Wigan, Bolton & Blackburn Labour Under Grey Lancastrian Skies
The absence of the top five or six clubs from much of the schedule for yesterday’s Premier League fixtures may have meant that the eyes of many may have drifted towards the bottom of the table instead. As has been the case for the previous couple of seasons, the bottom half of the Premier League table is starting to look rather congested, with just six points separating the team in tenth place in the table from the relegation places. With the half-way point in the season starting to come into view there is, therefore, all to play for, yet the bottom three places in the table are currently inhabited by three clubs of broadly similar proportions. Wigan Athletic, Blackburn Rovers and Bolton Wanderers are all Lancastrian clubs, living in the perpetually long shadow of their more glamorous rivals, but these three clubs have not reacted in the same way to their currently straitened circumstances.
Many of the headlines concerning the foot of the table have concerned the ongoing supporter protests at Blackburn Rovers against their manager, Steve Kean. Yesterday afternoon, Rovers up slipped again in the Premier League, when a late goal from Peter Odemwingie gave West Bromwich Albion a win at Ewood Park. Kean would have the air of being a dead man walking about him were it not for one highly significant matter: he seems to have the almost unconditional support of the Venkys group, which owns the club. It is hardly news that Kean is represented by Jerome Anderson, the agent that orchestrated the Venkys take-over the club and has continued to advise them ever since. It is, perhaps, this link that has informed how vociferous the protests against Kean have been over the last few months. It feels as if a fundamental bond of trust between the owners and the supporters of the club has been broken sometimes, with Kean stuck in the middle, with the single factor that is making these protests seem so permanent being that close relationship between the owners and the manager – after all, they gave him a pay rise three weeks ago.
This, perhaps, can be contrasted with the perception of manager Owen Coyle at Bolton Wanderers. Bolton have lost seven out of eight matches at The Reebok Stadium this season and defeat at Fulham yesterday left the club at the foot of the Premier League table, but Coyle has not come in for anything like the criticism that Kean has at Blackburn Rovers. This could be in part because he has not come in for the speculation in the press that Kean has, but there also seems to be a strong feeling amongst at least some of the Bolton support – although it is not, of course, universal – that Coyle is trying to do the right thing by the club. As we head towards Christmas, however, the pressure upon him is starting to rise. It has been more than a decade since Bolton Wanderers were last out of the Premier League, and the question of how the club’s finances might react to relegation may well be a valid one.
The club with the most to lose from relegation from the Premier League, however, would be Wigan Athletic. This is a club that has become more dependent than any other in the division upon the television money that pours through it from Sky Sports and ESPN. Yet Wigan are continuing to defy the odds, and yesterday they demonstrated a little of their gumption in grinding out a draw against Chelsea at The DW Stadium. Manager Roberto Martinez remains in his position and, although – just as at Bolton Wanderers – there is a little pressure starting to build upon him at the moment, the mood amongst the club’s support seems to be somewhere between a feeling of resignation that he is sufficiently popular with owner Dave Whelan not to be going anywhere unless he decides to, and a feeling that he is doing what he can with some of the most limited resources in the division.
None of this is to suggest, of course, that any the supporters of these three clubs are particularly happy at the moment, or either that any of them have a great deal to be optimistic about. The good news for them is that no-one has already fallen out of sight at the bottom of the Premier League table. With Christmas coming up, there are just six points between Aston Villa in tenth place in the table and Wigan Athletic in eighteenth place. In previous years, the old trope that the club that is bottom of the table at Christmas will be relegated might have been trotted out over the course of the next week or two, but it would appear to be too soon to condemn any club to a relegation place come the end of the season at this precise moment in time. There is still plenty of time for three of the clubs above them to all but fold in the Premier League. Nothing, at this point in the season, is decided yet.
It is not “ironic” that the three clubs that currently occupy the relegation positions in the Premier League are the junior partners of the Premier League’s Lancastrian division – it’s merely a coincidence. Blackburn Rovers supporters had been in a truce with the club, but this lasted only until Peter Odemwingie’s late goal on Saturday afternoon, whilst the pressure is starting to mount upon Owen Coyle and Roberto Martinez as well. Whether any or all of these clubs hold their nerve and decide to stick with their managers will be as much informed by the idea of who they may be able to bring in as replacements as anything else. For now, though, it seems likely that all three managers will stay in their positions until the new year, at which point the question of whether to stick or twist may, for the owners of these clubs, becomes one that can no longer be avoided.
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