Sunday, 26 July 2020

Football: Together In Adversity

It’s been a couple of days now since Wigan Athletic were relegated* from The Championship – despite 1 defeat in 15 games, collecting 18 points in 9 games after the Coronavirus lockdown, sealing a 13th–place finish. After being put into administration for unfathomable reasons, the club was deducted 12 points, dropping them into the relegation zone after the final whistle sounded at the end of the 46th and final game of the season.

An appeal* against the removal of the 12 points is in the works, but it’s the immediate future of the club that’s the biggest concern at the moment – everyone is for sale at rock-bottom prices, including many of the talented U18 team that I’ve covered this season on this blog. It’s sickening to think about the progress we have made is about to be flushed away; our future ‘assets’ being sold for peanuts just so the club can keep going until a buyer is found.

It can be easy to get angry and appropriate blame – but there is nothing I can do but hope justice is done. In the meantime, instead of dwelling on the negatives, here’s why I’m feeling proud of the club at the moment: 

The Players and Staff. It can be easy today, what with the vast amounts of money players receive (even in The Championship), to criticise them. Every mistake, bad shot or poor cross is set upon and labelled as an example of them being ‘overpaid’, ‘not worth the money’ or simply ‘not bothered’. Their commitment is questioned when a run of results doesn’t go the way as expected – they ‘don’t care’ about the club and ‘can’t wait’ to leave.

By this episode alone, I can say all that is bollocks. To a man, the players at Wigan Athletic have strived to get the club out of a mess that wasn’t anyone’s making but the owners in Hong Kong. Already on reduced wages thanks to the Coronavirus, the players accepted an 80% pay-cut for their June payment, apparently with no dissension. They went on to record 2 wins and 3 draws after that – including the amazing spectacle that saw them beat Hull City 8-0, with 7 goals coming in the first-half. I hadn’t seen anything like that before – and I’ve played amateur football!

We came up agonisingly short in the end, but it’s no disgrace. These players will be remembered for their commitment and willingness to keep the club in The Championship, despite many of them being set to leave/sold on. People like captain, Sam Morsy, who leads the club on and off the pitch; putting out positive messages to supporters, even calling at a young supporter’s house, unannounced, to give him his shirt. Manager, Paul Cook, creating a positive environment around the club when times were hard (especially earlier in the season when we couldn’t buy a win!), taking it upon himself to ring up staff who had been made redundant. Then there’s staff like Jonathan Jackson, the chief executive who himself was made redundant, but has still been going into the club, working tirelessly to help out the administrators.

These people may earn more money than we do, but the vast majority of professional footballers come from the same backgrounds as many of us – they understand what these clubs mean to supporters. Many club owners obviously do not. 

The Supporters. In a similar manner as players, it can be easy for people to throw their arms up and flounce off when things are hard. It’s a well-worn cliché, but supporting a club the size of Wigan Athletic is like a family (indeed, there are probably families out there much larger than our fan base!) – Yeah, we may argue with one another most of the time but when there’s a crisis to deal with, everyone comes together.

From positive messages to the club and players online, donating money to the crowdfunding page, thinking about ways to raise even more money; selling their memorabilia, throwing garage sales, creating t-shirts, mugs, art prints, keyrings, etc, to spending days investigating the shady characters that have put the club in administration – Wigan Athletic supporters have been relentless in trying to do everything to save their club. They haven’t turned on the staff or each other during all this – all they’ve asked is ‘how can we help?

It isn’t just Latics supporters though, as people from other clubs have been a big help in trying to spread information about what’s happened, pressuring the EFL, even donating money themselves. Nothing I can say will be enough to thank them – they know that unstable owners are a plague on the game in England and it has happened too many times and it needs to end. 

Journalists and Politicians. I never thought I’d be writing this (what with these two groups often battling one another), but the media and local politicians have worked brilliantly together; quick to listen to what was happening at Wigan Athletic. The administration was initially reported as solely being a result of Coronavirus, but as it became apparent there was more to it (a club with no external creditors being put into administration is odd, to the say the least); they rallied around and got information out there, seeking answers.

Wigan MP, Lisa Nandy and the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, have been a great help in liaising with the EFL and communicating with supporters, the Shadow Cabinet Leader, Kier Starmer and Shadow Sports Minister, Jo Stevens, also got involved in bringing it to the attention of the government. Media figures such as Colin Murray used his platform on Radio Five Live and the EFL highlights show on Quest to draw attention to it too – then there are the numerous commentators, bloggers, vloggers, podcasters, experts in various fields many of them, who also helped.

All these people have recognised that football clubs are a crucial part of the local community – they don’t just provide us with something to watch and shout at every other week, but their presence allows local people to find work, pubs, shops and restaurants to make money, kids somewhere safe to play football (and dream about playing for their team) – football clubs like ours are a vital part of people's lives. They’re more than a business.

I think it’s this aspect that has struck a chord with people outside of the club – just like Bury, Wigan Athletic aren’t a brand to shopped about around the world; they are community club that welcomes anyone with open arms. What happened to Bury should never happen again, what happened to us should never happen again and what is currently happening to Charlton (uncertainty over their own ownership) should not be happening. It could easily be YOUR club next – so when will things change?

A great place to start would be the government petition set up by the Wigan Athletic Supporters Club – calling for a review into how the EFL’s ‘owners and directors test', it is the best way to push for change. It needs 100,000 signatures to be put up for debate, so if you would like to offer your support, you can find it here.

At the start of this Coronavirus pandemic, I was reminded of a quote by the Starbucks chairman, Howard Schultz. Responsible for saving the coffee company from going bust and turning them around to become the corporate multinational giant they are today, the overriding sentence from his book, Onward: How Starbucks Fought For Its Life Without Losing Its Soul, was “In times of adversity and change, we really discover who we are and what we’re made of."

I thought about that while hearing about all the panic buying going on; how it would make us look in the annals of history? I think it’s an apt quote for what’s going on with Latics right now too; there’s a lot of work ahead to save the club but whatever happens, everyone can hold their heads up and say we did all we could. Which is more than what I can say about the body that runs our leagues – but we’ll leave that for another time!

Sunday, 5 July 2020

92 Lego Football Grounds: An Interview With The Master Builder

Creating models seems to be a rite of passage for many us – Lego bricks being a particularly favourite building material. Whilst there are a plentiful supply of old and new sets that can be purchased to build a pre-defined model, the true creativity of Lego is the way in which something completely new can be created from a bucket of bricks. For us football lovers, the stadium of our team would be one of the first things we aim to build – but imagine being creative, patient and skilful enough to build the grounds of every team?

Wembley Stadium - In Lego!

In the latest Q&A with a creative football fan, I chatted to Jules, a Cardiff City supporter who decided to build the 92 grounds of the English (and Welsh!) professional clubs in Lego, completely from scratch. Armed with a bucket of bricks and his own wits, the detail in these models is quite something and he’s rightly been lauded for his efforts. After building his models, he sells them to supporters of the clubs – ensuring they go to a good home and not back in the brick box!

I asked Jules about his process, his favourite models, the positive effects of Lego building and whether he takes precautions against brick-related injuries… 

Hi Jules, let’s start with the obvious question – what inspired you to build the 92 stadiums out of Lego? 

I saw some people’s attempts at Lego grounds and thought I'd have a go. I built Cardiff City Stadium and when a friend said "you should do them all" after building about 6 different grounds (Hillsborough, Carrow Road and Wigan were a few of them), I thought he was mad but I started to order more Lego and it just took off from that point. 

Lego obviously has a presence in many a person’s childhood. In the last few decades more people seem to be carrying the hobby into adulthood – is this the case for you? 

Yeah I think so. I played with Lego as a boy and never lost interest in it. But for many years didn’t go near it as in my eyes it was too expensive.  A lot of Lego I started using was up in the loft and gathering dust so at least it came into use. 

Wigan Athletic - DW Stadium - In Lego!

How important can Lego be in providing that literal building block between different generations, say between a parent (who has those fond memories of building their sets) and their own child? 

I think that's really important and if parents share what they used and played with when younger it's great then for that child to see that. By using the same toy, they can produce anything and build things they see now compared to what their parents may of seen and have been used to. A car back in the day is very different to one now, for example. 

I’ve read about how ‘brick therapy’ is used as a thinking, social and calming activity for children (specifically for those who have developmental disorders). Even as an adult, do you find building Lego models to be therapeutic? 

Absolutely! I was building pretty much most evenings when not at work or on my days off and I said to many people it was very therapeutic (although it could be stressful at times!) Lots of people have many hobbies and this was my only one, and it was rewarding when seeing some pictures & comments of how happy people were with their builds. But yes, very therapeutic and a calming way to relax after a stressful day at work.

Wolves - Molineux - In Lego!
Lincoln City - Sincil Bank - In Lego!

How do you plan each model? Do you just look at pictures and play around with the bricks, or do you make use of tech to colour-in and map out where you place each brick? 

I have never used any of the technology, I have seen others use it to plan builds. Literally Google Street View, Google aerial shots and any pictures I could look at. When I did a Turf Moor for someone he sent me pictures of the whole perimeter of the ground through the post. But yeah study the ground, inside and out of it. Looking for detail around the ground like programme outlets, or statues etc. Write down roughly what bricks and pieces I need and then order what I need.  

Which Lego stadium (aside from Cardiff’s!) are you most proud of, and why? 

Yeah the Cardiff City one as you say is my fave and not my first attempt cos the most recent one I did was much better. Either Ninian Park which obviously is Cardiff's old home but as a ballboy there for 7 seasons it brings back great memories. Apart from those I would say Burnley which I enjoyed doing because the detail of the ground, in particular the back of the stadium, I didn't think would be possible. Also Molineux I would say which again is a quirky ground in places  but again thankfully I was able to replicate it well and I would say I'm most proud of those two particular builds.  Nottingham Forest also was a personal fave.

Turf Moor - Burnley FC - In Lego
Ninian Park - Cardiff City - In Lego

Which of the stadiums were the most straightforward and the most difficult to build? 

Most straightforward one I would say was AFC Wimbledon. The toughest I would say was Huddersfield’s John Smith Stadium, Molineux, Upton Park & Chelsea. Huddersfield has curved roofs like Fleetwood and Brighton but that was deffo one of the toughest parts of that Huddersfield build. Chelsea was the 3-tier stand and the surrounding hotels and exterior was also tough. 

What’s your favourite (official) Lego set to build? 

You may be surprised but I have never built a big Lego set. Had a few in the past but smaller ones. I would say, although I've never built them, Big Ben and Houses of Parliament would be good ones. 

Gluing the bricks together to maintain a model’s structure – good idea or sacrilege? 

I would say sacrilege. I never glued any of my builds as I was never able to source the glue. Normal glue would ruin the bricks, which made it tricky in terms of sending them, so I never did. I've always drove them to people or met up. The first model I did for someone [was sent to them] and obviously it fell apart. But I drove to his and fixed it in a few hours.  

And finally, how many Lego bricks have you stepped on over the years? 

A few! Thankfully not as many as I have laminate floor so could hear them fall. I did sit on a mini build I did for someone once forgetting it was on the chair! 

Thanks to Jules for answering my questions and for providing these excellent photos. You can follow his progress on Twitter @CCFC_jules

Saturday, 4 July 2020

Wigan Athletic’s Administration – (Further) Exposing The Weakness In Football

Football is exciting because we’re aware that a single swing of a boot can change the outcome of a match – we accept this, it’s why we buy a ticket and get so involved in the narrative playing out on the pitch. What we don’t expect to change in an instant is the status, nay the future of our clubs.

Just a matter of hours after a fantastic performance against Stoke City – a 3-0 win that put them eight points clear of the Championship relegation zone – my club, Wigan Athletic, were put into administration. There was no warning, no build-up – this wasn’t the result of months of uncertainty or because of mountains upon mountains of debt – it was a calculated move by the club’s new owner who had only got involved four weeks prior. He has effectively booted the club into uncertainty and it seems that the English Football League (EFL) has a lot of questions to answer.

When Dave Whelan, the man who had transformed a struggling fourth-tier club into one that graced the top tier for eight years and won the FA Cup, sold Wigan Athletic to Hong Kong-based International Entertainment Corporation (IEC) in 2018, we were told that the club had a bright future. Initially, it was going okay – the team flirted with relegation but this wasn’t overly unexpected in The Championship where the financial gap between clubs is becoming ever-wider. IEC sanctioned investments into the infrastructure of the club – the Academy was expanded to meet Category 2 grading, the stadium got a touch-up in places and we even got a big telly put in the corner of one of the stands. It was starting to go well on the pitch too – despite a difficult start to this season, the team has been one of the best performers in the division since the turn of 2020. So what happened?

In June, IEC sold the club to a company called ‘Next Leader Fund’ (NLF). Both of these companies are headed by Stanley Choi, a professional poker player who through IEC, has an interest in a casino in The Philippines. Prior to the sale going through, the consensus was that Choi was taking the club from the Hong Kong Stock Exchange-listed IEC to NLF, a private company based in the Cayman Islands, so that ‘decisions could be made quicker’ (any changes to IEC would have to be announced on the HK Stock Exchange).

NLF was only set up in January 2020 and it borrowed £28million from IEC to fund the takeover. The terms of the loan raised eyebrows when announced on the HK Stock Exchange – the interest rate was 8% rising to 20% if it wasn’t paid back within the first year. This amounts to roughly £100,000-a-week in repayments that Wigan would not be able to afford – the EFL approved the takeover. NLF was announced as being 51%-owned by Stanley Choi, with the remaining shares being held by one Au Yeung Wai Kay. On the 24th June, Au Yeung took a majority shareholding in NLF (believed to be 75%), paid off the loan owed to IEC and immediately put the club in administration – despite there not being a single creditor.

Why? Why would Au Yeung invest so much money to buy the club only to put it at risk with less than a month to go until the season is completed? It makes no sense on the face of it – if he found that he had got over his head, he could have got the club through the season and put a Championship club on the market. Instead, he called his lawyers who notified the administrators and the club’s future – both in the short and long-term – was put at risk.

Obviously I need to be careful here as any theory is unsubstantiated – there is no clear reason why Au Yeung has done this. A young Wigan supporter, who happens to live in the same area as EFL chairman, Ricky Parry, chatted to the man about it – and he mentioned a rumour about bets being placed in The Philippines on Wigan being relegated. Almost immediately after it was announced that the club was in administration, the EFL sanctioned a 12-point dedication – which would put Wigan at the bottom of the league. The theory is that seeing the team perform well, Au Yeung moved quickly to gain control of the club and place it in administration. You can, by now, imagine why he might do that.

It seems nuts to even suggest that anyone would go to such great lengths to do this – I’ve heard about how crazy Asian betting markets are but do they really take bets with the equivalent worth of tens-of-millions of pounds at stake? Without any other clear thread to pick on, this is the only theory that makes a modicum of sense. The only other theory that I’ve seen is that IEC wanted to dump the club because it was costing them too much – the loan repayments saw them make a small profit. But again, why would Choi not seek to sell the club externally (rather than to himself) and why did Au Yeung effectively write off his investment?

This is a world away from what supporters should be worrying about – we should be looking forward to the match against Brentford today; the two in-form sides in the division going head-to-head but it has now been tempered with an urgency of we need to win to claw back the points that the EFL may end up taking away. Whilst relegation is only a setback (when compared to the club going out of existence!) it will thin-out the field of investors and may even lead to the club being asset-stripped. I know I’m a supporter and therefore liable to be biased, but purely through their performances, the players don’t deserve being relegated – it isn’t their fault that some shady Far East character plunged the club into the mire mere hours after taking charge.

It’s important to get one thing straight – Wigan Athletic’s administration has got nothing to do with the Coronavirus pandemic. The club was ticking along (as well as what can be expected during a pandemic, anyway) and had even agreed contracts and signed up players for next season. This isn’t a result of a club spending beyond its means – it’s something far more sinister, which is why it needs investigating by the EFL, the government, perhaps even Interpol.

What has been pleasing, is seeing Wiganers and football supporters of all clubs come together on this – everyone sees that the EFL’s checks and balances simply aren’t fit for purpose. A great example of this can be seen through Wigan's supporters – in a couple of days they have found out more information on Choi and Au Yeung than the EFL ever did. I say that because I refuse to believe that the EFL let the takeover pass if they had access to all the information that’s floating about on Twitter right now – if they did, then the governance of football in this country is rotten.

Hopefully, this will be the tipping point for the government to reign in the powers that run football – Wigan MP, Lisa Nandy, has spoken brilliantly about the issue, lobbying the Sports Minister and doing the press rounds. Having worked closely with the club’s Community Trust – a charity that has spent the last three months delivering essentials to people on lockdown, ringing them up and seeing how they’re doing – she understands, like us, that football clubs are about more than what goes on, on the pitch. They are the beating heart of our communities in most cases.

As for the players, to a man they have come out and shown defiance – the captain, Sam Morsy, typifies this. Just a day before the club went into admin, he paid tribute to the cardboard cut-out of the son of a Latics supporter, who lost her baby at just five-months-old, by placing his shirt over him. Like many of our players who have been and gone, he understands that the club is a family – it isn’t the biggest club around, but it doesn’t want to be. We all want to feel part of our clubs and Wigan Athletic, with its community outreach, harnesses that brilliantly. It was no surprise to see Sam was the first to come out and say that the players were going to fight to keep the club going (though knowing the combative style of his play, I hope he doesn’t mean it literally!)

It’s difficult, to sum up my feelings right now because I’m still trying to come to terms with what’s happened. So whilst I spend the next few days trying to collect them, cheering on the lads from my television screen as I do, I would heartily recommend you read this blog by Sam Whyte – though obviously Wigan-centric, any supporter of any club can transfer their own experiences to the spirit of this piece. It beautifully sums up why football is important to us all and why it needs protecting from the characters outlined here.

Finally, I would like to mention that the Wigan Athletic Supporters Club have set up a fundraising page to see the club through the season – the staff at the club were not paid and there are other costs that need to be paid to host/get to the remaining games, so if you would like to help out, please visit the crowdfunding page. Also, if you could share information about what’s happened (including this Tweet that sums everything up brilliantly) or contact your local MP; the more people with influence that can be made aware of what’s happened, the better. It isn’t just the future of Wigan Athletic that’s at stake here now – our game MUST change.

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Cardboard Fans Are Human Fans

In my previous post, talking about ‘the new normal’ watching football, I commented on how clubs
were introducing cardboard cutouts to give supporters a presence at the games they cannot go to. Being a dedicated guardian of everything that’s cool and trendy in football (?), and somewhat of a Grumpy Gus, I immediately dismissed this as ‘a bit ridiculous on the face of it’ – it just seemed to be a quirky way for clubs to earn some extra coin by doing something that was fundamentally pointless. Oh, how wrong I was.

Aside from the cardboard representations of the supporters who couldn’t be there, there were also celebrities and other, shall we say, ‘controversial’ figures taking up seats in empty stadiums. It was mostly seen as a bit of fun for people – the opportunity to have themselves (or their favourite people) at the ground in cardboard form was a novelty, something to ‘banter’ about if you will. Then, there was a story at my own club, Wigan Athletic which made me completely rethink my take on them – why they’re important.

Five years ago, Latics supporter Christine Lamb lost her five-month-old baby, Jack, to sudden infant death syndrome. Like Christine, Jack’s father, Stephen, is a Latics fan – in fact, they both met during Wigan’s run to lifting the FA Cup in 2013 – so it was inevitable that Jack would have grown up to be a fan too. In tribute, Christine (after a suggestion from her children) decided to get a cutout made of Jack so he could ‘attend his first game’. Not there in person, but in spirit at least – just like all the other supporters who couldn’t attend owing to the lockdown.

When I saw this story, it all suddenly made sense – the poetry of it is quite beautiful, in fact. They are ostensibly cardboard cutouts, inanimate objects that have taken a minute to create, but the feelings and memories they convey to those who know them make them real. All of a sudden, these ‘cardboard fans’ were ‘human fans’ – and their presence provided people with an opportunity to pay their respects to loved ones; telling their stories to people who didn’t get to know them.  Is anyone really gone if we remember them and pass their stories on? No, of course not – they live on in our hearts (and for special occasions like these, as cardboard cutouts).

After learning about Jack, Wigan Athletic refunded the money, but in a typical example of the tight community the club has come to represent, Christine immediately donated her refund to the club’s Community Trust; a charity that undertakes a wide range of activities for the betterment of the lives of local people (they’ve especially been busy in the last three months of this Coronavirus pandemic, checking in on vulnerable people and helping to deliver supplies).
I couldn’t help but feel inspired by the community spirit that has been shown by the club and its supporters during the last few months – things like producing cardboard cutouts, donating to charity and giving someone a ring to see how they’re doing may seem like small gestures, but small gestures can make a huge difference to a person’s outlook on life. As a big focal point in our communities, football clubs are in a great position to inspire us, that we’re all part of something – and what are our football clubs if they don’t represent us? What’s to left to support?

When we’re able to get back to normal, Christine hopes to embark on the annual Latics fans walk to raise money for Joseph’s Goal (a charity which I’ve covered in my report of the Wigan Athletic charity game at Ashton Town). It was supposed to be a three-day excursion to Barnsley this year, but it obviously got postponed – but whenever the next one is, Christine will attend with her son.  So if you would like to support her efforts, please consider donating to her fundraising page.

Cardboard fans are great – although, I’m not sure I’ll change my mind about the artificial crowd noise; let us hear the players swear and curse as nature has intended!