If there is such a thing as a fitting way to mark what should be the end of the darkest period in Wigan Athletic’s history, a drab non-event of a goalless draw in front of zero spectators on a chilly day at the DW Stadium is probably it.
Saturday’s stalemate with Ipswich was Wigan’s 43rd league match in administration. Since 1 July last year, the Latics have tumbled from 14th in the Championship to 22nd in League One.
Leam Richardson’s side have nine matches to drag themselves out of the relegation zone and avoid falling into the fourth tier of English football for the first time since 1997.
Yet Wigan fans have reason for optimism. It has come too late to be of any meaningful assistance in their survival fight – but by the time their team play Gillingham on Wednesday they are expected to have new owners.
The Phoenix 2021 Ltd consortium headed by Bahrain businessman Talal Mubarak al-Hammad is awaiting final sign-off for their deal and prospective new chief executive Mal Brannigan – whose most recent experience of running football clubs was in the Republic of Ireland with Dundalk and in Scotland at Dundee United – watched Saturday’s draw from the directors’ box.
An awful nine months
Speaking after Saturday’s game, Richardson was asked whether Wigan’s plight would have been different had man-of-the-match Callum Lang not spent the first half of the season on loan at Motherwell.
“Maybe,” he replied. “But you could say the same about another 26 players and 80-plus staff. The people who made those decisions are above my pay grade.”
Richardson was talking about the players sold by the administrators, and the behind-the-scenes staff who lost their jobs as costs were slashed and the club was prepared for sale.
The process took longer than expected.
Initially, Gerald Krasner, one of three administrators who assumed day-to-day running of Wigan, set a deadline of 21 July 2020 for bids to be received, with a final sale being agreed by the end of that month.
The club’s relegation, confirmed on 4 August after an appeal against an automatic 12-point deduction for going into administration failed, hampered the process.
Numerous expressions of interest fell by the wayside and a deal agreed with Felipe Moreno, owner of Spanish second-tier side Leganes, collapsed over Christmas.
Phoenix 2021 Ltd emerged from that setback and are understood to have received English Football League approval.
Cold business decisions
Krasner and partners Paul Stanley and Dean Watson have received criticism from fans for the decisions they have made during the past nine months.
They were in an unenviable position.
By law, they must act in the best interests of the creditors and turn assets into cash. They were appointed on a Wednesday. Salaries were due on the Friday, they had no funds to pay them and if they did not do so within 28 days, players would be free to leave.
It was outside the transfer window but Brighton and Tottenham made offers for two of their brightest young talents, Jensen Weir and Alfie Devine.
The football side, led by manager Paul Cook, pleaded to keep the pair. The administrators felt they had no choice but to sell. It was the first of many differences of opinion between the men trying to deliver results on the pitch and those trying to keep the club in existence.
Looking back, the administrators believe if those deals had not been completed, Wigan would not have survived.
Against that backdrop, Cook’s exit was confirmed on 1 August.
The administrators felt they had a duty to appeal against the points deduction. Aside from a release clause that allowed Fulham to sign Antonee Robinson for a cut-price £2m, a difference of £3.95m in EFL solidarity payments between Championship clubs and those in League One, plus the wage cuts players would receive, made it an easy decision.
Once the verdict went against Wigan, the administrators had to juggle finding a buyer with raising more funds to pay off the club’s football creditors, which is a requirement of being granted a licence to play. They had to continue cutting costs and get a team on the pitch.
Players were being offered higher wages to play elsewhere and rival clubs, knowing Wigan’s desperate plight and with their own revenues affected by the coronavirus pandemic, made low bids in the belief they would be accepted.
The end is in sight
“Every day,” said Richardson, when asked whether there was ever a point when he thought the crisis would envelope the club completely. “It has been a very fragile situation.
“But with every problem, the mantra was ‘can we get through today?’ Then we would go home, re-energise and come back.
“Hopefully this is the start of a new era. I am led to believe these are good people coming in who want the best for the club.”
Wigan’s new owners must deal with short-, medium- and long-term problems. For a start, eight of the starting line-up against Ipswich are out of contract in the summer. Richardson, it is thought, will rejoin his old boss Cook at Portman Road when the season is over.
But in Richardson’s words, at least “the town has a football club”.
In that 1997 fourth-tier campaign, Wigan were promoted with Fulham, and Brighton finished second bottom. Both are now in the Premier League, which shows how much progress can be achieved.
That said, Chester, Scarborough, Hereford and Darlington were also league opponents that season – and they did not fare anything like as well.