By Chris Harris
It's been a case of 'out of the frying pan and into the fire' for Wigan this year.
The Latics saved their Premier League skins in the final moments of last season but, just months later, they are back in turmoil. Paul Jewell, the architect of their rise into the top flight, left in the summer. His replacement, Chris Hutchings, has been sacked. Meanwhile, a run of seven successive defeats has left Wigan mired in the drop zone.
Steve Bruce is likely to bring some stability to the JJB Stadium once he reaches agreement with Birmingham over a financial matter, while the return of Emile Heskey will give Wigan the power and presence they have lacked in recent weeks. But as it stands, Wigan will be rudderless as they travel south to face the league leaders at Emirates Stadium.
We spoke to Phil Wilkinson, Sports Editor of the Wigan Observer, ahead of Saturday's game. Read on for his take on the season so far, the imminent arrival of Bruce, the significant loss of Heskey and the entertaining tradition of Arsenal-Wigan fixtures.
THE STORY SO FAR
"The season started so promisingly with the summer recruitments which from a Wigan point of view were pretty good. Mario Melchiot came in, Titus Bramble and Antoine Sibierski too. Chris Hutchings took over from Paul Jewell and it's not as if he was a stranger, he played a key role in Wigan's success story over the past few years. Everyone was quite excited and they started pretty well, at one point Wigan were top of the table. They seemed pretty safe but they dropped to eighth in October and that's when it started to go wrong. [The chairman] Dave Whelan said he would back Hutchings all the way but I think the two defeats against Portsmouth and Birmingham which sealed his fate."
MAN OF THE MOMENT
"Whelan is a huge admirer of Steve Bruce, assuming he eventually takes over, and the fact Whelan is prepared to pay so much compensation to Birmingham illustrates how highly he regards him. There are some very good managers who applied for the Wigan job but Whelan really wanted to get Bruce. He will bring back the fighting spirit which Wigan have lost a bit since the summer. Lee McCulloch, John Filan, Leighton Baines are among those who left, a lot of players who came up through the ranks, and their left a bit of a hole in the squad. The new signings have been unlucky with injuries so you can't blame them but the spirit of the squad has been affected."
"Jason Koumas has been very impressive, the only query is what his best position is. Because Hutchings had disruptions with injuries and internationals, he was never able to field the same side more than twice in succession. They have a lot of new players there so people have yet to make up their minds about which combinations work best. You've got Paul Scharner in midfield, he was moved to the right, Kevin Kilbane has dropped back to left back. Once the new manager comes in it will take him a bit of time to work out what Wigan's best side is at the present moment, but he has a few games to do that before the January transfer window."
"They have missed Heskey incredibly. I've never been someone who thinks one man makes a team but he has been sorely missed by this Wigan side. Not just because of his goal contributions but also for what he brings to the team. He has captained the side, he leads from the front, and we saw with England what he brings to a side. No one would argue that he is the most technically gifted player but he is so strong and determined and Wigan have missed that. It's no coincidence that when he went off injured against Fulham they haven't managed to get three points from any game since then.
"Heskey is fit but whether he'll be risked remains to be seen. There has been conjecture over whether he'll play because he hasn't even played for the reserves yet. He might not be risked because if Wigan get anything at Emirates Stadium it will be seen as a bonus. If I was betting I'd say he won't play but he'll play in the new manager's first game against Manchester City at the JJB Stadium a week later in front of a big home crowd."
"The postponement of Bruce's press conference [to announce his appointment] has affected the preparations of the team for this Arsenal game. Normally Wigan would travel down on the Friday lunchtime and then train, but if Bruce comes in before the game he won't have time to take a training session or make his mark. There's just not enough time to have much of an influence. In which case Wigan will have to go with what they've got and do what they have been doing under [caretaker manager] Frank Barlow. It will be interesting to say the least!"
IMPRESSIONS OF ARSENAL
"I'm really looking forward to going to Emirates Stadium on Saturday because not only have I never been there but also since Wigan have been in the Premier League I've never seen a bad game between these two teams. They have been so entertaining. There was the 3-2 win for Arsenal with Thierry Henry and co up here and then of course the final game at Highbury later the same season. Last season Wigan could have won at the Emirates but so far they can't shake off that jinx of getting points off one of the 'Big Four' sides. All the players will be out to impress the new manager but whether they can get anything at Arsenal is quite another matter."