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Aug 6, 2007

The only way is down for Wigan?

Wigan's euphoric joy at their last day survival last season was soon tempered by Paul Jewell's resignation as manager just hours later.

Jewell was Wigan's talismanic leader, the man who had guided them from obscurity in the third tier right to the very top of the game in a short space of time. To lose him was a huge blow but the appointment of his number two, Chris Hutchings, into the manager's chair could prove to be the killer.

The last time Hutchings was promoted from being Jewell's number two, at Bradford City in June 2000, he was replaced after winning just five matches with the Bantams on their way to relegation. Included in the results was a 6-0 defeat at Manchester United.

There have to be questions about the merits of turning to a manager who has a proven track record of failure at this level when stepping up from being a number two. He's not up to Premier League management. In fact, he's not even a manager.

The club has a rich owner in Dave Whelan who could have attracted a name with a track record to the JJB. But sometimes loyalty and a desire to give someone a chance gets mixed up with the grim reality of a situation.

There is a real danger that all the hard work of the last few years will now be undone as Hutchings produces a repeat performance and is dumped midway through the campaign.

Any doubts over his suitability for the job can only have been confirmed by his decision to make Titus Bramble as one of his first signings. Bramble was fresh from a five-year horror spell at Newcastle where he had become a figure of fun across the country for his defensive ineptitude. And then he's signed by a manager looking for the answers to a defence which was, bar one goal, the worst in the league in 2006/07.

And with Leighton Baines almost certain to leave the Latics for another Premier League club before the end of the month, Hutchings has got a huge task on his hands. England Under-21 international Baines has been one of the stalwarts of the team and one of the players who epitomises Wigan. For him to go the same way as Jimmy Bullard would only confirm the belief that they are going backwards.

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Wigan have also been forced to part with Lee McCulloch, who has finally been granted his desired move to Rangers, and his attacking presence will be sorely missed.

Plenty of new faces have arrived, in addition to Bramble. Antoine Sibierski, the goalscoring midfielder who cannot seem to win a starting place, will be a useful addition. But little can be said of the other new faces.

Mario Melchiot returns to England after a year in France with Rennes. The former Birmingham and Chelsea defender was already a spent force before leaving St Andrew's. Michael Brown, meanwhile, will offer more in yellow and red cards than he will on the ball and West Brom's Jason Koumas arrives at an astonishingly over-priced £5.3million.

Koumas flattered to deceive in previous top flight spells with the Baggies and there's little to suggest he will cut it in the top flight this time. If Hutchings is relying on Koumas to finally fill the boots of Bullard he could be waiting a long time.

In addition, Wigan were hardly blessed with goals last season but once again they must rely on Emile Heskey, Henri Camara, Caleb Folan, Julius Aghahowa and David Cotterill. It's a forward line which is supposed to cause opposing managers to consider their options. It will barely raise an eyebrow.

Wigan came into the Premier League and succeeded on the crest of their rise through the divisions, with a team full of togetherness and spirit. That is now long gone and it seems to be only one way they can go.

Perhaps the spirited display of the 2-1 last day win at Sheffield United, to keep the Latics up and send the Blades down, will be the last we see of the Wigan many had come to respect.

All seemed to be going well last season, despite the loss of Pascal Chimbonda and Jason Roberts in pre-season, until the end of November when seven goals were conceded in two games against Tottenham and Liverpool. Shortly afterwards, Jewell's men embarked on a run of eight consecutive Premier League defeats which propelled them from mid-table security to a relegation battle.

The loss of influential midfielder Paul Scharner and, predictably, goalkeeper Chris Kirkland to injury were certainly factors in their demise. But the team had got into the losing mentality and for the first time Jewell was looking visibly mystified for answers.

Even so, Wigan enjoyed a brief resurgence in form which saw them pick up 11 points from a possible 18. But the victory at Manchester City on March 3 would be their last before a nail-biting final day meeting at Bramall Lane.

Everyone had written off Wigan as they had to travel to play a team which was notoriously difficult to beat on home turf. Scharner popped up with a vital early goal to steady the nerves only for Jonathan Stead (38) to level. What proved to be the winner came on the stroke of half-time as David Unsworth, who played for the Blades until January, scored from the spot.

Wigan were then reduced to ten men after the dismissal of McCulloch but produced a stunning rearguard action to secure the victory and send United into the Football League.

The second half of the season exposed all the weaknesses in this Wigan team - unsteady at the back, lightweight in midfield and punchless up front.

Hutchings' attempts at addressing those problems over the summer have been woeful and finishing in 17th place would be a triumph for a set of distinctly average players. In truth, a return to the Championship following a campaign of dire struggle seems to be a safe bet. Wigan are one of the bookies' favourites for a good reason.


  • Any comments? Email Dale Johnson