Wigan’s League One survival should go down as a minor MIRACLE after administration shook the club to its core… Leam Richardson held it all together amid a mass exodus and an overnight exit from their training base after it was sold to Preston!
- Wigan fended off relegation from League One with one match to spare
- Wigan’s survival should go down as one of football’s minor miracles
- The club was shaken to its core when they plunged into administration last July
- A 12-point deduction followed and they were relegated from the Championship
- But they have defied the odds, juggling with plenty of obstacles in the way
That was a season like no other at Wigan Athletic. Administration, a mass exodus of players and staff, an overnight exit from the training base and nine months on the brink, unsure if the next day might be the last.
Holding it all together was Leam Richardson, virtually the last man standing and caretaker boss for most of a campaign that somehow ended in League One survival.
It should go down as one of football’s minor miracles for a club shaken to its core when their Hong Kong-based owners plunged them into administration in July, triggering a 12-point deduction and relegation from the Championship.
Wigan, despite the chaos surrounding the club, fended off relegation with a match to spare
Leam Richardson held it all together for Wigan during some very dark days for the club
‘It’s certainly educated me and opened my eyes,’ admits Richardson, after emerging from the stress.
‘Administration, it’s not a just a thing that goes along the ticker at the bottom of the screen on Sky Sports. It actually exists, and it cuts deep in a football club. All of a sudden, history counts for nothing and everything is out of your control.’
The first cut delivered 75 redundancies and the team was decimated, sold fast and cheap, as were teenage academy prospects such as Alfie Devine, snapped up by Tottenham.
Manager Paul Cook stepped aside and coach Anthony Barry was lured to Chelsea. When the first-team training ground was sold to Preston, staff worked into the night to salvage what they could before the keys were handed over.
‘We called a friend of the groundsman who had a lorry and a grabber,’ recalls Richardson. ‘We were given a colour-coded list of things Preston had bought and we had 24 hours to put everything else onto the back of a wagon.
‘Mostly gym equipment: squat racks, plates, bars, dumbbells, treadmills, office equipment, TVs, filing cabinets, chairs, you name it. We black-bagged all the players’ boots, the kit, training kit, mannequins, we’d been there for years.
‘We were loading and doing trips, like moving house. We stored it in different places around the stadium and the academy training ground. Then we dumped upon the academy and shared the space.’
Wigan went into administration last July, which led to their relegation from the Championship
On the opening day of this campaign at Ipswich, seven players made their league debuts and Kal Naismith was the only survivor from a team that started the final game of the Championship season, 53 days earlier.
John Sheridan arrived as manager in September and left for Swindon in November, and Richardson inherited the job as caretaker boss, supported by academy manager Gregor Rioch but without a chairman or chief executive.
‘Within a blink you’re leading the situation, learning different roles, pulled into different places, dealing with people’s livelihoods,’ he says.
Proposed takeovers swirled in the background. One Spanish consortium held a meeting to warn staff to prepare for a 30 per cent pay cut. That deal was blocked by the EFL and Wigan limped on, cutting more costs, morale at rock bottom.
Head of medical Andrew Proctor joined Blackburn and his successor Nick Meace left for Stoke, two months later. Wigan were forced to recruit short-term medical support for match-days and send injured players to the FA’s National Football Centre at St George’s Park, for rehabilitation.
Goalkeeping coach Nick Colgan joined Nottingham Forest. Richardson declined offers from elsewhere, including Ipswich when Cook took charge in March.
Teenage academy prospect Alfie Devine (left) was snapped up by Tottenham last summer
Kal Naismith was one of many departures from Wigan as he signed for Luton in January
‘While there was such a difficult challenge to overcome, I wouldn’t have felt great about myself,’ says the 41-year-old, who ended his playing career under Cook at Accrington and worked with him at Chesterfield and Portsmouth before Wigan.
Veteran Gary Roberts was released and, when the transfer market opened in January, captain Joe Garner signed for APOEL and Naismith joined Luton.
‘It didn’t matter how much we planned,’ says Richardson. ‘We’d be told “he might not be here next week” or “we’ll have to sell that player who’s playing tomorrow”.
‘In pre-season, we had lads leaving for medicals halfway through a game. I don’t know how the information was getting through but they’d come off at half-time and say they had to be in Manchester for a medical and couldn’t play the second half.
‘News was coming in every day – more of it negative than positive – and we stopped trying to predict what might happen next.
‘We had to say, “Can we manage today? Can we get on the bus? Do we have a facility to get down to Plymouth and back again? We’ll see what happens tomorrow”.’
John Sheridan arrived as Wigan boss in September last year and left for Swindon in November
All the time trading with the administrators, trading assets to pay wages or recruit.
‘We took pay deferrals without knowing if we’d get it back but we did get paid through it all,’ he adds. ‘Selling players allowed us to build a team in January.
‘And the administrators must take a little bit of credit for that because it allowed us to continue in a fashion.’
Three 5-0 home defeats were hard to swallow, especially one against Hull, a team they had thrashed 8-0 the previous season, when both clubs were in the Championship. It was an agonising reminder of the demise.
January was the toughest month for Richardson. In administration, under a strict transfer embargo to determine the size of the squad and not allowed to offer new contracts for any longer than four weeks, he had to make brutal decisions.
‘That wasn’t nice and it wasn’t easy,’ said Richardson. ‘Young lads who had played 10 minutes when they were 15 or 16, or 20 minutes in the EFL Trophy, all counted in our squad numbers.
Callum Lang (R) produced the goods up top for Wigan as they fought their way to safety
‘We had to take the emotion out and decide what was best for the football club, to sacrifice a young lad who had been in the academy since he was 10 years old for a lad who was potentially only going to sign for four or five months but who might help us stay in League One.
‘Those decisions don’t go down very well but what’s more punishing? Were we to accept relegation again without knowing what that would mean for the football club? Or get as much quality in as we could and fight to stay in this division?’
Richardson cobbled together a new team on loans and short-term frees, and recalled Callum Lang from a loan at Motherwell. Lang scored nine goals and Wigan fought their way to safety with a game to spare.
At the end of March, they were taken over by a Bahraini consortium and Richardson has since accepted job as permanent manager.
He deserves a breather and moment of celebration but he has only four players under contract for next season. There is no time. ‘We’re already 10 months behind everybody else,’ he says.
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