For a town more accustomed to the wing exploits of Martin Offiah, Wigan’s been treated to some great football in the last few years. Since promotion to the top flight in 2005 Wigan Athletic have battled through tough matches, pie jokes and countless accusations of clogging to establish themselves as a Premier League club – albeit one with a habit of dipping more than a toe into the relegation zone.
Egyptian striker Amr Zaki has deservedly taken the plaudits so far this term, with Antonio Valencia and rejuvenated England star Emile Heskey in hot pursuit. Impressive performances have been plentiful, notably against Chelsea and Hull City, but no amount of attacking, attractive football can deflect from the central pillar of Wigan’s concerns: the Latics are in a relegation battle.
I don’t think Wigan will go down. In fact, come April, I believe they’ll be home and hosed, nestled comfortably in the warmth of mid-table. The equation is a simple one. Wigan Athletic have an excellent manager, a supportive chairman and some very, very good players.
Dave Whelan, Wigan’s retail mogul owner, is certainly a character. He’s one of those football folk loved by some and loathed by others, but he’s an imposing talisman for his football club, watching on with a smile as John Deehan and Paul Jewell – with a helping hand from a few others along the way – guided Wigan through the divisions into the Premier League. Whelan backs his club to the hilt, fighting its corner on issues like football policing and small Argentinian strikers. He’s no stranger to spending a few quid either.
Being outspoken brings with it plenty of critics, and Whelan has more than a few. But many’s the time he touches a nerve and casts football in an entirely deserved negative light. Sometimes you just have to respect him for it.
On the pitch, Wigan have some players of superb quality. Zaki’s loan move was a shrewd one (though a permanent signing would have escalated manager Steve Bruce to Blackadder-like levels of cunning), and Heskey is a fighter and exactly the kind of outlet a team needs when it’s under pressure. Further back, Valencia, Olivier Kapo and Wilson Palacios are just three very talented players in a squad which, on paper, should have more than enough to survive. Chris Kirkland is error-prone, but occasionally unbeatable.
But the biggest factor in Wigan’s favour is the ability and ever-increasing managerial maturity of Steve Bruce. After spells at Sheffield United and Huddersfield, the former Manchester United centre half developed a reputation as a journeyman manager by amassing just 26 games in charge of Wigan and Crystal Palace in 2001.
Then, for six years, Bruce sat in the dugout at Birmingham City. On reflection (I was no fan of his at the time) I think he’s never quite been recognised for a job well done. He turned City from a club languishing outside the top division into a regular, though not quite permanent, Premier League side. Turning Birmingham into a yo-yo club was hardly groundbreaking but it was a very respectable achievement. To do so against a backdrop of boardroom bickering and disillusionment, and a difficult, often small crowd, was even more impressive.
The fact that Alex McLeish, no mug himself, failed to save Blues from relegation last season suggests just how big a task any manager would have faced to avoid the drop. For my money, Bruce might just have achieved it. I have little doubt that McLeish will steer them back up.
Bruce’s qualities are there for all to see. Signing the best and most promising players from his former club – Kapo, Daniel de Ridder, Wilson Palacios – means that, with Heskey and Mario Melchiot already in situ, the gaffer knows his players well. Respect and loyalty go a long way in football – in the bottom half of the Premier League, at least.
His double courting of Palacios and the loan signing of Zaki also hint that Bruce also has an eye for a player. Once there, he knows how to motivate his charges. Wigan were superb against Chelsea this season, and his faux obsession with Aston Villa during his time at St Andrews helped his players understand what derby day meant. By and large, it worked. Moreover, he fiercely stands up for his team.
Throughout his career, Bruce has kicked every ball. But at Birmingham he matured into a very decent manager. It’s a shame for them that they couldn’t see that, and few could blame him for wanting to leave. I believe their loss will be Wigan’s gain, and Steve Bruce will keep the Latics up this term. They’ve been playing well and sooner or later the results will be there to match.