On my travels this season I’ve seen Wigan Athletic on quite a few occasions, all of them away from the DW Stadium, due to my southern based geography.
Their new campaign began with a new manager (Gary Caldwell) and new Chairman (David Sharpe), the youngest management pairing in any professional league throughout Europe, and neither had any experience in the roles they were about to undertake when accepting their challenges.
The Latics having had eight eventful years in the Premier League, supplemented by winning the FA Cup in 2013, could the new partnership revive the fans expectations?
On a late sunny afternoon in August, along with 250+ travelling fans, I saw them play Gillingham away in their fourth League One game of the season. The omens and subsequent display weren’t good.
The pre-match warm up looked half hearted, one player in particular (who has subsequently become a regular bench warmer) gave the impression that he was still on holiday.
Loan players from Premier League clubs were still not buying in to the pressing style required by Caldwell. Wonderful passing, thoughtful shape, nice on the eye, no penetration, much confusion, no points, Gillingham 2-0 winners…lots of alarm bells, much to ponder, on and off the field.
The passing game of ex-manager Roberto Martinez was still in the DNA of the coaching staff and it wasn’t working.
It was a mixed bag throughout those autumn months; during a seven game spell they conjured up five draws. The new revolution wasstill work in progress.
Fringe players were “given a chance” in both FA Cup and League Cup competitions. Disjointed, lacklustre displays resulted in Wigan being dumped out of both competitions with a matter of weeks.
Neither players or supporters were happy, not surprising as two seasons of relegation plays heavy on the psyche of a club in transition.
Caldwell was constantly demanding the need for improvement and consistency and by late November early December they had climbed to the heady heights of fifth in League one.
The weather was mild, results were harsh. Two home defeats against Burton and Blackpool had fans writing to Santa for a change in performances and points tally.
At best it was likely to become a season where the goal where those dreaded playoffs. My November visit to Southend’s Roots Hall saw a very poor 0-0, confirmation this was still a team with more enthusiasm than guile.
Little did anyone know the home defeat to Blackpool would become the start of a winning run, which at the time of writing has resulted in a stretch of 19 games unbeaten.
Maybe Santa was listening as Will Grigg found an extra yard of pace. Yanic Wildschut stopped running into defensive cul-de-sacs, and he also began scoring and became an attacker who could defend.
The squad was freshen up with the signing of a much needed holding midfield player Sam Morsy from Chesterfield. Ryan Colclough, a wide right player who could score, assist and track back for 90 minutes was brought in from Crewe Alexander.
Finally, Conor McAleny, a talented fringe player from Everton’s ranks, was signed on loan to test if he could fulfill his undoubted potential.
The Latics became a team not for the faint hearted. They could come back from a two goal deficit and win, Gillingham (h) 3-2, and also lose a three goal lead, Sheffield United (h) 3-3. But they had become a team, a squad, a unit.
Finally all the managerial rhetoric and training ground graft was working, really working. Strength in unity becoming a whispered summary of this squad and supporters beginning to believe the Caldwell puzzle was coming together, fast.
Wigan away games tickets became hot property. Their full allocation was snapped up by the travelling masses, now averaging 1200 plus.
Away to Walsall, a wonder goal from McAleny and last minute winner from Wildschut took them into second place. “And now you’re going to believe us, the boys are going up” sang the Latics supporters.
On Good Friday, Wigan demolished Swindon Town 4-1. A combination of relentless pressure, pressing, energy and passing accuracy resulted in one of the most complete performance likely to be witnessed in any league this season.
The midfield trio of David Perkins, Max Power and Morsy came up with two of the four goals along with instigating over 250 passes between them. Confidence and thoughts of promotion turned sky high.
The first Saturday in April, over 1500 Wigan fans converge into The Pro-Vision North Stand at Shrewsbury Town.
A defensive error put the Shrew’s 1-0 up, which lasted less than five minutes until a devastating long range strike by McAleny had order restored.
The remainder of the game was one way traffic and the full time scoreline was 4-1 to Wigan. Titles chasers Burton and Walsall couldn’t find a win between them, and Wigan went top of the league.
The Easter daffodils are blooming, and so it seems are the Latics.“You laughed at us when we down” sang those Wigan supporters “Who the f*ck is laughing now?”
Not many League One supporters, I would guess.
So Wigan have six games remaining, one of them away to longtime leaders Burton Albion. Can they continue their long unbeaten run? Will nerves and expectations of promotion become too heavy a burden for a squad reliant on youth?
If they clinch promotion Caldwell will need to shuffle his squad; a lack of pace across the back line is a concern.
The talent he has in midfield can cope with Championship football, and maybe a couple of the players wouldn’t look out of place in a Premier League team.
Up front they could do with someone who can bag 20+ Championship goals, but finding that player is a task in itself.
For now though, Wigan supporters have six more games remaining. Some hoping, but most are believing, that they will soon be singing “We are the Champions”.