Will Wigan finally eat the ‘pie’?

Posted on August 13, 2011

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When Wigan got promoted to the Premier League in the 2005/06 season, their first ever Premiership game was against the defending Champions – Chelsea. In the lead-up to the season opener, Wigan’s chairman Dave Whelan quipped that he would welcome Roman Abramovich to the JJB and offer him pies. Widely tipped for eating the relegation pie, Wigan went on to confound everyone and finish a highly creditable 10th. The following season saw their form yo-yo to such an extent that it required ex-Blades defender, David Unsworth, to smack in the extra time of first half to send his old club down. Wigan manager Paul Jewell quit immediately after securing Premier League status, claiming he has achieved all he can with Wigan.

It led to the comical reign of Chris Hutchings, that lasted a full 12 games before former manager Steve Bruce was brought in to restore stability. Bruce indeed delivered stability and Wigan finished 14th. Four very important transfer dealings happened that season which has had a massive telling on the club’s books. A previously unknown Wilson Palacios was signed for £1 m and Antonio Valencia who had been on loan from Valencia signed on a permanent deal. Palacios would fetch £12 m a year later and Valencia would fetch £16 m when they signed for Tottenham and Manchester United respectively. But the same season saw Jason Koumas and Marlon King signed for a combined £10.5 m and needless to say these two bits of transfers absolutely tanked. King bounced around on loan deals with Hull and Middlesborough before getting his contract torn due to him getting convicted on charges of sexual assault.

King played a grand total of 15 games and scored just one goal for Wigan. That’s some way to spend £5 m, especially for a club like Wigan who are not one of the financial powerhouses of the league. More on that later. Koumas, who was signed for £5.3 m couldn’t find himself on the starting team of both Bruce and Roberto Martinez and has been released on a free at the end of last season. In his four years at Wigan he played only 54 games for them, scoring 2 goals. The next season saw a further upturn in their form as the Latics finished 11th and by now had established themselves as a fixture in the Premier League. But then Steve Bruce defected to Sunderland after deciding Wigan was not the club that would match his ambitions. Bruce’s performance with Wigan was a success rate of 33.4%, slightly better than that of Paul Jewell’s.

In came old favorite Roberto Martinez, who had impressed everyone with his performance with Swansea. Martinez has been incharge of the Latics for the pastt two seasons and its safe to say that the performances of 2005/6 and in the Steve Bruce era seem a distant memory. The Latics have been embroiled in the relegation battle since Bruce departed, but have somehow managed to survive. But I believe the Latics board will take this any given day. Premier League survival is of tantamount importance to them. This becomes evident when we take a look at the financials.

As of the 2009/10 season, Wigan’s major source of income has been the Television rights at a humongous 86.3% and the figure only increased to 87.7% this past season. Now for a club, whose lion’s share of revenue is through the TV deal and position in the Premier League relegation is just unthinkable. Wigan’s matchday receipts are not on par with clubs of similar stature and size. From the day they achieved promotion to the Premier League, their average attendance has been around 18758 which is just 75% of the overall seating capacity of the DW stadium. Compare this to Bolton who have managed to get an average of 80% of the slightly larger Reebok Stadium’s capacity – translating to about 2000 more fans every matchday. Wigan town’s population is around 81,000 as per the 2001 census and this does throw in some very interesting statistics.

– The town of Wigan being small to accommodate a Football and a Ruby team. A survey found many supporters of the Wigan Warriors Rugby team did not actually support the local football team. This might be due to the fact that the Wigan Athletic team came into existence in the football league only in 1977 and the people of Wigan had other teams of their choice to support like the two Manchester clubs, the two Liverpudlian clubs, Bolton and Blackburn all located nearby.

– Though Wigan offers one of the cheapest tickets around, they still haven’t been able to attract attendances. In fact, their second ever home fixture in the top flight held at the then JJB stadium saw a drop of almost 6300 – a startling 25%.

This has made the dependence on cash flow attained by remaining in the Premier League the most important agenda for Wigan. Further cash has been generated through player sales. Wigan have made their most through their outstanding scouting network. Players like the aforementioned Valencia and Palacios have been master strokes in transfers. While the club has been selling, they have been buying intelligently as well. Wigan now have few very exciting players in their ranks, who will get in the radars of the bigger clubs. Players like James McCarthy – who surprised many by actually signing for Wigan, when he was interesting several other bigger clubs and Victor Moses would be definitely be watched and assessed by scouts.

But this season has been different to others in terms of the lack of transfer activity. The Latics have signed Omanian goal keeper Ali al habsi on a permanent deal after he impressed enough last season to displace Chris Kirkland as the No 1 and young winger Nouha Dicko on a free. On the other hand, Charles N’Zogbia has recently left for Aston Villa and unless a replacement is signed, it will be a major blow to the team. It seemed like Wigan were chasing young Irish winger James McLean but he has instead become Steve Bruce’s 10th signing at Sunderland. Going through the Wigan squad gives one the feel that they are a striker and a creative midfielder short. Maybe the Jameses – McArthur and McCarthy might step up this season and put themselves firmly in the shop window. But the lack of a good frontman will put undue pressure on Hugo Rodallega to score the goals that would keep the Latics in the Premiership. Record signing Mauro Boselli has been packed off on loan to Extudiantes and the other striking options in the club are the quite unproven Franco DiSanto and the youngsters Callum McManaman and Connor Sammon.

Dave Whelan might have brought Wigan up from obscurity and has been investing consistently to keep them in the Premier League but the gentleman is 74 now and has been looking to sell the club for the past couple of years atleast. Whether Wigan Athletic would be a viable or even interest a buyer remains to be seen. If Whelan decides to scale down his investments in terms of  transfer funds, it will be terribly impossible for them to survive and they will fall a victim of the vicious cycle which they have already entered into. If the pre-season lack of transfer activity is any indicator, then the residency of Wigan in the Premier League will be under serious threat.

Dave Whelan might have offered pies to Abramovich, but he has to see to that his beloved team doesn’t finally eat the humble pie of relegation.

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Posted in: EPL