x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Coyle kicks off clean slate with Wigan against Manchester United

Scottish manager takes over a remodelled side coming off FA Cup title – and relegation – but hopes to get off to fast start this season, writes Richard Jolly.

Wigan Athletic hired Owen Coyle to lead the club out of the Championship and his mission starts Sunday at Wembley Stadium. Matthew Lewis / Getty Images
Wigan Athletic hired Owen Coyle to lead the club out of the Championship and his mission starts Sunday at Wembley Stadium. Matthew Lewis / Getty Images

Blame Brendan Flood for the hype. A few years ago, Burnley's operations director, noting the dynamism and charisma of their young Scottish manager and drew a remarkable comparison. "He struck me as being like a young Bill Shankly," he said in 2007.

It was high praise. And yet, three years later, Coyle looked like he might get the chance to follow in Shankly's footsteps. When Liverpool dismissed Roy Hodgson, Coyle seemed the rising star of English Premier League management, the obvious target for the elite clubs. It was the prelude to a swift decline.

Within 18 months that mantle had passed to Brendan Rodgers, Paul Lambert and Roberto Martinez. Coyle had been relegated. A few months later, he was sacked by Bolton Wanderers.

And now, belatedly, there is another echo of Shankly: Liverpool's iconic manager bowed out in the Community Shield in 1974, when he led them out even though he had retired and his assistant Bob Paisley had become his successor. For Coyle, Wigan Athletic's new appointment, the season curtain raiser is a return to the main stage.

He is the manager of last season's FA Cup winners and is competing in Europe; in one sense, predictions of eminence have been realised. In another, he has a reputation to rebuild.

At 47, he is no longer a young manager. His Wigan team face the Premier League champions, Manchester United, on Sunday at Wembley Stadium but they are in the Championship.

If Coyle is to return to top-tier management, he will have to do it the hard way, especially as Wigan's European commitments mean they will play a minimum of 55 games this season.

The aim is to go straight back up with a radically remodelled squad. Sunderland winger James McClean, brought in on Thursday, became the 10th summer signing. There have been nine departures, with more probable.

His predecessor Martinez's trademark 3-4-3 system has been abandoned, the 4-3-3 Coyle favoured at Burnley introduced.

The broader question is whether Coyle himself has changed. If his meteoric rise highlighted his strengths, his final year-and-a-half at Bolton illustrated the flaws in his formula.

Wanderers were relegated conceding 77 goals in 2011/12, just as Burnley began the 2009/10 campaign by letting in 25 goals in their first eight away matches. The criticism is that a motivator is not enough of a tactician and his judgment of a defender leaves something to be desired.

The counter-argument is that an inherently attacking manager wins games because of his focus on going forward.

Coyle has a capacity to imbue everyone at a club with his own optimism (he was so enthusiastic himself he carried on playing for Burnley reserves at 42).

His positivity transmits itself to the players and, until setbacks bring scepticism, belief produces results. Coyle's habit of making progressive changes tends to be a feature of his better runs, substitutes delivering victories for Burnley and Bolton.

If Sunday is likelier to be a damage-limitation exercise, it has echoes of another encounter with Manchester United when Coyle's team were underdogs.

Burnley's 1-0 win in August 2009 helped cement the manager's reputation in East Lancashire – although his nickname changed from "God" to "Judas" after he decamped for Bolton – but the return to the national stadium is significant, too.

In April 2011, Wanderers arrived at Wembley as favourites to beat Stoke City in the FA Cup semi-finals and, because the Manchester clubs were meeting in the last-four tie, almost certainly clinch a place in Europe.

Instead, they were crushed 5-0, suffering the heaviest defeat in the last four of the competition since 1939. It was the moment his fortunes changed, the beginning of the end and the end of the beginning.

If there are ghosts to exorcise, Coyle would not admit it. While others dated Bolton's decline to the disaster at Wembley, he invariably insisted otherwise.

The difference is that then it became the pivotal game of his season; now this is a glamorous irrelevance. Wigan's season hinges upon their ability to pick up points against Doncaster Rovers and Yeovil Town. The meeting with Manchester United is sandwiched by games against Barnsley, beaten 4-0 last weekend, and Bournemouth.

The onus has been on recruiting players, and a manager, with a pedigree in the Championship. This, now, must be the métier of a manager tipped for the top.


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