Mather tries to break free

Dave Hadfield examines the discord between Wigan and their reluctant star
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The Independent Online
WHEN Wigan play Workington this afternoon, a player who once seemed certain to be one of their stars of the late Nineties will be keeping well away from Central Park. The reigning champions will no doubt beat a struggling Workington side comfortably enough, but the absence of Barrie- Jon Mather and the reasons behind that absence could have wider implications.

Not long ago, Wigan and Mather's future together looked golden. Here was a young player who had not only proved his ability to hold down a first-team place in the pack, but was also that rarest of beasts in Britain - a centre of real size and presence.

It started to go wrong last season, when Mather struggled with a knee injury that he feels the club never did enough to address. Then came a summer stint with the Western Reds in Perth.

Mather enjoyed his time there - and the Australian way of doing things - sufficiently for him to want to stay permanently, and the Reds went as far as offering pounds 100,000 for him. Wigan turned that down, something they may now regret, because Mather is making a determined attempt to have himself re- classified as a free agent.

His argument is that his contract with Wigan is null and void because of the circumstances in which it was signed - immediately before he got on to the team bus for an away match, without either his agent or himself having a chance to study it.

Legal advice has strengthened Mather's conviction that the contract is invalid, hence his absence from Central Park this week. He does not regard himself as a Wigan player and says that if they or any other club want his services they will have to negotiate with him from scratch.

Leaving aside the question of why Mather - 6ft 7in and no intellectual pygmy either, with his degree from Liverpool University - signed a contract he had not perused properly, his case raises broader issues.

If Mather's contract would not stand up to legal challenge, how many others would fall at the same hurdle? It exposes the back-of-a-fag-packet business methods still rife in the game.

Although Mather's form for Wigan this season has been, perhaps not surprisingly, below par, the prospect of losing him as a negotiable asset is a serious one. They have listed him at pounds 150,000, but if Mather's contention is upheld he is not theirs to sell.

Despite the ritual denials, Wigan would have happily shipped him off to Bradford in part exchange for Paul Newlove, had Newlove not declared that he did not want to go to Wigan.

That will strike anyone not privy to Newlove's outlook on life as even more bizarre than Mather's desire to leave. Workington might wonder whether they both know something that the rest of us don't, but that is unlikely to be of much help this afternoon.