No one is supposed to know what goes on behind closed doors, yet thousands navigated the perils and pitfalls of the quite dreadful iFollow completely ignoring the clear warning of Mr Rich. We were all going to regret it.
In form prior to the imposition of a spring break, Wigan effortlessly revived a level of performance which overwhelmed an astonishingly poor home side.
The first ten minutes aside, the Terriers display was error strewn, tired and uninspired with barely one player producing levels above mediocre. Alarmingly, every single player considered central to the club’s relegation fight, from Schindler to Grant, appeared listless. It is rare to apply the epithet to O’Brien and Hogg but neither of them displayed the drive and aggression so crucial to the team.
Even more baffling was Toffolo’s contribution. By a distance his worst performance since joining, and possibly affected by Rowe-Smith’s total anonymity, a late effort on goal (Town’s first in the 84th minute) could not atone for what we can only hope was an aberration.
Simpson’s plodding lethargy on the right of the defence was arguably worse and the least said of Stearman, the better.
Brief flashes of skill from Bacuna invariably broke down, though he did produce a rare moment of excitement in the first half with an excellent free kick delivery which narrowly evaded Schindler and brought a decent save from Marshall in the Wigan goal.
In stark contrast, the visitors, once they shook off the cobwebs, dominated their hosts with a disciplined, physical and professional 90 minutes. Aggressively pressing their too hesitant opposition, they imposed a stranglehold on them which was rarely slackened allowing them to launch increasingly dangerous attacks which should have yielded more than the scruffy, preventable goal of the first half.
With 5 substitutions allowed, Paul Cook could risk players burning out with the intensity his team applied; a lesson the Cowleys may want to take on board given that their charges seemed content to amble, pass responsibility and provide insufficient support for players in possession.
Perhaps things would have panned out differently if Grant had been able to make more of a break by O’Brien from midfield in the first 15 minutes but the ball in to him was not the best and allowed a recovering defender to block. The ex-Charlton, and probably soon to be ex-Town, man also looked a little unfortunate to be called offside when released by Lössl’s quick distribution early on.
By half time, however, it was clear that a massive improvement was needed to unsettle the visitors. It didn’t materialise; instead, Rowe-Smith capped his dreadful performance with an attempted cross field ball which simply set Wigan on the road to their second, hope smothering, goal. The ball eventually reached Pilkington who, despite the attendance of 3 defenders, managed to squirm a shot away which deflected off O’Brien and past Lössl.
As they had done in the first half, but with even more comfort having doubled the lead, Wigan were largely content to allow Town to attempt pretty patterns in front of them (even under little pressure, misplaced passes were alarmingly regular) and attack with menace when the opportunities arose.
Pritchard’s introduction for Smith-Rowe failed to improve the hosts’ performance, though his industry provided a little contrast to preceding events. It seems unlikely, however, that we will ever get to see the talent of yesteryear and his days are surely numbered.
It didn’t help that without Mounié or Campbell there was no viable alternative up front but it is far too optimistic to believe either would have made much difference with the dysfunction all over the pitch.
In the first half, Town at least put in one or two decent crosses; by the time a quite appalling second half had unfolded, the entirely ineffective Willock wasted one crossing opportunity which would have been the worst attempt of the day until Duhaney managed to hit his standing foot with the ball, fall over and watch on as his incompetence unfolded.
To be fair to the youngster, he at least added some athleticism to the right side when he replaced the visibly exhausted Simpson.
It only remains to discuss the whole concept of playing games without fans In order to preserve the television money of a bloated league looking increasingly redundant in a changed world and in desperate need of reform once the Unpleasantness finally passes.
Perhaps the horror of the crisis demands the solace of bread and circuses but reality intervenes all too quickly and it is unclear whether this mini season will damage the integrity of English football. The winners and losers in what is a campaign with a fundamentally different end to what preceded it will have to live with the asterisk indelibly attached to it.
Conversely, null and voiding would have been accompanied by decades of victimhood for the two teams least equipped to deal with disappointment so perhaps the immense efforts to complete this strangest of seasons will not be in total vain. Most will forget the legitimate complaints of Peterborough, Tranmere and others pretty quickly and expect them to adopt the level of stoicism their lowly status “deserves”.
There are small consolations. Fans of football league teams will have learned new IT skills as they anxiously grapple with iFollow; from going to settings to resolve some issue about cross channels to finally getting the no doubt wholesome content of their laptops and tablets on to their TV screens.
Catering is likely to be significantly improved, too. Queuing for a pint of ale/lager dredged up from a barrel of despair and the mouth burning agony of a pastry encased animal welfare crime can be replaced by the wonders of the latest click and collect panoply (substitutions may occur).
So, and with maybe a few of us holding our noses, and barring a resurgence of the virus, Town have 8 games to confirm their Championship status.
It is comforting to an extent that empty stadiums appear to favour away sides, though that counter intuitive barely explains Town’s horrible capitulation, and that there are a couple of clubs in free fall.
It came as a big surprise that the Cowleys, who had clearly embraced the challenges of a crisis now inevitably labelled as unprecedented, were unable to motivate their squad to anything like the necessary levels.
An opportunity for a pre-season denied by the circumstances of joining a club, enfeebled and atrophied by defeat, and needing an upturn in fortune after an Autumn reaping a solitary point, was widely welcomed and this clunking failure at the first asking more the baffling for it.
With two difficult away days ahead, and assuming that Town, typically, will miss out on the new apparent advantages on the road, the danger signs are blaring.