By Ben Stebbings @Stebbiino
Hiring Malky Mackay poisoned the well, but Wigan Athletic shouldn’t have to drink its contents for years to come.
Let’s try and look at the situation objectively, disregarding all instinctive feelings that may emanate when encountering phrases such as ‘gay snake’, ‘fkn chinkys’ [sic] and ‘nothing like a Jew that sees money slipping through his fingers’.
Ignore too, David Whelan’s ham-fisted attempts to excuse his manager’s text-friendly bigotry, public criticism of which surely hastened the decision to pass his chairmanship down to his 23 year old grandson David Sharpe (once again, that’s his 23 year old grandson; let that hang in the air for a second, Wigan’s current top dog is younger than nine of the starting eleven in yesterday’s game against Watford).
Set it aside, all of it, and judge Mackay not as a man but as a manager, a figure seen through the impartial prism of results alone; football is, after all, a business fuelled by wins, everything else becomes secondary. Taken in that context, without attachment or vested interest, without prior knowledge of the Scot’s indiscretions and Whelan’s archaic defence strategy, without the need to coerce ones’ morals into an uneasy alliance with self-anointed pillar of virtue Vincent Tan (and who’d have guessed Tan could ever justifiably paint himself into the role of victim), without all but the hardest of hard numbers, ultimately, Mackay still failed to deliver at Wigan.
His 24 game spell at the Latics yielded a grand total of 5 wins and one of those was against basement-dwellers Blackpool who are either in an even more shambolic state than their Northwest neighbours, or are engaged in a risky, season-long interpretation of the rope-a-dope technique (and if the latter is the case Monday’s relegation may have them questioning when exactly they plan to land that all-important knock-out punch).
Mackay’s tenure equates to 19 points from an available 72. By way of comparison, Wigan’s previous manager, Uwe Rosler, managed 82 from 168 in his year at the helm, but at the point of his dismissal the club had managed just 3 wins in 17 games. His Points Accrued Percentage this season from the maximum available was 31% while Mackay’s was 26%, but his Games Won Percentage was 18% to Mackay’s 21% (to compare, league leaders Bournemouth are currently running at a PAP of 63% and a GWP of 54%). The sample size here is small but the differences between the performances of the German and the Scot are minor; Rosler left the club in 22nd place, Mackay leaves the club in 23rd. He failed, yes, but based on results alone the damage was already done; on the pitch Mackay’s impact was minimal.
The problem is Mackay’s appointment can not be reduced to what happens on the pitch because the game is not that simple. Whatever your personal opinion on the Scot’s behaviour and his quickie return to the game last November, his appointment undoubtedly did damage to Wigan’s reputation, the type a club can struggle to bounce back from.
The sad truth for all those that had a soft spot for the likeable, plucky upstarts who held their own in the Premier League far longer than they should have and bloodied Manchester City’s nose in a fabled FA Cup final win, is that the Wigan Athletic you once knew are no more.
Gone is Roberto Martinez, the boyish, philosophy-wielding sage, departed for Merseyside long ago to contend with more expectant (and, let’s face it, existent) fans.
Gone is the cherished underdog status, with many experts (FourFourTwo and The Guardian included) having backed the club to make the play-offs or better at the start of the season. Underachievement is the soup of the day now and, coming at the tail end of so much unprecedented accomplishment, it’s hard to swallow.
And gone is Dave Whelan, a man so utterly intertwined with the image and achievements of the Latics that it became all too easy to confuse his antiquated views with the ideals of his football club. Dave was Wigan, Wigan was Dave, the stadium is named after company baring his initials, and the club’s unlikely rise through the Football League mirrored Whelan’s own entrepreneurial ascension in the business world. When Wigan won the FA Cup in 2013 it seemed as though fate had made amends to Whelan for the leg-breaking injury he suffered as a player for Blackburn Rovers in the final of the competition 53 years earlier.
Regrettably, it was his last significant act as chairman of the club that put the final nail into the coffin of Wigan’s glory days. Whelan, perhaps damaged by previous failed managerial appointments (and patently Rosler and Owen Coyle before him, promised far more than they eventually delivered), backed a man he thought he understood; a manager who, despite his personal failings, gained promotion at Cardiff City whilst operating under what was essentially a dictatorship and showed a knack for rousing performances out of a side with their backs to the wall.
The chairman’s mistake was not in overestimating Mackay’s talents, but in trivialising the serious nature of his past behaviour, first by appointing him, and then by trying to defend the appointment in two car crash interviews. The first, a print interview with The Guardian, in which Whelan absent-mindedly asserted that Jewish people chase money and defended Mackay’s use of the word ‘chink’, was shortly followed by the second, an excruciating TV interview with Sky, in which Whelan defended his own use of the word ‘chink’ and verbally dug his own grave with an eagerness not seen since the days of Richard Keys and those mysterious ‘dark forces‘.
For what it’s worth, Whelan crimes do not seem the equal of his employee’s, rather they seem indicative of a man out of touch with modern society and oblivious as to why certain outdated stereotypes could be deemed offensive and unwittingly harmful. Perhaps his assertion that the Manchester derby should observe a minute’s silence to commemorate Margaret Thatcher’s death should have alerted fans to the comb over-mastering chancer’s blissful ignorance to all things not Dave Whelan, but the tragedy is that the owner’s ill-conceived comments denied him the send-off his twenty-year spell shepherding Wigan to new heights more than entitled him to.
Maybe it is Wigan’s lack of a sizeable supporter base, maybe it’s the inherent unfashionability of the club, but few mourned Whelan’s departure when he announced it last month, and although he is not the first club icon to tarnish his legacy towards the end of his tenure (step forward Brian Clough, Kenny Dalglish and, more than likely, Steven Gerrard, the supreme craftsman of emphatic 38 second goodbyes), few have been able to ghost away from their achievements with so little fanfare.
Whelan’s six week ban for his aforementioned comments combined with Mackay’s continued employment at Wigan at the time, no doubt lead many to feel conflicted about memorialising a chairman who left the club with such blackened hands. Whelan, foolish and ignorant as he had been, arguably deserved better.
At least the club still has a fighting chance of survival in the Championship, and the quick and decisive appointment of ex-defensive mainstay Gary Caldwell, who was forced to retire from playing earlier this season, elicits signs that the board are trying to reconcile the club with past glories and atone for recent mistakes. A great escape may be an unlikely prospect but relegation in itself would not be an altogether disastrous outcome, offering Wigan a chance to rebuild, refresh and detoxify from what has been a nightmare year.
As for Mackay, even with 138 days of post-scandal Championship management under his belt, it is hard to see a way back into the game for the Scotsman any time soon. Rather than allowing him to retain a foothold in management, the bad press that resulted from Mackay’s posting at Wigan seemed to border on outright resentment, with many deeming that the former Cardiff gaffer had not served an adequate penance for his actions.
If Mackay does make it back into the game at some later date he may look back at his time at Wigan as a mistake on both his part and the club’s; a case of too soon, too visible, too defensive on all accounts. But that inevitably leads to the dilemma (and Smiths song-mondegreen), ‘how soon is soon enough?’.
Twitter and a proliferation of media and comment give football a much longer memory than it used to have. Whereas players could once sneak back into the lower leagues after public scandals, now they are being hounded out by people with but a passing interest in football. The beautiful game, at all levels, is no longer insular; managers can be demonised, chairmen can be toppled and clubs can be toxified because of the mistakes they once made, and time can not be counted on to heal old wounds.
If objectivity is impossible in the modern game, then perhaps forgiveness is the next logical step. The chief participants in the last six months of Wigan’s downfall will move on and try to rebuild, maybe it’s about time we let them.