"Season 2006/07 was Wigan’s tricky second album after the multi-platinum success of their first a year earlier."
The heights of a top-ten Premiership finish and a Carling Cup final appearance must seem like an awful long time ago to fans of Wigan Athletic.
Tell any Latics fan before the start of the recently ended campaign that they would be starting the 2007/08 journey without Paul Jewell at the managerial reins and you would have received snorts of derision or looks of bewilderment. Yet that is exactly what awaits after the former Sheffield Wednesday and Bradford City boss resigned his post just 24 hours after helping the club survive on the last day of the season.
A hair-raising, nail-biting, nerve-shredding 2-1 win at Sheffield United on the last day was good enough to seal the fate of the South Yorkshire outfit, and to preserve Wigan’s top-flight status at the end of a particularly rocky road. Season 2006/07 was Wigan’s tricky second album after the multi-platinum success of their first a year earlier, and they were lucky to avoid falling off the chart altogether.
Alarm bells should probably have been ringing for Wigan fans when many of the men who made 2005/06 such a great season leave for pastures new. Midfield dynamo left for Fulham where an early-season knee injury put paid to the rest of his campaign, while Pascal Chimbonda got the move to Tottenham Hotspur that he went to such lengths to secure. Jason Roberts was allowed to join Blackburn Rovers, while Graham Kavanagh became part of Roy Keane’s promotion-winning Sunderland side also.
The replacements never really cut the yellow stuff. Emile Heskey toiled bravely as he is wont to do, but his return of just eight league goals offers an insight into the limitations that have plagued his career. Denny Landzaat’s wonder goal at Arsenal was an obvious highlight of his first year in Wigan, Jewell seemed to struggle to make up his mind about whether to trust Ecuadorian midfield man Antonio Valencia. Kevin Kilbane was signed from Everton to add a bit of experience at a crucial time, but if anything his presence in a struggling team only exacerbates his inability to provide a creative spark.
Relegation was avoided by goal difference only, and that by just the one goal from the unfortunate Blades. No Premiership side conceded more goals at home in the league than Wigan (30), while they conceded almost as many on their travels. Only Fulham and Charlton Athletic managed to concede more league goals overall this term. It’s an equally sorry tale at the other end, where only the relegated trio of Charlton, Watford and Sheffield United aswell as the impotent Manchester City were less prolific.
A repeat of last year’s Carling Cup heroics was off the agenda by mid-September after a 2-0 defeat at Crewe Alexandra of League One. Fortunes hardly improved in the FA Cup, where Jewell’s men crashed out at the initial hurdle that is the third round stage following a 2-1 defeat at Portsmouth.
All of which added to the pressure which eventually forced Jewell to quit his post. That he has been replaced by long-time assistant Chris Hutchings is slightly perplexing, given that the same arrangements were made upon Jewell’s exit from Bradford City and with disastrous results. Those willing to give Hutchings another chance to prove his worth will be ducking behind the sofa at news that Hutchings recruited Newcastle Nightmare Titus Bramble almost immediately, along with another former Toon under-achiever Antione Sibierski.
Passing those two on the way out of the JJB Stadium are defender Matt Jackson who has joined Watford on a free transfer, and the released and currently clubless pair of Arjan De Zeeuw and David Unsworth. It was Unsworth’s penalty against his old club at Bramall Lane which eventually saved Wigan from the drop, proving that sentiment holds little sway in the modern, cut-throat Premiership arena.
De Zeeuw’s loss will be keenly felt as he was one of the rocks on which the 2005/06 was built. Though fading as his years advance, his experience may have been preferable to that of Bramble, for whom standing up straight can often be a challenge. Hutchings’s second crack at management is going to be an interesting affair, and he will need all of chairman Dave Whelan’s financial backing if he is to secure a third successive season in the big league for Latics.
By Stephen Orford
12 June 2007