Rioch and Whelan put Wigan on right track

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Two announcements concerning coaches were made by Wigan Athletic over the summer - and each said something about the ambition of the club.

Two announcements concerning coaches were made by Wigan Athletic over the summer - and each said something about the ambition of the club.

The first, in June, was that Bruce Rioch, a manager who had taken two previous clubs (Bolton and Middlesbrough) up two divisions to the top flight, was to take control in succession to John Benson, who has moved sideways to become the club's general manager.

The second announcement, in July, was a lower-key affair. "For the new season the Wigan Athletic team will be transported by Eavesway coaches," said a proud statement from the press office. "The Ashton-in-Makerfield company include Manchester United amongst their customers." The Latics still have some way to go to usurp the Old Trafford side as the biggest in the North-west, but Rioch believes the club is on the right track.

"I'm delighted to be here," Rioch said, surveying the impressive JJB stadium, which has been built and paid for by Dave Whelan, the club's sportswear magnate chairman, since he took over in 1995. "Thefacilities are outstanding," added Rioch, "and, in my opinion, the club was unfortunate to not get success last year."

An unbeaten run of 24 matches at the start of last season was followed by a dip in form that ultimately saw Benson move aside. The club still managed a place in the play-off final, but lost 3-2 in extra time to Gillingham having led 2-1 in normal time.

"I'm happy that it's my job to take Wigan a stage further," Rioch, who left Norwich last season after becoming concerned by lack of funds, said. "I believe spirit and camaraderie are the cause of success and the relationship between chairman and manager is vital. When harmony spreads through the club it can be the catalyst of success and it is vital that it starts at the top."

Wigan's chances of success, on last season's form, look good, but so do the chances of several others, not least Millwall, who should continue to improve under Keith Stevens and Alan McLeary if they can hold on to their home-grown players, and Bristol City, who will benefit from the stewardship of Danny Wilson. The 40-year-old former Barnsley manager was appointed in June after a traumatic period at Sheffield Wednesday that ended in the Owls' relegation from the Premiership.

Walsall, looking to make an immediate return to the First Division, will have their challenge bolstered by some astute free acquisitions that include Brett Angell from Stockport and Paul Hall from Coventry. Reading, meanwhile, under Alan Pardew, have the potential to score goals if their injury problems abate.

Wigan's closest challengers are likely to be Stoke City, however, another club with a devoted chairman who has proved willing to back his ambition with hard cash.

"This club is not forced, financially, to sell players," Gunnar Gislason, the Potters' Icelandic chairman, said earlier this summer. "And the manager [Gudjon Thordarson] will have funds to strengthen the team if he chooses," he added.

Gislason has since backed his words with action, sanctioning the £200,000 purchase of Wayne Thomas from Torquay and persuading Tony Dorigo to move to the Britannia Stadium rather than to Wolves or Walsall.

Thordarson has also brought in Stefan Thordarson (no relation) and Henrik Risom over the close season, and agreed a deal that will see the 28-year-old Icelandic international striker, Rikhardur Dadason, join the Potters' foreign legion in two months' time. "He's big, with his main strength being in the air," Thordarson said. "He has played for me at international level and has done really well. I am very happy to have him at Stoke."

Three to go up

Wigan Losing in extra time in May's play-off final will have hardened the team's resolve not to miss out again. The loss of top scorer Stuart Barlow to Tranmere should be compensated for by the arrival of Lee Ashcroft from Grimsby. Promotion favouritism is justified by squad's strength.

Stoke City Manager Gudjon Thordarson has been busy in the transfer market, hiring, among others, the veteran Tony Dorigo, the promising young defender Wayne Thomas and the Icelandic international striker Rikhardur Dadason. Last season's sixth place should be bettered.

Bristol City There are sound arguments to make for the likes of Millwall and Bristol Rovers, but the latter's greatest rivals have a significant asset in manager Danny Wilson. This week's £600,000 signing of the Manchester City striker, Lee Peacock, demonstrates intent - and that money is available.

Four to go down

Cambridge Utd Losing their top scorer Trevor Benjamin will be felt by Roy McFarland's side. The £1m fee from Leicester might be a comfort, but the newcomers this summer have all been free and money will not abound. Much could depend on the experienced new goalkeeper, Lionel Perez.

Colchester Utd Showed some signs of form last season, notably when winning away at Preston, but still contrived to finished 18th for a second consecutive season. If the exciting Lomano Lua-Lua flourishes, it is more likely he will be enticed away than stay to help avoid a return to the Third.

Oxford Utd The acquisition of striker Richard Knight for nothing from Derby might inspire them above last season's 20th place, but the club remains poor, financially and defensively. The problems that led to 73 goals being conceded en route to last-gasp survival in May need to be addressed.

Rotherham Utd Manager Ronnie Moore has admitted that he simply cannot afford the wages being asked by players he wants to hire. Six players with first-team experience left over the summer, with the goalkeeper, Mike Pollitt, who has moved on to Chesterfield, foremost among them.

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