Why Jewell kept his England man in Wigan's safe keeping

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The Independent Football

Wigan Athletic's manager, Paul Jewell, has insisted that his goalkeeper Chris Kirkland fully appreciates the reasons why he was withdrawn from the England squad. With the Latics fighting a relegation battle, Jewell decided in the interests of the team it would be better for Kirkland not to figure in Wednesday's friendly against Spain.

Citing a slight shoulder injury, Jewell pulled England's deputy to the No 1, Paul Robinson, out of manager Steve McClaren's squad. Kirkland will now play against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium this afternoon.

"If we had been in a comfortable position in the table then Chris would have joined up with England," said Jewell. "Although his shoulder is now OK, we didn't want to risk him at this stage given the situation we're in. He understands the club comes first, as I'm sure Steve McClaren does. Having been a club manager he knows what it is like. Chris is now focused on making sure he is fine for us."

Kirkland kept his first clean sheet for two months in last week's 1-0 home victory over Portsmouth, a result that finally ended the Latics' wretched run of nine successive defeats.

Although Wigan are now five points clear of the relegation zone, Jewell feels the drama will continue all the way through to mid-May. "This season is going to go right to the wire," he predicted. "We have to get another four or five wins from somewhere, and a couple of draws. If we do that, we'll be all right. At least our confidence is back, and there's been a spring in the step this week that only a victory can bring."

This season's dogfight would appear to involve the bottom five - Watford, Charlton Athletic, West Ham United, Wigan and Sheffield United. But Jewell has told those clubs he is targeting above Wigan that they are far from clear of trouble, even if they can see safety on the horizon. "I remember the year I was at Bradford when we survived on the last day of the season by beating Liverpool," said Jewell on the fight that unfolded at the end of the 1999-2000 season. "The team that fell through the door that season was Wimbledon as they took one point from the last 30, so it shows what can happen."

Although the game with the Gunners is a daunting one, Jewell is at least hoping the worst is now behind his team. "The consolation of our run is that even though we didn't take a point in eight games, we still managed to stay out of the bottom three.

"The law of averages dictates we must have a decent spell between now and the end of the season. But if I was an outsider looking at the relegation picture, I would say it's probably going to be three from the bottom five."

John Cunliffe is taking his first tentative steps towards fulfilling his ambition to secure a foothold in the Chivas USA team. The 22-year-old striker, born and raised in Bolton, is expected to feature in the MLS club's first pre-season friendly. Loyola Marymount University will provide the opposition at the Home Depot Center, Los Angeles.

Cunliffe has completed his first week's training at the Mexican-owned club and struck twice in a squad workout. He secured his ticket to America's top flight from Forth Worth College, Colorado, where he was a prolific scorer. That alerted the Chivas coach, Preki, the former Everton and Portsmouth midfielder.

Cunliffe said: "He was a great player and I can learn a lot from him. Everyone here has been very supportive."