The concept of being mathematically relegated means that they’re not quite down yet, of course, but last night at The New Den Wigan Athletic took their biggest step yet towards the precipice. A two goal defeat against the similarly embattled Millwall yesterday evening means that the bell is tolling for the Latics’ time in the Football League Championship after just two seasons. With three matches left to play of the season, survival would require an unlikely sequence of events involving a team that has been misfiring all season winning all of their last three matches of the season and also depending on the teams just above them losing all of theirs. Whilst escaping relegation still remains, by the thinnest of margins, a possibility, out there in the real world the understanding that Wigan Athletic will be playing League One football next season is now reasonably common currency which would be confirmed by a failure to beat Brighton & Hove Albion in their next match this weekend.
It should go without saying, of course, that this is all a very long way away from where the club was this time two years ago. Beating Manchester City in the FA Cup final will probably now come to be remembered as the crescendo-like finale to a period in the history of this club that is surely almost certain to never be repeated. Whether bankrolled or not, the extent to which keeping Wigan Athletic in the Premier League for eight consecutive seasons is now all too apparent when seen in the perspective offered by the last two seasons. Relegation from the top flight followed shortly after that grand day out at Wembley, and since then the club has lurched from crisis to crisis both on and off the pitch. Last season was one of stagnation for the club. The days of expecting clubs recently relegated teams from the Premier League to bounce back into the top flight at a canter have long gone, but the club gave a decent account of itself in first season back in the Championship, finishing in fifth place in the table before losing over two legs in the semi-finals of the play-offs against Queens Park Rangers.
That was then, though, and this is now. Manager Uwe Rosler, who seemed to have stabilised the club following its relegation from the Premier League, became a victim of the current skittish vogue for clubs to replace managers at the drop of a hat when more than a handful of results fail to go their way when he lost his job in November, and it was at this point that the wheels really fell of the club’s wagon. His replacement, Malky Mackay, may well have managed modest achievement in his previous position at Cardiff City, but the cloud under which he left that club was a dark one, with Mackay still being under investigation over a series of racist, homophobic and sexist comments made during his time at Cardiff that led to his departure from that club. Football clubs can be sensitive souls, and the importance of appointing the right manager at the right time cannot be overstated. This particular manager, however, came with all manner of unpleasant baggage, and even if we set aside for a moment – which we definitely shouldn’t – the moral aspect of appointing anybody who has been involved in the sort of behaviour that Mackay is widely believed to have been engaging in, parachuting somebody with this sort of baggage into a club that quite clearly needed a unifying figure at a delicate time felt like a miscalculation from the outset.
In terms of public relations, however, even the appointment of Malky Mackay would soon come to feel like calm before an extremely severe storm. Owner Dave Whelan has long been an individual of the “say what I like and like what I bloody well say” variety, but the racist and anti-Semitic comments that he made to a journalist were clearly beyond the pale, and subsequent attempts on his part to exonerate himself using something along the lines of the “I’m not a a racist but…” defence only seemed to entrench this particular fossil even further into the silt. Whelan’s ill-advised comments landed the club a £50,000 fine, but arguably more importantly it also earned Whelan himself a six week ban from all football activity in January, when a last throw of the dice for the club was available in the form of the transfer window.
What might have happened had Whelan been permitted to be involved in the club’s affairs in January is a question that may well come to haunt the club’s supporters for many years to come, but it’s a question without a definitive answer. What we do know for certain, however, is that without him there the club lost thirteen players, including such outposts of creativity as Callum McManaman, Adam Forshaw and Shaun Maloney and, whilst plenty of replacements were drafted in by Mackay, we might suppose that whilst the January transfer window was at the very least a missed opportunity for the club to rebuild one last time, this extrapolation might even be pushed one step further in suggesting that this month was actually damaging to the team and its chances of maintaining its place in the Championship.
Both Whelan and Mackay have gone now, of course. Whelan finally fell on his sword at the start of March and was replaced by his twenty-three year old grandson David Sharpe, who had been appointed as a director of the club at the end of last year and is now its chairman. Sharpe’s first really significant decision as club chairman was to offload Mackay, who departed the club in the middle of last week to be replaced – in the short-term at least – by Gary Caldwell, who is now in charge of the club until the end of the season. We can only speculate over whether this was a calculated decision with life in League One next season in mind or whether this was a panicked last gamble, but making such a decision at this late stage of the season was always unlikely to have much of an appreciable effect on the team’s fortunes. Matches against two other clubs who have been struggling for the majority of this season, Fulham and Millwall, might even have given supporters a the faintest glimmer of hope that somehow survival could be achieved, but a single, solitary point from these two games have more or less guaranteed that, just two years after winning the FA Cup at Wembley, Wigan Athletic will be losing their exemption from that particular competition until January for next season, at least.
Perhaps this is as bad as things will get for Wigan Athletic. After all, the club still has one Premier League parachute payment to play and, whilst that sort of money has been proved to not necessarily make the difference between success or otherwise in the Championship, this sort of money should be able to ensure a degree of stability at a lower level, and supporters of the club might well take some solace from fact that the likes of Wolverhampton Wanderers, Norwich City and Southampton have all slipped into League One in recent years and been able to claw their way back to the Championship and further, and with three matches of the season left to play their hope isn’t quite extinguished yet. And in the event of an improbable survival not being forthcoming this season, perhaps a fresh start is what this club needs after a disastrous 2014/15 season.
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