Football: `Pub player' exposes flaws of provincial plutocrats

Wigan Athletic 0 Stoke City 1
A LOCAL newspaper suggested last week - mainly, but perhaps not entirely in jest - that, if there is a potential new Chelsea lurking in the land, it could be Wigan Athletic.

There are similarities. Both play all in blue and, given the way they are bankrolled by wealthy men, are unlikely ever to be in the red - not that Dave Whelan's millions are a match for Roman Abramovich's billions. Wigan are the richest club in their division, just as Chelsea are in theirs, but the fragility of their dream was exposed at the unlikely hands of Stoke on Saturday.

Last season, it was not until the finishing line was in sight that the Latics got the staggers, losing their place in the play-offs on the last day of the regular season after leading much of the way. This time, the uncertainties have set in earlier. After a very ordinary November and December, Wigan have now failed to fire in their last two home games, scratching a draw against Watford and now losing to a side which had not won - or even scored - for six games.

No wonder that Tony Pulis, with his team of free-transfer signings, was elated at putting one over on the provincial plutocrats. The irony for Wigan, though, is that, for all Whelan's financial clout, they are having great difficulty putting together a squad good enough and deep enough to take them up, let alone keep them up.

The problem with the current side is that too many players are sure of their place. Thus the division's leading scorer, Nathan Ellington, could have a series of infuriatingly anonymous performances like this one and still not find himself under serious pressure.

Not that the lack of alternatives is for want of trying. Over the last few weeks, the Wigan manager, Paul Jewell, has enlisted only the Swedish midfielder, Andreas Johansson, who made a first, cameo appearance in this match, but he has also attempted to sign Robbie Blake, Stoke's own Ade Akinbiyi, and Brett Ormerod.

Not only did he fail to get any of them, but the supplementary question is whether any of them - with due deference to Blake's recent elevation with Birmingham - is really a Premiership goalscorer. Those, as Abram- ovich would be able to tell Whelan, really do not come cheap.

Wigan are now five points behind Ipswich and look vulnerable to others coming up behind them. The dream of Premiership football in a rugby league stronghold still burns bright, but the sort of player who gives them problems gives some indication of how far they have to go to make it reality.

Not only did Gifton Noel-Williams find the net on an afternoon when the Latics never truly looked like locating it, but the veteran defender Gerry Taggart proved a sizeable stumbling block. At 34, Taggart looks, from a distance, more like a pub footballer than ever, but his uncomplicated approach proved more than equal to the division's most expensive and prolific strike partnership.

"He can't run and you think he's going to be struggling against two quick strikers like theirs," said Pulis. "We coax him through in training, but he's a warrior. He loves the battle." It was literally a battle at times, with five Stoke players going into Mark Clattenburg's book for a combination of agricultural fouls and time-wasting.

To his credit and by contrast with some of Jose Mourinho's recent complaints, Jewell had no whinges about their tactics, arguing instead that his own side need to sharpen their approach when faced by opposition intent on defending in depth.

Other sides in the division will have noted how fallible Wigan can become when confronted with that mind-set. It is a tendency that will have to be overcome if they are ever to appear in the same league as the other big spenders in blue.

Goal: Noel-Williams (38) 0-1

Wigan Athletic (4-4-2): Filan; Eaden, Thome, Jackson, Baines (Graham 81); Teale (Johannson 74), Bullard, Mahon, McCulloch; Roberts, Ellington. Substitutes not used: Walsh (gk), Breckin, Jarrett.

Stoke City (4-4-2): Simonsen; Buxton, Hill, Taggart, Hall; Greenacre, Brammer, Eustace (Henry 47), Clarke; Noel-Williams, Asaba. Substitutes not used: De Goey (gk), Neal, Gudjonsson, Gudmunsson.

Referee: M Clattenburg (Tyne and Wear).

Booked: Wigan: Thome, Teale. Stoke: Simonsen, Buxton, Taggart, Hall, Asaba.

Man of the match: Taggart.

Attendance: 9,938.