Saturday 27 July 2019

Wigan Athletic vs. Everton/Wigan Athletic vs. Burnley - Pre-Season Friendlies

A ‘pre-season warm-up blog’.

So I've just got back from the second Wigan Athletic vs. ‘A Local Premier League Team’ pre-season friendly, and I’m feeling optimistic about my team’s chances this year. Both games were two completely different tests in terms of styles of football, both were draws and I felt that Latics coped well, perhaps even (arguably) shading both contests in the end.

In the lead-up to the Everton game, I was a bit disheartened in truth. No, it wasn’t because Everton were bringing over 8,000 supporters for their only UK pre-season friendly, effectively taking over the ground (why would I be? At £15 a pop, it means plenty of money in the club coffers!), but because, late last week, local Northern Premier League team, Atherton Collieries, had arranged an international friendly against 8-times Saudi Arabian Champions, Al-Ittihad  on the same evening as the Latics-Everton game.

I was genuinely gutted – imagine the groundhopping cred I would have got, covering that game! I’ll be honest here (as if I’m ever not…) – if I hadn’t have already pre-booked the tickets and arranged to go with a mate for the Everton game, I would have made the 15 minute train ride to Atherton instead!

Still, the clash against Everton was interesting enough. Marco Silva has been entrusted with building a side that can crack that BIG SIX caliphate, with big money and a new stadium promised to him in the bargain. I think it’s about time that Everton were given the opportunity to push themselves back to English football’s top table – they’re one of the country’s grandest clubs with a proud history and now it seems, an exciting future in which they can genuinely battle their Liverpool neighbours for prominence in the city, and beyond.

Wigan Athletic vs. Everton, Pre-Season 2019

The majority of the action happened in the first half, with the best chance of the game falling to Wigan’s Josh Windass who turned away from a defender before firing a shot towards goal that England’s No1, Jordan Pickford, did well to turn wide. Everton, as you might expect, looked tidy in midfield, with new signing, Fabian Delph providing the solid base to work the ball from. Despite this, they didn’t create much up top – despite having Gylfi Sigurdsson, Andre Gomes, Bernard, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Theo Walcott in the starting side.

In fact, it was Wigan who came the closest to scoring – Antonee Robinson, signed from Everton on a permanent deal after a successful loan spell last season, sprinted down he left, his cross inches from being tapped in by Windass.

We decamp to the concourse for a half-time beer – the catering has vastly improved at the DW Stadium in recent years, with more food and drink options and reasonable (for a football ground) prices. There are plans afoot to transform the inner workings of The East Stand into a supporters bar, which is part of the club’s new owners’ plan to create more supporter engagement, as well as bring more revenue into the club. One thing I don’t suggest trying if you’re visiting this season, is the pies.

Forget the reputation, our pies are nowhere near ‘the best’ – they’re Pukka Pies for a start. There’s been a movement from supporters online to get local bakery Galloways (who have no less than THREE outlets in the town centre alone) to supply the pies – which would be a vast upgrade. The whole point of visiting a new ground is for the atypical experience it provides – having local firms make the pies (and beer) would give the whole experience of visiting a uniqueness. You can’t really have that if you’re left eating Pukka Pies and supping Fosters.

The second half naturally saw vast changes made to both sides, with both Latics and Everton testing out their younger players – Everton introduced former Wigan player and FA Cup Winner, James McCarthy – his first return to the DW since leaving for big money in 2013. Jamie Jones, Latics’ goalkeeper for the night, didn’t have much to do – although Everton probably had the best of the chances, as Kevin Mirallas saw an attempt blocked in the area, before seeing a late free kick fly just over the bar.

Wigan and Everton pre-season friendly, July 2019

It finished 0-0 and a quite content crowd applauded off the players, whilst simultaneously rushing for exits in a Cannonball Run-style race to the outside. Despite believing that The Red Robin, our post-match pub of choice, would be packed with Everton supporters, we were pleasantly surprised to get served quickly. It was whilst supping my Strongbow (don’t judge me – I prefer Thatchers, but that’s all they had) that I found out through the magic of mobile internet that Atherton Colls ended up beating the Saudi giants 2-0! Oh dear.

Saturday saw Burnley come to town. The hot and humid conditions that had been battering down all week were replaced by battering rain – and just 12 minutes in, I thought Latics would get a battering. Burnley showed their Premier League quality early on; their vibrant one-touch passing cutting through the Latics’ defence like a sword through cake.

As the clock ticked past the five minute mark, Ashley Barnes released Johann Berg Gudmundsson down the left, clear of the defence, he elected to square the ball to an on-rushing Jay Rodriguez, who proceeded to slide it into a empty goal. ‘He’s one of our own’ sing the few hundred Burnley supporters in the East Stand – the striker has this summer rejoined his hometown club from West Brom after seven years away.

Six minutes later, Gudmundsson played a ball straight to Barnes on the edge of the Wigan penalty area, with a single touch, he laid it off to Dwight McNeil and the young midfielder brilliantly clipped it into the right-corner, leaving new Wigan No1, David Marshall, with no chance.

We’re in serious bother here, I’ve no qualms in saying – I’m even considering pulling this blog if the score ticks past 4-0. To add to my nerves, in quick succession McNeil has a shot blocked and Chey Dunkley muscles Barnes off the ball just as he’s about to shoot. Thankfully, Latics settled and started to put together a few passes, creating opportunities down the flanks – first, Windass (playing in his best position as a No10 – instead of the No9 he played against Everton), saw a shot go agonisingly wide of Tom Heaton’s post. Then Anthony Pilkington, a native of Blackburn, had a shot from just outside the penalty area go inches over.

Just before the half-hour mark, Latics get their reward – Windass brilliantly cuts inside from the left, fires the ball across the six-yard box where Pilkington is on hand to tap in. Not long later, Windass tried his luck from 45 yards when he saw Heaton had strayed off his line – luckily for him, the ball sailed a yard over.

Wigan Athletic vs. Burnley pre-season friendly 2019

The second half saw Wigan go with three centre-backs, partly in an attempt to strengthen the back-line but mostly to allow the full-backs the freedom to bomb forwards – and it worked a treat. Latics were (just about) the stronger side in the second-half and got their deserved equaliser.

Robinson is teasing the defence on the left again and this time he produces a low cross into the area to young Latics prospect, Joe Geldhardt, who takes his opportunity and fires it into the corner – producing the loudest cheer of both games! The England youth international is highly-rated here at Wigan, and being just 17 years old, he’s definitely a name you should look out for. Also on the pitch at this point is another 17 year-old, Jensen Weir (son of former Everton and Rangers centre-back, David) – another England (and Scotland!) youth international who has taken to his first team opportunity like a duck to water.

Both sides could have won the game in all fairness – at 19, McNeil looks a great player already and I do hope Burnley can keep hold of him so he can develop his game at a place he’s comfortable at. Speaking of being comfy, we decamp to The Red Robin again after the game to discuss what, for me, was the most entertaining 90 minutes I’ve seen for a while. In a way, you could argue that this result was better than the Everton draw – being 2-0 down to a settled Premier League side after barely 10 minutes must be disheartening at the best of times but the Wigan players showed some resistance against adversity, coming back to draw. This may just well be a worthwhile lesson come the season.

So that’s pre-season over, I’ve got my season ticket for next week’s opener at home to Cardiff City – but that’s not technically me groundhopping, so stay tuned for some of that very shortly!