Big Four to trapdoor: Millward's fall highlights Wigan decline as Lindsay loses famous golden touch

What was once the plum job in the club game has again proved a poisoned chalice to a top coach. Dave Hadfield reports
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The Independent Online

There was a time not so long ago when rugby league coaches used to dream of being offered the role at Wigan. Now they are more likely to wake up screaming in the middle of the night at the prospect of what has become one of the most insecure jobs in sport.

The successor to Ian Millward, sacked this week after seven defeats in eight games in a nightmarish start to the Super League season, will be the seventh coach in seven years since Maurice Lindsay returned as chairman. Far from ushering in a new period of stability, that return has merely seen a revolving door fitted to the coach's office.

Since 1999, Andy Goodway, Frank Endacott, Stuart Raper, Mike Gregory, Denis Betts and now Millward have all failed to stay the course and reach the end of their contracts. In Gregory's case, ill health was responsible; all the rest were cases of the man who was thought to be right for the job being seen a little further down the track as wrong.

Not all have been wholly unsuccessful. Raper took them to the Challenge Cup - Wigan's last trophy - in 2002 and there were some good times under most of the others. "I was sacked with the team in second place," recalls Endacott. "But I knew the only way out of Wigan was to be sacked." Millward now knows that as well. Brought in on a lucrative three-and-a-half-year contract amid much fanfare less than 11 months ago, he proved more short-lived than any of his predecessors, apart from Goodway.

With both sides keeping their counsel while negotiations take place concerning Millward's compensation, there has been no suggestion of any major drama behind the scenes like the one that saw him sacked at St Helens last year.

There have been whispers of disagreement over the club's youth policy and of an abrasive attitude to some of those young players, but fundamentally the decision is all down to the results and the unforgiving Super League table with Wigan at the bottom.

That position would be a cause for concern at any club; for one with Wigan's history, it is close to intolerable. After a board spearheaded by Lindsay brought them out of the old Second Division at the start of the Eighties, they dominated much of the next two decades.

They were routinely referred to as the Manchester United of rugby league. A better comparison might be with Chelsea, because they, too, were playing on a different field from the rest. They had their pick of all the best players from home and abroad, with Ellery Hanley and Martin Offiah arguably the most unforgettable among them, and it was no exaggeration to say that Wigan's reserves were stronger than some other First Division sides. As usual in rugby league, there was a price to be paid. Wigan went broke, losing both their ground and their position of dominance in the process.

In the Super League era, they have become merely one of the so-called Big Four, which also includes St Helens, Leeds and Bradford. Worse than that, in the last couple of years they have become so clearly the weakest of that élite that their membership of the club has been revoked.

Last season was bad enough. Betts, who had taken over from the stricken Gregory before he was ready for the job, was floundering. It was not entirely his fault. The injury toll was cruel and Andy Farrell had gone off to try his hand at rugby union.

Then suddenly, out of the blue, came the chance to snare the most successful coach in Super League. Millward had been sacked by Saints for foul and abusive language, but Wigan were not the least bit concerned about the circumstances of his departure.

"He will never be sacked from Wigan for swearing," laughed the club's owner, Dave Whelan, who seemed to have taken a shine to a similarly ebullient character.

There was not too much concern when Wigan became the first member of the Big Four to miss out on the Super League play-offs. Wigan Athletic, the football club who share the same ground were on the up-and-up, but it only seemed a matter of time before the rugby club reversed their slide and went in the same direction.

But this season has been a disaster. Despite bringing in a new conditioner from Leeds, Wigan have again suffered from more injuries and illnesses than any side in Super League, including key signings like Bryan Fletcher and Iafeta Palea'aesina.

A fine prospect like Gareth Hock has not played for a year and Kris Radlinski has retired. Mark Calderwood, so prolific at Leeds, has not scored in nine games and is now injured as well.

But, if there is an element of bad luck involved, there is also some very bad judgement. Some new signings have been unfortunate with injury, but others have just looked like bad signings.

It was an area in which Lindsay used to shine, but his judgement is not what it was. "There's one way to sell him a player now and that's to tell him 'Maurice, you can't afford him'," one players' agent said this week.

Even more damning is the roll-call of the young players who have been allowed to leave. Luke Robinson, Stephen Wild and Shaun Briscoe would all walk into the Wigan side, although it is fair to point out that various coaches have had their say in those departures, as some have in the arrivals.

The buck, however, cannot stop with someone in a post with turnover as high as the Wigan job. Lindsay is the common factor in all their ill-fated reigns and his stewardship of a club he undoubtedly loves is bound to come under scrutiny - even from his old mate Whelan.

Yet again, he is looking for someone to bring back the good times, with Adrian Lam and Chris Anderson the most convincing candidates, although there has been a run of betting on Bradford's Brian Noble.

"The Wigan job has become a poisoned chalice," says Endacott, one of a series of coaches to take a good, hearty swig from it. "It will be interesting to see who will take it on next."

The six coaches in six years who have come and gone at Wigan

Andy Goodway Appointed June 1999, sacked November 1999.

Frank Endacott Appointed December 1999, sacked May 2001.

Stuart Raper Appointed May 2001, contract not renewed July 2003.

Mike Gregory Acting coach July 2003, confirmed October. Sick leave from April 2004.

Denis Betts Acting coach from April 2004, assistant May 2005. Resigned November.

Ian Millward Appointed May 2005, sacked April 2006.