Despite slipping through the constantly revolving DW Stadium doors relatively unnoticed during a hectic summer of change, Wigan’s July 2015 signing Craig Morgan emerged as arguably The Latics’ most integral player in the club’s season of triumph and success.
Immediately charged with captaining a fresh-faced and inexperienced squad facing a seemingly insurmountable wave of pressure, Morgan would at first struggle, before rising to and beyond all expectations, leading the line as Wigan surged to the League One title.
Having already acquired midfielder David Perkins and goalkeeper Richard O’Donnell in the month of May 2015, newly appointed Wigan boss Gary Caldwell turned his attention to signing defensive players, in the hopes of improving a woeful Latics back-line that had haemorrhaged goals the season prior.
On the 12th June 2015, posing with an outstretched club scarf in front of a lusciously green DW Stadium pitch was new signing Craig Morgan, the third signing of Caldwell’s tenure. The Welshman was joining on a free transfer after being released by Wigan’s relegation-battling rivals from the previous season Rotherham United, and would sign officially on July 1st following the official expiration of his deal with The Millers.
Having achieved promotion from League One twice before, with Peterborough in 2009 and Rotherham in 2014, the 30-year-old defender was eager to replicate his past successes at his new club.
Speaking to Wigan’s official website after signing, Morgan through words reflected the determined mindset and steely focus that would become evident to Latics fans from his play on the pitch throughout the 2015/16 campaign.
“I want to be part of success with this club,
“When Wigan came in for me I jumped at the chance because this club is the place I can see myself being successful at once again.”
“I’ll never give anything less than 100%, I’m a physical player who is always up for a battle.”
As the summer months progressed, necessary sweeping changes within the playing corps continued to be made, with the Latics staff aiming to shape a team able to bounce immediately back to the second tier of English football.
On the eve of Wigan’s first league fixture, a retooled Latics squad made up mostly of players never having pulled on the shirt for the club in a competitive fixture were in need of a leader.
Morgan was awarded the captain’s armband, instantly becoming the leader of an entirely new group of players that would face the daunting challenge of achieving great success, in the face of mounting pressure and expectation from the media and fans of the club.
Gary Caldwell made it clear in his season preview as to why he’d decided to instate Morgan as skipper, showing no doubts about the type of qualities his new signing possessed:
“Craig’s experience gave him the edge and I’m sure our supporters will warm to him quickly when they see the sort of player and leader he is.”
On Saturday August 8th 2015, Morgan strode out onto a glistening Ricoh Arena pitch, leading his clad with red players across the field in full view of a packed away end that buzzed with expectation.
However, Morgan’s first experience of both playing for and commanding Wigan Athletic did not go according to plan. A lethargic appearing Latics squad ambled about on the pitch with no great conviction, being unable to make any significant strides into Coventry’s defensive half in the opening few minutes of the game. Clearly lacking cohesion, a first heavy blow punctured the early optimism shared within the Wigan ranks, and Morgan would be at the centre of the storm.
15 minutes in, Everton loanee Francisco Junior was dispossessed in midfield, with Coventry’s Jim O’Brien stealing the ball before bounding into the Wigan half. Out of position and caught flat footed, Morgan was unable to prevent the ever clinical Adam Armstrong from latching onto O’Brien’s through ball. The skipper watched aimlessly as the Sky Blues striker poised himself and stroked the ball home to surge Coventry into a deserved lead.
The man who had been described as calm, steely-eyed and unwavering had become seemingly caught in the headlights, something that was unfortunately proven once again later in the match.
On their heels, Morgan’s defence would be required to dig deep if they wished to keep themselves in the game. In the 62nd minute, a slack clearance from the now former Latic Richard O’Donnell was picked up by Coventry’s John Fleck, who raced down the left wing looking to curl in a cross.
A communication break down in the box meant Armstrong was able to sprint between the two central defenders of Morgan and McCann untouched and unnoticed, giving him all the space the Newcastle loanee require to finish past O’Donnell to double Coventry’s lead and put the fixture’s final result beyond any doubt.
A dejected Morgan trudged back up the field, head down, not displaying the characteristics or body language typically associated with a great leader who had been charged with spear-heading a season of success.
The full time whistle blew, a stunned crowd of 2,000 Wigan fans watched as the club’s players walked away from view not with a bang but with a whimper.
‘Everything rises and falls on leadership’ would be a quote applicable to the importance of team togetherness and chemistry in football, qualities which Morgan and his teammates lacked in their opening day defeat to Coventry City.
Needing rapid improvement, Wigan would only go on to record two victories in their following six fixtures, falling disappointingly away to early high-flyers Gillingham, whilst also being dumped out of the League Cup in the 2nd round by Bury at the DW. A mistimed challenge would also see Morgan receive a red card in a scoreless draw with Walsall.
Having suffered an early season fall, Morgan would turn a setback into a comeback, as great leaders often do, beginning with an away fixture on the 10th October 2015 against Bury.
Facing a Bury side who had won six straight league fixtures, Wigan found themselves 2-0 behind with five minutes remaining, staring down the barrel at another dismal defeat.
An 86th minute cross was bundled home by ex-Latic Grant Holt, giving Wigan a faint hope of salvaging a much needed positive result. As the seconds ticked away in the waning moments of the match, one final spark of action was still yet to come.
With Bury firmly entrenched in their own box, Latics’ elusive winger Michael Jacobs swung in a cross that was initially headed out of the box and away. The ball rolled slowly back towards Wigan’s half before being stopped abruptly with the side of Craig Morgan’s right boot.
Taking control of the situation, as a leader often does, Morgan fainted away from a Bury defender, opening up enough space to fire a thunderous strike through a crowd of players into the bottom left corner of the Bury net.
Arms aloft, Morgan sprinted joyfully forwards towards the brimmed away stand that had exploded into life. Mobbed by his teammates and Wigan fans who had breached a wall of stewards, it seemed clear that Morgan was the man to lead The Latics forward as the team began to take shape into a lethal force to be reckoned with in League One.
A run of seven wins, one draw and one loss saw Wigan concede only five goals in nine matches heading into the new year under the guise of Morgan. In the months following Wigan’s indifferent season beginning, The Latics’ defensive front that had solidified significantly, with former Leeds United captain and current Wigan vice captain Jason Pearce forming a formidable partnership at the heart of the defensive line alongside Morgan upon returning from injury in mid November.
Prior to Wigan’s vital clash against automatic promotion chasing Gillingham on January 7th, Morgan spoke about casting away the memories of his team’s lacklustre run of form to begin the season, focusing only on demonstrating high quality performances for the remainder of the campaign:
“Gillingham are challenging for promotion like ourselves and I expect it will be a completely different style of game to the one we lost down there early in the season.
“We were still a very fresh group in that early season period and still getting to know each other and we didn’t really produce anywhere near our best on that day. Hopefully Thursday will be completely different.”
Nine points back of Gillingham with a game in hand, it would be these type of fixtures that would determine Wigan’s outlook come the end of the season. The ever undaunted Morgan would once again have a crucial part to play, as the self-described battler showcased his resolute and steadfast mindset on a bitterly cold Thursday night in front of the Sky Sports cameras.
Facing a lethal attacking force in Justin Edinburgh’s Gillingham, Morgan’s defence would be called upon to put in the high quality performance needed to secure victory in a top of the table promotion clash.
In the opening minutes, The Latics couldn’t keep pace with The Gills’ swarming attacking play, being unable to establish possession whilst also not being able to carve out any meaningful attacking opportunities for themselves. A stuttering start appeared entirely reminiscent of Wigan’s opening day defeat five months earlier.
Three of the four stands housing the home supporters fell silent in the 24th minute, when Gillingham’s menacing midfield maestro Bradley Dack played a high ball over the top of Wigan’s defensive line. Tricky winger Dominic Samuel raced free of Morgan, before surging into the Latics box and finishing emphatically, firing past Jussi Jaaskelainen in the Wigan goal.
The first half whistle blew with Wigan trailing by a single goal. Morgan’s side dejectedly headed for the dressing room, a smattering of boos being aimed in their general direction following a less than mediocre 45 minute display.
With the second half barely underway, Gills captain Doug Loft checked inside on the right wing looking to deliver a ball into the box. As Morgan waited for the cross, he remained spatially aware, checking behind him to prevent a looming Dominic Samuel from making an elusive dash for the centre of the area. Quite clearly, the captain had learnt from his costly mistake that had allowed Adam Armstrong to stride past him unnoticed on that fateful Saturday afternoon in early August.
However, whilst Morgan may have successfully prevented a penetrating run, one of his fellow defensive partners had not. At the far post, Gillingham substitute Rory Donnelly managed to slip by a completely unassuming Donervon Daniels in the Latics back line, planting a header into the back of the net to double the Kent side’s advantage.
In a calm but firm fashion, Morgan ushered his despairing teammates back to the centre of the pitch as the 54th minute of the match approached. It appeared that despite a spirited end to 2015, Wigan were close to crumbling under the immense weight of sky-high expectation that had been heaped on The Latics since the day the new season had begun at the Ricoh Arena, rudderless and without hope.
What transpired in the following 36 minutes however would arguably be the point in which Wigan Athletic’s fortunes would turn for good, with one player’s desire in particular making all the difference.
A Jordi Hiwula cross was met by the soaring Michael Jacobs in the 64th minute, the winger being able to steer the ball back across the face of the goal into the path of star striker Will Grigg. The Northern Irishman lashed home into the open net, bringing Wigan within one.
Three minutes later, and Wigan were level, a thumping strike from the appropriately named Max Power was mishandled by The Gills’ Stuart Nelson, creeping into the goal off the despairing keeper’s hands to even the score.
A previously porous Wigan defence had suddenly solidified, as a rejuvenated back-line spear-headed by Morgan thwarted and diminished Gillingham’s once potent attacking threat. The Latics were now focused on grabbing a desperately desired winner to close the gap between themselves and automatic promotion.
Six minutes of added time read the board held aloft by the fourth official, enough time for either side to secure all three points. Five minutes had passed, one remained as the ball trickled out of play for a Wigan corner in what would clearly be the final piece of action in an exhilarating match.
Before the final delivery was made, the Sky Sports cameras focused on the usual fracas and intense tussling that usually occurs before a corner kick. In view was Latics defender Jason Pearce and Gillingham’s Bradley Garmston grappling with each other, desperate for leverage over one another. To the immediate right of the shot was a towering figure, one of Wigan’s captain, intensely focused on nothing else but the ball placed down next to the corner flag.
“I’ll never give anything less than 100%, I’m a player who is always up for a battle.”
Max Power swung the ball high across the centre of the penalty box, too high for most to leap up and reach. From the background however came a towering figure, springing up higher than anyone around him, it was Wigan Athletic’s leader.
Rising highest, Morgan planted a bullet header beyond the hapless Stuart Nelson into the roof of the net, sparking frenzied scenes of wild joy whilst the defender beamed from ear to ear whilst being engulfed by his jubilant teammates.
Having energised an entire club through a single piece of brilliance, it was clearly evident that Craig Morgan was the leader and captain Wigan needed if they were to go on to achieve the great heights they were expected to reach.
Speaking after the match, Morgan addressed the importance of team spirit amongst the players and the club:
“It’s easy to drop your heads, but we don’t do that.
“There’s one thing we’ll always do, win, lose or draw, we’ll give everything and we’ll go to the end.”
Determined words that replicated the never-say-die spirit and positive attitude Morgan and his side had shown despite falling two goals behind, a world away from the rudderless performance a nervous eleven displayed when behind by the same scoreline on August 8th.
Following the January 7th triumph, a reinvigorated Wigan would surge to a further 14 games unbeaten under the watchful eye of a Morgan led Latics defence. In this period, Wigan conceded only 11 goals in addition to seven clean sheets, averaging well under one goal per game conceded. Such a feat further indicated the massive improvements made to the back-line , that had begun to take place immediately following Wigan’s leader showing his side the way forward through one moment of magic.
On 1st March, a Tuesday trip to The Den and playoff chasing Millwall proved arguably Morgan’s most impressive night of the season. New midfield signing Sam Morsy saw red in the 34th minute following two bookable offences, leaving Wigan with just shy of an hour to survive a vicious onslaught of attacking pressure from a Millwall side desperate to find a winner to boost their playoff chances.
Despite a swarm of deep blue and white shaded shirts queuing up for scoring opportunities throughout the remainder of the match, a tenacious Morgan stood strong, thwarting any looming attack that neared the Wigan box alongside his defencive teammates. Upon the final whistle, the score 0-0, it had become clear that Wigan Athletic were a title-winning side in the making. They had faced severe adversity, and yet stood strong, earning a vital point that had they not gained would’ve placed them in a far less comfortable position on the final day of the season. At the very heart of Wigan’s success stood Morgan, delivering the consistent and determined performances players and fans look for their captain to provide.
“I couldn’t have been prouder to be captain of the team” beamed Morgan in his post match interview.
“I am proud of every single player because it was a fantastic performance.”
In Morgan’s typical, leader-like fashion, all of his praise was heaped on his teammates, refusing to allow the questions posed to him individually prevent his fellow squad members from going without recognition.
Eventually, Wigan suffered their first loss of 2016, and their first in four months at the hands of relegation battling Doncaster on the 16th April. Uncharacteristically, The Latics showed no great desire to earn victory, appearing sluggish and lifeless whilst lacking cohesion in what had been an impenetrable wall of defence in recent months.
Somewhat coincidentally, this was also the first match Craig Morgan did not play in since the victory over Gillingham. His absence was obvious and provided perfect evidence to suggest the importance of the Welshman to the players, to Wigan Athletic.
Soon, accolades commending Morgan’s overall season performances began to roll in, the first seeing the 30-year-old be named in the Football League Team of the Season. Following that, Morgan was named in the Football League’s top 15 players of League One, ranking 13th. On the same day, Morgan was named in the PFA League One team of the year, alongside three other fellow Latics. Morgan’s vital contributions and endless, tireless efforts were beginning to be recognised by more than just the Latics faithful.
Now fully in flow, Morgan’s defence allowed one goal or less in seven of their final nine games, proving that Wigan possessed the strongest and fiercest defensive front in League One.
A dominating 4-1 victory all but secured Wigan promotion, with the final exclamation point arriving on a sun-soaked Saturday at Bloomfield Road, as Wigan stormed to a 4-0 victory and the League One title. Of course, Morgan faced the entire 90 minutes of The Latics’ triumphant day, aptly recording one final clean sheet of the season.
Alongside his teammates, Morgan celebrated his team’s incredible achievement relatively gracefully, appearing to mingle towards the back of a frenzied group including the squad, management and staff. Such a scene reflected Morgan’s calm and poised on the field demeanour perfectly.
The 8th of May served as a vibrant celebration of Wigan Athletic’s wonderful promotion-winning season, despite an unexpected 4-1 defeat at the hands of Barnsley, whose determination to achieve their own goal of success mirrored the same attitude Morgan and The Latics had displayed in countless games before.
Speaking after Wigan’s final league match of the season, Morgan stressed that The Latics’ achievement was a team effort, with both the fans and players playing a huge role as the season progressed.
“I have been lucky to have had some good times in my career before and it was just as special as any of the other ones.
“The crowd have been brilliant and throughout the season I think they have been more than happy with what we have put on for them.”
“This has been a massive effort from everyone.”
In the face of early season adversity, Morgan had cast the memories of his nightmarish beginning at the Ricoh Arena firmly into the backs of everyone’s minds, leaving no room for doubt that he was indeed the right man for the skipper’s armband, captain fantastic indeed.
Huddled on the winners’ podium, manager Gary Caldwell and Craig Morgan jubilantly raised the League One title trophy aloft for all to see. Morgan had achieved the success he had so accurately predicted when he first spoke following his move to Wigan.
“A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” In Wigan Athletic’s 2015/16 season, Craig Morgan certainly showed the way, the way back to the Championship.