As the sun slowly set behind the main stand of Wertz Stadium, it cast long shadows across portions of the pitch that provided little respite from the heat. Despite the clock tipping just past the 7 o’clock hour, the players taking to the field last Tuesday night still faced a sweltering 93° F — or 34° C for those reading from the “correct” side of the pond — and the insufferable humidity normal to Ohio’s upper Miami Valley.
The grass on the pitch, browning from its daily beating from the summer sun, received varying reviews ranging from “an inch to an inch and half longer than what we’re used to” to “longest I’ve ever seen on a football pitch”. Both sides struggled to move the ball quickly on it. And in the stands, a modest — albeit lively — crowd of around 2000 fans took in the action, all trying their best to position themselves so as to avoid the scorching heat of the sun.
All told, the scene unfolding in Wertz Stadium was a far cry from the one experienced by the visiting players just two months and four matches before this night’s match. Of course, that was when Wigan Athletic trotted out at Wembley against the silver-spooned stars of Manchester City in an eventual shock FA Cup Final victory. And though the Latics were relegated from the Premier League just a week later, it would be a safe bet that none of them would have fancied to find themselves in the dingy digs normally used by the Piqua High School soccer teams. But that’s where Wigan found themselves just 61 days after the most triumphant day in their club’s history, playing a hastily-arranged friendly against the Dayton Dutch Lions — a club in the American 3rd division, USL PRO.
These surroundings weren’t just unfamiliar for the English side though: this was Dayton’s first time playing Piqua’s Wertz Stadium, too. The Dutch Lions currently call the Beavercreek High School football stadium home, and though more conveniently located to most of Dayton’s population, it features synthetic pitch and permanent American football lines. And since Wigan mandated that any match be played on grass — fast becoming a rarity for most small, multi-use stadiums in this country — the home side’s best solution was to trek 25 miles north of the city.
Sun in the eyes, blazing heat, stifling humidity and an unforgiving surface: these conditions were the reason why Wigan found themselves in such a strange location in the first place.
“That’s why we come to the USA. The heat, the humidity: we’re not used to this you know”, newly appointed manager Owen Coyle told me. “So when we go back and get into playing, physically, we’re in far better condition. But it was tough on the lads tonight.”
Improving the side’s physical fitness ahead of the season will be crucial for Coyle as he takes over the reigns from departing manager Roberto Martínez. Relegation from the 20-team Premier League last term placed Wigan in the 24-team Championship — England’s second division — this season, meaning the Latics will have at least eight more league matches this season than last. Furthermore, with the added Europa League and Charity Shield duties to manage as well, there will even further matches to navigate through. So the stamina gained from playing in Ohio summer heat could prove invaluable down the road.
But extra fitness won’t be enough for Coyle and his men to reach their stated goal of making it back to the Premier League next season. A squad thinned by player departures and short on experience means new blood will need to be brought in to help aid with their efforts.
“There’s an awful lot of games to come,” Coyle continued. “But, we’re building a really healthy squad: I’ve got seven new signings. I’m probably still looking for a minimum of four, maybe more than that. So that way I can make five or six changes, regardless of the competition, and I’ll still have an outstanding team on the pitch.”
One of those new signings brought in to improve the squad is former Norwich City striker Grant Holt. The big target man scored an impressive 78 goals in 168 appearances during his time with the Canaries — many of which came in the lower leagues — and has proven averse to injury by making at least 38 appearances each of the last seven seasons. But moving to a relegated Wigan, after two fruitful terms in the Premiership and interest from other sides in the top flight, seemed an odd choice for the 32-year-old.
“I’ve been at Norwich and had some fantastic years, but I was ready for a new challenge,” Holt told me. “We’ve also got the Europa League this year, and I’ve never played in Europe before, so it appealed to me.”
Adding players like Holt to the roster should go a long way to helping Wigan reach their goals, but they’ll also need a lot out of their returning players. Rising talent Callum McManaman is one such player, and the winger showed against Dayton why he’s so highly touted. He terrorized the Dutch Lion’s left back throughout the first half — who Coyle “felt sorry for” — providing two assists and denied what surely should have been a penalty had the referee been able to see it over the lengthy grass. Much will also be expected of former Sporting KC utility man Roger Espinoza, who also had a promising game at left back and holding mid.
The truly odd moment of the game (as if the entire affair wasn’t a little strange to begin with) though had to be in the closing moments of the game when the Dutch Lion’s only goalkeeper Wicher De Wit picked up an injury, leaving them without cover at the crucial position. But despite the odd situation, Wigan’s players once again stepped up as the Latics starting keeper Lee Nichols took the field to play against his teammates and spare the Dutch Lions’ blushes.
All in all, it was an enjoyable, if not disorganized, affair. Wigan predictably ran out 6-1 winners — it could have been double that — and showed that even the rust of off-season and the difficult conditions weren’t enough to level the playing field for the lowly Lions. And Coyle and his team were made to earn the fitness and pivotal chemistry building that they came for.
But was their time in Piqua enough to convince any of them to come and play in the United States some day?
“I’d never go anywhere just to hang around,” Holt said. “But if something materializes in a few years, you never know!”
Piqua wouldn’t convince me either, Grant. But thanks for coming anyway.