The Premiership Interview: 'I think what Wigan did last season has given football hope'

After leading his unfancied side to a top 10 finish in their first Premiership season, Paul Jewell tells Andy Hunter why building on that success will be a far tougher challenge
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The anticipation, the unexpected and the fairy tale that were Wigan Athletic last season are no more. Their place as the unheralded club in uncharted territory is now the preserve of Reading, who dominated the sports pages on the opening weekend of the new Premiership term while Paul Jewell broke one of his cardinal rules of management and criticised a referee in defeat at Newcastle United. If the limelight has diminished at the JJB Stadium, however, progress has not.

This has been a long week for Jewell. Though the 41-year-old is determined to mellow with age and to contain the anger directed towards Martin Atkinson last Saturday, an acrobatic finish from Shola Ameobi beyond Chris Kirkland was enough to remind him there can be no barrier on the misery of defeat. It has not, therefore, been the jovial, witty Scouser of our television screens who has been stalking the corridors of Wigan's Christopher Park training ground with his customary mug of tea in hand these past six days, although that public persona does not reflect the studious, considered side of his nature anyhow.

Beneath the veneer of the opening day defeat at St James' Park there is plenty to satisfy the man responsible for the story of the last Premiership season. The spotlight has moved elsewhere, the excitement of a debut on the grandest stage now enthuses others, vital components of last year's successes - Jimmy Bullard, Jason Roberts, Stephane Henchoz, Damien Francis and, in soul if not yet body, Pascal Chimbonda - have gone, but Wigan Athletic have moved on.

The corridors Jewell patrols here have been extended since last season, his back-room team - from the medical staff to those overseeing youth development - has increased too. Outside, a £5.5m former England striker is banging the mud off his boots, England's newest goalkeeper trains long after the morning session has officially ended, and the team captain Arjan De Zeeuw discusses an abundance of PR requests with a club secretary. All around there is evidence that Jewell's grand design is taking shape.

"We were a romantic story last year; this year I don't think we will be. We will just be treated like a normal Premier League team," says Jewell. If true, the changing perception of Wigan will be another measure of their success. "That's the idea, anyway. We don't want condescending remarks, although now I would say we face more of a cynical attitude than a condescending one. The other day I saw a guy in Leeds who said he'd see us next season. He had a Leeds scarf on, but he meant we were going down rather than they were coming up, and that shows how people now think of us as one-season wonders. We are aware of that. We also know we have earned some respect, but that doesn't guarantee you survival. Last year we made a lot of friends because we were honest in our outlook. We never said we were the best team in the world, but we were one of the hardest -working teams and I don't want to get away from the work ethic that has taken us from the second division to the first, and from the Championship to a good first season in the Premier League.

"No one really took us seriously last season. Alex Ferguson told me he thought we were down after Chelsea scored in the last minute of our first game because we wouldn't be able to recover. This year there won't be a surprise element to us, but I feel our squad is better. We have raised expectations amongst our support but we have also raised the bar for ourselves by trying to bring in better quality players."

That quest has seen Jewell offset the disappointment of losing Bullard for £2.5m to Fulham - "the heartbeat of the team on and off the pitch" - Roberts and others with seven acquisitions this summer - eight once Fifa decide how much compensation is owed to Heart of Midlothian for their Scottish international defender Andy Webster. Arrivals include Kirkland on loan from Liverpool, a deal that could be made permanent if the recently capped England international improves his fitness record, the former Crystal Palace pair Fitz Hall and Emmerson Boyce to provide more pace at the back, Dutch international midfielder Denny Landzaat, Ecuadorian World Cup winger Luis Antonio Valencia and, of course, Emile Heskey for a club record transfer fee and a thousand raised eyebrows.

Jewell's transfer policy has provided Wigan with a younger, stronger and more balanced squad than the one that confounded all expectations last season, although it will require time to gel. It is the manager's absolute faith in the former Liverpool, Birmingham and England striker, however, that has exposed his judgement to the fiercest scrutiny this summer.

"Emile has everything: pace, power, he's good in the air, a good link-up man, can play, can score goals. He only needs the belief that he's as good as I think he is," the Wigan manager states. "The rest of the players are delighted to have him here and that's a big thing. Although he didn't have a great time last season there were mitigating circumstances for that, but he's arrived in unbelievable physical shape. I want to see him with a smile on his face, enjoying his football, and if we can help him achieve that I think we'll have almost a complete centre-forward, I really do. There is nothing he can't do. The only thing he has lacked in the past is a bit of self-belief. It's my job to put that into him."

Evidently Heskey will not be short of support from his new manager, who in attempting to coax the sum of so many impressive parts out of the 28-year-old must succeed where Gérard Houllier, Steve Bruce and Sven Goran Eriksson have failed.

Jewell continues: "I don't know why other managers haven't been able to do that but he's got 43 caps for England and, in Steve Bruce's words when we spoke about him, he kept Birmingham up single-handedly in his first season at the club. You have to be a certain animal to play for one of the top clubs like Liverpool or Manchester United. Emile is a great lad, he's quiet and there is no edge to him. Maybe if you're that type of person at a really big club it can be intimidating at a young age, I don't know, but he's played 43 times for England so he can't be that bad a player and I think he's got the ability to play for England again."

Another arrival, on a one-year loan from Villarreal, is 21-year-old Valencia, a player Jewell pursued in Germany while commentating on the World Cup for the BBC, and who singularly illustrates why Premiership managers need the extended support staff that now exists at Wigan.

"Valencia was the first name in the notebook," reveals Jewell. "I was at home watching Poland play Ecuador on the first night and immediately wrote his name in the notebook. When I went over to Germany I watched him play against Costa Rica and England and was really impressed. I'm very pleased to have him. Getting a player like him involves so much time, energy and frustration though. You are dealing with endless agents representing the player, endless agents who say they are representing the club. It's the worst part of this job and that's why I've got [football co-ordinator] Bill Green, [general manager] John Benson and [chief executive] Brenda Spencer to do all that. Any transfer now, at this level, is ridiculous.

"In fairness, though, I thought it was a pretty dull World Cup, there were not many players who got me off my seat. I saw a couple of excellent Ghanaian players who we made enquiries about, but they were very expensive. We have to be realistic. Yes, we have paid good money for Emile, but there has to be a line drawn somewhere."

For many, the finest piece of business conducted by Wigan this summer was ensuring Jewell did not leave for pastures new. In propelling the club from League One to a top-half finish in their inaugural campaign in the Premiership, complete with an appearance in the Carling Cup final at the expense of Arsenal - all within three years, the Wigan manager inevitably attracted attention from several envious chairmen. They did not acquire his services but, more importantly for football, Jewell has helped to establish a template for all aspiring clubs to follow and, along with Alan Pardew's West Ham United, last season shattered the preconception that all promoted sides are on a hiding to nothing in the Premiership.

Not that Jewell has any time for personal praise. In, fact appears to repel him as much as defeat. The former Bradford City and Sheffield Wednesday manager may be engaging company and renowned for his neat humour, such as the observation that if Valencia fails to make an impression, "He can always double up as a Michael Jackson look-a-like", but he steadfastly avoids taking credit for Wigan's phenomenal rise. Whenever pressed, it is always team endeavour and not individual talent that is responsible for his success.

"No, that doesn't happen. No way," he instinctively responds when asked if last season encouraged just one moment of self-congratulation. "Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed what my team did last season and what we achieved as a group, that was fantastic, but I don't sit here wallowing in it, thinking we were great and watching videos of last season. That's not my style. Maybe when I've retired I'll look back at the old footage but now I am not one for that.

"What we have definitely done is shown the Readings, Watfords and Sheffield Uniteds that it can be done. West Ham did great last season but, without wishing to steal any of their glory, they have been there before and have a great tradition and great support. We were the new club in this division. I wouldn't imagine for one minute that the lads who have come up are saying, "If West Ham can do it, we can do it". I think they believe that if Wigan can do it, a so-called small town club, so can they. I think what we did last season has given football hope. People were saying ridiculous things about us last season, people who were not very well read by the way. There were a lot of disparaging remarks thrown our way. We didn't have to prove anything to them, but we have proved that with hard work, organisation, discipline, good players, a good scouting system and good staff, plus a little bit of luck, you can achieve. All of those factors have to be in place for it to succeed. Not one can come out because then the rest will fall."

Away from the training ground Jewell has been preoccupied with giving Wigan the foundations to develop on last season's remarkable transition as a Premiership club. Aside from a four-day golfing trip to Spain there has been no holiday with the family this summer, just a World Cup, a coaching course in Aberystwyth, transfer dealings, existing players' contracts - Henri Camara this week signed a new three-year deal - and improving the infrastructure of a football club to attend to.

"But don't feel sorry for me, I get well paid," he says. "In the five years I have been here the training ground has been rebuilt and we've built on it again this summer. Without ever kissing the backside of the players, we are trying to take the excuse environment away, which is exactly what Steve McClaren said before his first game in charge of England. We go overnight for every away game, players all have their own rooms, we've got masseurs, four physios, another kit man and my staff has improved as well. When I came here people thought we were a big club for the second division; well, we paid decent wages but in my eyes the structure of the club was wrong. Now I'd like to think that if I get sacked or drop dead tomorrow, this club is in a lot better shape than when I came and that is a success."

Today Jewell will be concerned with the more prosaic target of Wigan's first three points of the season, an objective that brings him into direct competition with the club that arguably exists in a parallel universe to his own, Reading. Before charismatic chairmen with sizeable bank balances appointed managers with previous experience of the Premiership and Liverpool roots, neither club had sampled life at the top table of English football. Now, committed to positive football that attracts admiration at the expense of condescension, both Jewell and Steve Coppell are intent on upsetting the established order. First, they must attempt to upset the other.

"Reading blew everyone aside last season and Steve said they enjoyed that, but he knows that this season there could be more defeats than victories," says the Wigan manager. "He's got to try and educate people that they might not win as many games this season, but staying in the Premiership is a bigger achievement than winning the Championship by a country mile. Don't worry about Reading, though, Steve has been there, seen it and done it.

"What we did last season, and what people bought into, was a decision to be positive. We knew we were coming up against better teams than we had ever faced before, but why should our structure change when it had been successful before? We had to take away the fear of losing," Jewell explains. "I thought we could be really difficult to beat, really negative, and be unbeaten after five games with five points from nil-nil draws. Or, we could be positive, not gung-ho, win two, maybe draw a game and lose two and have seven points. It's great not getting beat in this game, but there's nothing like three points in the Premiership. They are very precious."

First things first: Top-flight debuts

Paul Jewell's Wigan take on Reading today, a meeting of the most recent teams to reach the top flight for the first time. This is how the previous five have fared:

* OXFORD UNITED (1985)

Founded 1893, entering the Football League in 1962. Reached the old First Division in 1985. Won Football League Cup and finished 18th in first season. Relegated in 1988 and dropped out of the League, into the Conference, last season.

* WIMBLEDON (1986)

Founded 1889, entering the Football League in 1977. Reached the old First Division in 1986 and finished sixth in first season, their best top-flight finish. Relegated in 2000 they have since dropped to League Two, moved to Milton Keynes and become the MK Dons.

* MILLWALL (1988)

Founded 1885 and were original members of the Third Division (South) in 1920. Won promotion as champions to the old First Division in 1988. Finished 10th in their first season, but were relegated in 1990 and again in 1992. Since promoted and relegated again and are thus in League One this season.

* SWINDON TOWN (1993)

Founded 1881, they were an original member of Third Division (South) in 1920, reaching top flight in 1993. Conceded 100 goals, won only five matches, and were relegated immediately. Now in League Two, but started season with four straight wins.

* BARNSLEY (1997) Founded 1887 and elected to Second Division in 1898 but, although they won the FA Cup in 1912, did not reach the top flight until 1997. Immediately relegated and slipped into League One but have returned to the Championship this season.

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