This time two years ago, and again one year ago for that matter, Wigan Athletic found thmselves in the midst of a titanic relegation battle. Two years ago, a 1-0 victory on the final day at Stoke City ensured survival in to a 7th season in the Premier League. As a show of gratitude for the Latics faithful’s support during that run-in, Roberto Martinez met with half-a dozen of the fans for a couple of candid hours of questions and answers. I was one of those lucky few fans present and here is my account of the extremely entertaining proceedings which I stumbled across today. Let’s hope that in four weeks’ time we are sitting down again with Roberto for a similar chat, with the added bonus of the FA Cup casting a lustrous shadow across the meeting table:
Monday, 23rd May, 2011
The latest in a series of meetings between the Club and the fan community took place at the DW Stadium on Tuesday when a very relaxed Roberto Martinez and chief executive Jonathan Jackson met with representatives of the various fan forums and the Supporter’s Club.
Roberto was in understandably buoyant mood following Sunday’s successful fight against relegation claiming that he never doubted that the team would gain the six points that they needed over the last two “cup finals” of the season to survive. The relentlessly positive persona we are used to seeing in all Roberto’s media dealings was much in evidence on Tuesday as he gushed about the team spirit and camaraderie among his players and the vociferous support from the terraces that he firmly believes was ultimately responsible for the successful end to the season. If this positive outlook is merely an act for the benefit of the media or, in today’s case, a rag-bag collection of assorted Wigan Athletic supporters, then Colin Firth needs to be shifting over quite sharpish.
The season just gone…?
First up was a review of the season that just ended so quietly with the small matter of those two cup finals. Roberto is particularly happy that neutrals are increasingly talking about Wigan in terms of the football we play rather than the lack of people sat in the stands. On the playing front, the squad has improved its ability to think its way through a game, performances over the last third of the season have been more consistent and as a result we have been a much more competitive team. The spirit, togetherness and character of the squad have improved dramatically, not something that those of us who cannot hang around training grounds all day long would necessarily be able to appreciate.
On an individual basis, Ben Watson is a player for whom Roberto sees big things next season, Antolin Alcaraz is, in his opinion, the best value for money overseas signing of the season whilst Charlie has developed as a player and taken on additional responsibility throughout the season, with his goals and general performances clearly being a major contributing factor to our Premier League survival.
Roberto is proud of the progress that has been made on the training ground this season. He finds it amusing that people want him to have a Plan B, being of the belief that only having two plans is extremely limiting. With the attacking flair he has at his disposal, and the ability of those players to be flexible in a match situation, he reckons he has closer to twenty-three plans, not two!
Away from the glare of the first eleven, the gaffer was very positive (wow, who’d have thought?) about the reserve and youth setups, or Development Squad, as he prefers to call them. We sold Jon Routledge, the first Wigan player to be sold to a professional club without ever appearing for the first team and currently, up to six professional clubs are sniffing around our youngsters, which is testament to the hard work and dedication of Graham Barrow and Dennis Lawrence, amongst others.
With the kit from the Stoke match still lying damply in the tumble dryer, Roberto, Jonathan and the Chairman have already begun to sift through a list of potential targets for next season. Signing Ali Al Habsi is a priority, though Roberto concedes that we may have developed him sufficiently in his short time here to have dramatically inflated his asking price. I thought this sounded suspiciously like a touch of conceit at first, but I looked up from my notes to see that his tongue was planted firmly in his cheek; Peter Perfect was back in the room.
Roberto will again look to capitalise on, and be as successful in, the loan market for next season as he was this, but thinks that Tom Cleverley has developed to such an extent that he will be a part of Manchester United’s plans for next season and therefore unavailable to us. He believes that Callum McManaman is now ready for regular first team football and, in answer to the inevitable question about Charlie’s future, answered honestly that he didn’t know where that lay right now.
However, if Charles or anyone else leaves, it will only be for the right price and in the very best interests of Wigan Athletic. We expect to see Mauro Boselli back from his Genoa break and he and the club will sit down and jointly decide what is best for our Argentinian hit-man. Finally, he confirmed that we do not have to sell any of our players. And Jonathan Jackson agreed. I know this, because I saw him nodding. I would have taken a picture of this as proof, but it is very difficult to capture on celluloid someone nodding in a still photograph. You will have to take my word for it.
Asked about his ambitions and the oft-quoted five-year plan, Roberto declared himself satisfied with where we are as a club and, if anything, we are a little ahead of schedule. He was pleased to see us being competitive over the final third of the season and his target for next season is a top ten finish. There is no pressure to actually achieve that, but he sees it as the next logical milestone in the development of the club. Roberto likes to take one step at a time and as long as he keeps setting such reasonable targets and achieving them year on year, we should all have reason to be thankful.
Where are yer, where are yer…?
It would not have been a Wigan Athletic debate without some wailing and gnashing of teeth about crowds and empty seats. Perhaps surprisingly, neither Roberto nor Jonathan seems unduly worried about the situation. Jonathan would love to see every seat occupied, of course, but accepts that winning the hearts and minds of the Wigan public is a long-term project. For Roberto’s part, he too accepted that players like to play in front of big crowds but would rather have a smaller, more vocal crowd than a larger, apathetic one. That said, Roberto commented that if the people who came to the West Ham game don’t come back after witnessing that spectacle, then the chances are that you will never get them coming on a regular basis.
In terms of away support, Roberto related how the players had been thrilled with the quality and passion of the away support at both Blackpool and Stoke and suggested that this contributed in no small part to the success on the pitch in both those games. He hopes that in future we can replicate that support at places like the Emirates, Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford, as one of our next objectives has to be to break the hoodoo of never winning at those grounds. We accepted his point, and both he and Jonathan accepted our point that the high cost of ticketing, readily available TV and internet coverage and the relatively disappointing past performances at these places were major factors why people don’t always travel in huge numbers to them. Roberto had the last word, insisting that every game is an opportunity for us to witness history and we should make every effort to help make it happen. Well, that’s me sold. Just the wife to convince now.
Who’s a twit…?
For some reason that escapes me (maybe I missed something on the news, I haven’t been wearing my gigs this week) the subject of footballers and Twitter was a topic for discussion. The club’s line on this expanding phenomenon is that the players are allowed to tweet but they have been told that they are responsible for their actions and must never forget that they are always representing the good name of the club. So, if you decide to tweet that Gary Caldwell is a skirt-wearing numpty and he subsequently invites you for a straightener behind the changing rooms at Christopher Park in reply, rest assured that he will be hauled over the coals for it the minute he sets foot back in training.
Where we all going on our summer holidays…?
Having spent last June and July treating Mrs Martinez to a tour of the best stadiums in South Africa, Roberto announced that this summer she will be treated to the delights of Denmark watching the England Under 21s. For one awful moment I thought he was actually a normal lad, but then I spotted that cheek-planted tongue and back came Mr Perfect. He will take some time off, but before you know it the senior squad will be back in on 7th July and, after a couple of what he promises will be enjoyable trips, the new squad, and hopefully kit, will be unveiled during a DW Stadium friendly on 6th August against a ‘different’ type of opponent. By ‘different’ he means a type of team dissimilar to that we will face week in, week out in the Premier League. He didn’t say who, but I’ll wager that it is not Hindley Celtic from the Wigan Amateur League. Neither will it be a global name such as Barcelona or Real Madrid; the club would prefer to spend the likely £2m cost of hosting such opposition on further investment in the team. It’s hard to argue with that.
WAFC on the Silver screen…?
Apparently, Steve Bruce has suggested that a film should be made of the Wigan Athletic story, presumably on the back of his successful appearance in The Elephant Man all those years ago. Asked the question who would play him in such a project, Roberto rather predictably opted for Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt. Not that it would be his call, of course, as casting, production, direction, editing, promotion, and, to be fair, funding would no doubt all be handled by that nice silver-haired old gent who used to sell trainers.
Can I take a message…?
Roberto’s message to the Wigan Athletic fans is that they can be justifiably proud of the achievements of their team and club and to simply ignore the jibes and condescending digs from pundits, press and other people outside the clubs who are (still) waiting for us to fail.
We should all look forward to the start of the new season positively – did I mention that Roberto seems to be a quite positive person? – with a huge belief in each other; players, club officials and fans alike. If we do that, we will go on surprising (his word) and annoying (my word) the club’s detractors and at the same time pleasing that happy band of neutrals, more and more of whom are buying into the success story that Wigan Athletic continues to be.
Typical of the man, his final thoughts were reserved for the sad case of George Owen, the elderly fan who suffered illness at the West Ham game and unfortunately passed away the day before the Stoke game. Roberto, his players and the club are acutely aware of how the fortunes of Wigan Athletic affect the fans that support it every day of their lives. It is for this reason that Roberto dedicated the achievement this season to George’s family and hopes that it made them proud to be associated with Wigan Athletic and its success.
And we’re into time added on…!
This was the first time I have been involved in one of these get-togethers and, given that there is a perception throughout this forum’s membership (not one hundred per cent accurate, I might add), that I stand four-square behind everything that the club, and specifically Roberto, does, I was careful not to appear to come across as in any way sycophantic. Reading back this article, I think I have failed miserably.
Yet I make no apology for that. It is clear from being inside the club yesterday and talking not only to Roberto, but also with Jonathan and Ed Jones (thanks for the coffee Ed, by the way) that Wigan Athletic has clearly outgrown its reputation of that tin-pot little club that is punching above its weight and will be hurtling back down the divisions before you can say “relegation six-pointer”.
As for Roberto himself, that positivity of his is infectious and I don’t care if it’s all put on for show or not. He is intelligent, charming, witty, knowledgeable about the game, and spoke better England than anyone else in the room. What’s not to like? I know that some don’t like his tactics and style of play but, in relative terms, he has been very successful with it. I don’t like all of Jennifer Aniston’s films but I wouldn’t throw her out of bed if it was snowing.
And anyway, the guy got us to two cup finals this season and we won them both. I’ll say it again – what’s not to like?
Oh, and there was no wallet in his jacket pocket when he threw it into the crowd at Stoke. It was a throw-away line that the media chose to run with because it meant they could avoid writing something nice about us.