With eight games of the season remaining, Wigan are three points above the bottom three and still well within the Championship relegation picture. How would you say the club has fared over the last few months?
It’s been difficult, to be honest. When Wigan played Brentford at the beginning of the season, they’d had a really good first six or seven weeks, but then there were a lot of injuries to key players, including the three behind the frontman and the centre-forward himself. It was a really difficult three months either side of Christmas and the team slipped down the league into the relegation battle, but in recent weeks all of the big players have come back into the reckoning and, probably for the first time, they really clicked together in the 5-2 win against Bolton just before the international break. It was the first time since they all came back that they were all fully fit and it really clicked again so, fingers crossed, that will be a real watershed moment and hopefully that will be the benchmark for the rest of the season and they can build upon that.
With Ipswich and Bolton seemingly already doomed, the club do seem to have a decent chance of avoiding the drop, though the run in looks to be far from straightforward. Is Paul Cook confident of being able to guide the club to safety in the time that remains?
Oh yes, he’s never been anything other than totally focused on the goal, which is to stay up this season. Once the big players came back, which they are now, I think he saw the Bolton game as a chance to show what level they are at and what they are capable of. If they can reach those levels for the rest of the season, they shouldn’t really have a problem winning the points that they need in order to stay up.
Wigan’s current top scorer is Joe Garner, who has scored seven goals so far this season. It was a similar story when they were relegated to League One in 2016/17, so do you think it they may have steered further clear of the threat of relegation if they had a 15-20 goal-a-season striker?
They are worth their weight in gold, players that can do that. I think Wigan’s strength has always been that they’ve got players who can chip in, like Nick Powell, Michael Jacobs and Gavin Massey and they’ve just not had those players available to them. Then they are relying on the centre-forward, but when the production line isn’t what it perhaps could’ve been had players been fit, it’s probably harsh to blame the centre-forwards for Wigan’s current league position. They’ve not been missing a great deal of chances, it’s just that over the winter period, there haven’t been many chances created; there have been a lot of difficult performances and grinding out results so I think it would be harsh to blame the strikers for not scoring the goals when the chances haven’t really been created for them.
Further to that, Reece James was named in the Championship Team of the Season earlier this week – just how good has the 19-year-old been during his loan spell from Chelsea?
He’s been unbelievable. I struggle to find superlatives to fit Reece James, to be fair – I haven’t seen a better player in the Championship than him this season. Literally from the first day he arrived, he’d not played a senior game but he’s been head and shoulders above anything I’ve seen in this division. It’s absolutely frightening what he could be. He’s only just turned 19 and I would be shocked if he’s not playing in the Premier League next season, if not at Chelsea then at a decent team on loan and I can only see him going on to have a glittering career for England. There’s absolutely no doubt he’ll make the grade because he’s absolutely phenomenal. I think Wigan would re-mortgage the ground if there was any chance of keeping him for another year, but unfortunately – and with respect – there will be a lot of clubs higher up the food chain crawling over broken glass to take him because he’s certainly too good for the level that he’s at at the moment.
How are the Latics likely to set up at the DW Stadium this weekend?
It’ll be the same as it has been for most of the season - a very structured 4-2-3-1 formation. On the topic of Reece James there, he’s played most of the season at right-back, but in the last six or seven games he’s been moved into the centre of midfield as a sign of his growth. He was almost wasted at right-back so they’ve plonked him in the engine room and he’s been playing like he’s been there for his whole career. With him alongside captain Sam Morsy, that will give Wigan a lot of impetus and strength in the middle and then it’s up to them to feed Powell, Jacobs and Massey. They pull the strings and then it’ll be Joe Garner or Leon Clarke up front, who’ll be charged with, hopefully, getting on the end of it. That’s the way Wigan will line up and there’s rarely any confusion or guesswork with Paul Cook – once he gets his fully fit squad, he usually sticks to it.
What’s your score prediction for the game?
Looking at the fixtures Wigan have got left, I think they’ll definitely be targeting this, not as a must-win, but as a really good opportunity. Brentford don’t have a great deal to play for so, motivation-wise, they should have a lot more riding on this than Brentford. They don’t seem to be the team that played Wigan at Griffin Park earlier in the season – that day they were phenomenal and speaking to players this week, they probably expected Brentford to go up off the back of that performance, but it’s obviously not worked out that way. Wigan will be looking at this game as one of the more winnable ones and I think they might win 3-2.