Sunday 1 August 2021

Wigan Athletic Legends vs. Wigan Athletic Academy – Joseph’s Goal Charity Game 2021

So, where were we? After almost A YEAR since my last groundhop, we’ve seen further lockdowns, a brief civil war in the top echelons of football, more clubs struggle under financial hardship and England lose a European Championship final on penalty kicks. With most of the country back open, vaccines rolled out to the majority and no mandatory restrictions in place, hopefully we’re back on track to enjoy football in person again. Hopefully.

I’m back at Ashton Town today – it’s the annual Joseph’s Goal charity match which in the past has pitted a Wigan Athletic ‘old boys’ side against former players from Manchester City, Manchester United, a Dutch Masters select and Hollyoaks. With COVID still a lurking concern, this year’s opponents have been drawn from the Wigan Athletic Academy – budding professionals taking on former professionals, adding fresh intrigue to the occasion.

Interestingly, the inaugural Joseph’s Goal charity match back in 2015 was supposed to feature the Latics youth team but that fixture was rained off and when a rearranged date was set, they couldn’t make it. So, in stepped the aforementioned team made up by actors and staff from the Channel 4 soap – despite a spirited effort, the Hollyoaks lads struggled to keep pace with the Latics veterans, who ran out 10-0 winners.

It’s quite apt that the academy are in action at this celebrated occasion today because it was the youth set-up that essentially saved Wigan Athletic from going under last year. The inexplicable move to put the club into administration by an owner who had only purchased the club a month previously led to Wigan being in danger of not paying the bills, in the middle of a pandemic with no income coming through the gates.

In the end, the club had to sell three talented youngsters – Jensen Weir, Alfie Devine and Joe Gelhardt to Premier League sides Brighton, Tottenham and Leeds for a fraction of what they were worth if the club didn’t need to sell right then and there. Together with money raised by supporters, the team got through to the end of the season where they just came up short in surviving the 12-point deduction and thus relegated to League One.

The 2-0 defeat at Ipswich on the opening day of the 2020-21 campaign saw half of the Wigan squad made up by academy players – this number grew throughout the first half of the season as more players left and injury plagued the squad. Somehow though, everyone railed together – the club was devastated as more than 70% of staff were made redundant leaving coaches performing 6 or 7 roles. The arrival of new owners, Bahraini-backed Phoenix 2021, a month or so before the end of the season gave everyone a lift and the cobbled-together squad of youth players, short-term contracts and loanees managed to do enough to survive a second successive relegation.

While, with smart investment, there’s hope we can challenge around the top end of the table this season, it’s the academy that will continue to provide the club with its heartbeat going forwards – graduates like Callum Lang, Thelo Aasgaard, Adam Long, Luke Robinson and Harry McHugh chief amongst them.

Funnily enough, one of my last groundhops before Corona shut everything down was Wigan’s youth cup quarter-final against Manchester United at Old Trafford. The scorer in the 2-1 defeat that day was Sean McGurk – another player who has recently left us, joining Gelhardt at Leeds for what was probably little more than a training fee. Academy Manager Gregor Ricoh (featuring in today’s Latics Legends team) recently commented that the set-up has been set back several years by the administration – the number of players leaving causing a vacuum to be formed that has seen U18s having to step up to the U23s. It was a relief to hear that the academy is a priority for the new owners – as I’ve just outlined, it saved my football club, creating bone-fide legends out of teenagers who had never played a game of professional football before. It’s only right that it should be protected and invested in going forwards.

COVID has overseen what is probably a slimmed-down occasion for the Joseph’s Goal match this year – the Latics Legends side is made up of club staff, including the aforementioned Ricoh and first-team manager, Leam Richardson. Emmerson Boyce and Gary Caldwell (making his Latics Legends debut) are the standout former Latics players – but it’s the presence of an active professional that has been the headline-making news about this game. Sam Morsy, one of the players who had to be moved on last summer, has obtained permission from Middlesbrough manager, Neil Warnock, to play a part today – an incredibly brilliant gesture from them both. I sort-of feel sorry for the Academy lads now as their team is essentially a mix of the U18s team (possibly with some U16s?) against these legends – and to make things worse, several of the older lads from the U23s are lining up for the Legends too!

Co-managing the Legends today is a member of England’s coaching staff – former Latics striker and FA Cup-winning assistant manager, Graeme Jones. He was a major presence during England’s run to the final of Euro 2020 (well, I saw him on telly a lot) – a match that ended in heartbreak for England as they lost on penalties. It happened three weeks ago now and to be honest, I’ve been avoiding all the fallout from it. The reports of sickening online racial abuse just added to a day of utter cringeworthy behaviour from fans – England already has this prejudiced reputation of being arrogant (in fact, the opposite is true; you will never find a more self-deprecating people), but the combination of the occasion and the unlocking of Coronavirus restrictions just created this orgy of cringe.

England didn’t do enough to win it on the day, fair enough, but it isn’t the match itself that makes me not want to watch it again (or even think about the tournament with fondness) – it’s all this outside stuff (and accompanying political machinations) that hurt the most. It’s such a shame because the country was growing closer during the tournament – everyone of all backgrounds, walks of life and views uniting to support our team. It’s what football is so good at. Unfortunately, people can’t watch a game of football anymore without being dickheads and acting the ‘big I am’ or previously uninterested ‘fans’ using the fallout to further their partisan ends.

Speaking of which – the pandemic also saw an attempt by Europe’s biggest clubs to form a ‘European Super League’. It’s something that’s been talked about for more than 30 years so it’s not a surprise to see the idea floated, but it was the cheek of them pushing for it now, taking advantage of the pandemic, that angered most people. To make things worse, these clubs expected to be allowed to compete in their domestic leagues, effectively rendering them second-tier competitions while they played in their closed-off league, growing richer. It was an affront to the game we love – one of the best things about football is that clubs can grow from being small provincial clubs into ones that take on the best in their country week-in-week-out.

To me (and most others, it seems!) the move was purely a ‘pull the ladder up’ exercise that quite justly fell on its face almost as soon as it became public. The excuse given for them wanting their own league is that the top club ‘attract all the supporters and sponsors’ and ‘don’t get a fair cut of income’ – almost like their opponents don’t matter. They forget that the reason they’ve been successful in the first place is because there have been (supposed) ‘smaller’ clubs that provide fodder for them – the trouble is that this fodder beating them is often the difference in them winning something or not. So, let’s dismiss the ‘more competition’ argument – they wanted the ESL to make money, nothing else.

Fair play to supporters of the English clubs who responded in anger to the news; protests happening at all of those involved – but we all shouldn’t let it rest. These top clubs, their owners and the investment firms backing them will definitely try again to carve up more of the football finance cake for themselves. Whatever they come up with, it is the duty of our national associations, UEFA and FIFA to stamp them out before they ruin our game, taking away that dream for many of our clubs to compete at the very top levels. In the meantime, let’s stop pretending the top clubs care about football and the people who watch it, eh?

Far away from the shenanigans at the top level of our game is non-league football, proper football some might say. People say this because these clubs inhibit the philosophies that has seen football grow to be the biggest sport in the world – namely, its community spirit. Today, Ashton Town are once again hosting the match for a local charity, given global exposure during the 2013 FA Cup Final. Named after Joseph Kendrick, a now-12-year-old boy who suffers from NKH (Nonketotic Hyperglycinemia, a rare life-limiting disorder), the charity has come to represent the good of football and the people who watch it – growing a community of its own and even inspiring others to go on and create and got involved with other charitable endeavours.

This is always a well-organised event, but it looks to be even better this year – possibly due to COVID, there’s plenty of outdoor amenities around the ground; a cider bar, burger trailer, ice cream van and a can point. Like the maverick I am, I go into the empty clubhouse and get a pint of Skinny Lager – a brew that’s new to the club this year I believe, and it's actually really nice. It slips down the palette easy enough; it’s what I would describe as a ‘trendy lager’ – low-calorie (hence the name ‘Skinny’!), gluten-free and safe for vegans. The best thing is that it doesn’t compromise on the alcohol content too Along with Kopparberg on tap for even trendier cider drinkers, it's certainly a step up from the cans of Carling in previous years – there’s still no Leffe, though.

There’s a decent crowd around the ground, not as many as there’s been in previous years (for obvious reasons), but there’s still a good atmosphere nonetheless. The two teams enter the field and line up to have their photos taken – Morsy, Boyce and Caldwell all starting. The first 15 minutes of the match are decent – the U18s look good on the break and they open the scoring; a single pass splitting the Latics’ veteran defenders before an attacker hits the ball high, across the goalkeeper, and in.

Morsy was already off before the goal went in; he played 10 minutes, which was clearly the arrangement with Middlesbrough. Despite his role being a cameo, the combative midfielder saw plenty of the ball and even got to show his trademark aggression, by getting in front of an opponent to muscle him off the ball. Top lad. The U18s add a second goal not long after the first, which was almost a carbon copy – a through ball saw an attacker speed in from the right and hitting it into the opposite corner. It’s a shame for the Legends to be down 2-0 already as they’ve had most of the ball and done most of the attacking.

A full-back during his playing career (at least from what I remember!), Leam Richardson is looking excellent in central midfield, dictating the play (well, he’s either playing well or the young lads don’t want to go in hard on the club’s First Team manager!). He has a great chance to get a goal back after a volley from the edge of the area is deflected and the keeper, who was diving the wrong way, just about grabbed a hold of the ball. That’s him getting nowhere near the First Team! The young keeper then does well to parry a shot from Boyce, as the right-back skips past a few challenges to shoot – typically, they break upfield and almost grab a third but pressure from the opposing keeper sees the ball lifted over the bar.

Just as it seemed like the U18s would run riot against a Latics Legends defence containing three men over 40, Harry McHugh (only 18 himself) showed the quality that he demonstrated in his fleeting First Team appearances last season – finding space to slide the ball across to a U23 teammate who lashed home. It got better just before half-time as the Legends found an equaliser through a near-post corner – completely unmarked, another U23 player side-foot volleyed in. It caps off an entertaining half; the teams are better matched than I thought. While the Legends are showing great skill and obvious experience, they lack the legs to keep up with the young lads – the U23 players helping to redress the balance somewhat. U23 captain, Scott Smith, is usually a midfielder but seems to be playing as a third centre-back, doing the running for Caldwell and Co! In fairness, Boycey is showing he still has a great engine – even at 40, he’s getting up-and-down the right-hand side well!

Bizarrely, the teams don't swap sides for the second half – not sure what that's about? The Legends take the half-time opportunity to sub off the more ‘senior’ players; the side now being a Wigan Athletic U23 Select, plus Gary Caldwell. The fresh legs make a huge difference as they add two goals – a long ball that’s chested down brilliantly and fired past the onrushing goalkeeper, and then yet another through-ball sees an attacker clip past the beleaguered keeper (I wish they would have announced the goalscorers!)

With 20 minutes to go, the Legends believe it’s safe for the veterans to return as a whole host of seniors are subbed on. Among them is Academy manager, Gregor Ricoh; a brilliant coach who basically created the production line of youth the club enjoys and is someone who stuck by the club last season to help with the first team. The first thing the youth head honcho does is give one of his U18 opponents a shoulder squeeze – classic intimidation!

As if the result was scripted (it definitely wasn’t – the match seemed like a Dads vs Lads game for the last 20 minutes!), the U18s score twice. First, the goal of the day when a long-range strike finds the top corner and then a late penalty (it was) is tucked away, signalling to the ref to blow up for full-time (not sure it was). Penalties it was – not the first time in this annual charity game! First up for the Legends is Gary Caldwell – the last time he stepped up first to take a penalty was in the 2014 FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal at Wembley. Can he exorcise those ghosts by tucking one away at Ashton Town? He did – giving the teenager between the sticks no chance; “That’s what I meant to do last time” he shouts amongst the good-natured banter that sounds after the ball hits the net.

Emmerson Boyce slots home his penalty

The shoot-out goes to sudden death, where the Legends keeper pulls off a fine save and it’s left to another U23 player to score the goal that takes the win. Another great occasion, one that was definitely affected by the pandemic but was nevertheless no less entertaining, raising money for a great cause in the process. Here’s hoping for a larger occasion next season, as well as an uninterrupted season and many more groundhops! You can learn more about the Joseph’s Goal charity here.