deserting following relegation from the Premier League.
The team has much more of a home grown feel about it now and maybe that is just what is needed to succeed in the second tier. I’ll stop short of wittering on about British Bulldog spirit before strains of Land of Hope and Glory start playing in the background but maybe the Latin influence did just go a little bit too far for a small club in a Northern pit town. The surreal thing is that now we’re in the Championship we seem to be signing players that we’ve actually heard of whilst a quick scan of the gossip columns reveals a never ending stream of foreign talent arriving at our Premier League counterparts.
We needed to draw a line under the last season, the last manager, the last team. We face a different set of circumstances now, we are now a bigger fish in a smaller pond again, albeit it by virtue of parachute payments rather than average attendances and it’s undoubtedly a better place to be after the tedium of the last few years playing in a league which ourselves and 80% of the other teams can never win. Win percentages, goals per game conceded, home wins – all abysmal in the Premier League can be cast aside. The Championship will not be a walk in the park, as many teams have found out to their cost but at least it’s a level-ish competitive playing field.
I will readily admit that when it came down to a two man shoot out between Coyle and McLaren, it was the wally with the brolly I sided with in my folly. Why on earth didn’t he just put a cap on that night I’ll never know? That aside, a decent track record at Boro and at FC Twente, known for youth development, just the man to develop the long-term plans of Martinez. But so the story goes that Coyle did his homework on the club, laid out his plans and showed that infamous yappy puppy dog enthusiasm and charmed old man Whelan into developing the courtship. For 12 months at least.
We now appear to have three categories of fans (Well we only have three fans #allaboardthebanterbus)
1. There are those who hated Martinez and now hate Coyle for very different reasons (turgid passing game/sloppy defence v ex-Bolton verbal diarrhoea smarmy get)
2. There are those who hated Martinez and seem to immediately love everything that Coyle has done and cannot move on; the continual Martinez slagging off in the process is like a broken record Brucie: “Ooh he’s so much better than the last one”
3. And finally there are those who are happy to get behind any manager be it Coyle or Martinez whilst acknowledging their flaws and the constraints they are working under and understanding that they both have a different job to do and a different way to go about it
In terms of Martinez, I tend to like the adage that when our time is up, we remember the successes not the failures and we will cherish the FA Cup win and Big Four slayings long after his detractors have finished moaning about win percentages, goals per game conceded and how we should have finished at least 14th with this squad.
It seems with hindsight that even relegation has done us a favour although Martinez has blotted his copy book by walking out along with half his squad. But to be fair the likes of Alcaraz, Figueroa & Di Santo just like Diame and Rodallega before them were probably always likely to walk, keen to earn an easy extra £20k a week elsewhere. We will watch with interest as he takes on the difficult task of keeping Everton punching above their weight in the top six. But he’s gone now and we can all embrace the beautiful future of Wigan Athletic under Owen Coyle.
Casting aside my anti-Bolton blinkers, I can unreservedly say that everything Coyle has done and said so far has been spot on. He has gone out and signed players at speed but seemingly the right players as well, most of whom who have had extensive Premier League experience let alone at Championship level.
The attraction of Europa League football has been cited as a pull for many incoming players but could also be a bit of a millstone around our neck in our bid to get back up at the first attempt. With a guaranteed six games though, every player will get that taste along with the fans and I don’t think there’ll be too many tears if we put up a strong performance and bow out gracefully before the New Year to concentrate on the league.
And as for the league - although a sending off for Barnsley on Saturday may have skewed the scoreline slightly, the early signs are very, very promising. It won’t be easy and I look around in particular at the two other teams who have come down and the ones who just missed out last time and I can see they also possess much of the quality we have but Coyle is an exemplary motivator and appears to have forged a brilliant team spirit already in a newly formed squad. He also appears to have maintained Martinez’s much lauded playing style with a few tweaks to make us a bit more direct at both ends: I think we scored more tap-ins on Saturday than we did all last season!
I’m not so naive to suggest that every single member of that squad will still be here when the window shuts and there could be anything up to four of our prized assets on their way, no names but their surnames all begin with M. Yet there already seems to be a belief and unity that this is a team that can bounce back at the first attempt.
The time is now however, we will never have such an opportunity with our stock still high and funds to bolster the squad after many big earners jumped off the books in May. Fears about Whelan pulling up the drawbridge seem to be unfounded, although we are a Championship club now and I wouldn’t expect any £15m bids to be turned down. We do, however, have the right to ask for a premium. Too many new age Premier League fans seem to think that “because it’s Wigan” we should let our players go cheap for some reason. Sorry but you want to buy, we don’t want to sell, that is the market. There will be a nervous few weeks ahead though regardless.
So with one game down the mood is remarkably positive. I like Barnsley, it’s very much the Yorkshire equivalent of Wigan, as a town let alone anything else. I expect that both set of fans will hope that Saturday’s powerful 4-0 result was a consequence of an exceptional Wigan team rather than a weak Barnsley performance. It certainly looked that way. New recruits slotting in seamlessly and the nucleus of last season’s Premier League midfield simply too hot to handle for the Tykes in front of an boisterous away support finally free from the shackles of top flight tedium.
The sterner tests are to come though, most definitely in the league but also in the many cup competitions we face. I’ve already done the maths: if all goes to plan we’ll be in five finals and play a total of 82 games this season. Something’s going to have to be thrown at that rate surely? It doesn’t seem to be in Owen Coyle’s nature though, his cup record has always been strong, until that day Stoke tonked Bolton 5-0 in the FA Cup semi final at Wembley. Oh how we laughed!
It seems Coyle’s Bolton tenure never really recovered from that result but the jovial Jock (yes I call him nice things now) has had eight months sat at home to ponder and learn and will undoubtedly come into this job older, wiser and with new ideas. I hate the word “Project” but that is what it is with Wigan now, we’re at a crossroads: still higher than our natural level in the Championship but yet still in possession of the resources to get back up into the Greed League and bag ourselves another whack of the now extortionate TV money.
The trophy trail starts with the Community Shield on Sunday and a third trip to Wembley of the year doesn’t appear to have caught the imagination of our fans much. We’re hardly flush around here and many of my mates are saving for those once in a lifetime European aways. I fully expect the banter boys to be out in force ridiculing our meagre following but on the pitch we might just have a chance given the transitional status of United right now.
And if we do get tonked then at least it might keep the vultures away from our squad. Another day like that one in May and we may end up cutting our own throat in front of a watching nation.
A long, diverse but ultimately exciting season awaits. Who’d have thought that so soon after the despair of relegation? So if you are “watching Martinez” - in between beating Juventus and losing to Real Madrid hmm – then you’ll be pleased to know we’re doing fine.