Wigan Athletic Under 23s Report

With Latics’ pre season well underway we’ve already seen plenty of the clubs’ Under 23s squad being given an opportunity to impress Leam Richardson. The club have made just 1 first team signing and with areas of the starting 11 still up for grabs there could be some youth players in the mix next season.

With that in mind I’m going to take a closer look at 5 players that could stake a claim to be in and around the first team squad next season. I’ll give my opinion on whether I think they’re ready for the step up into the first team, would benefit from another year of U23s football or whether a loan move for regular professional game time could be the way forward.

Sam Tickle – Goalkeeper

The first player who’ll be eyeing a spot in the first team is 20 year old goalkeeper Sam Tickle. He spent last season as our 3rd choice goalkeeper and travelled with the squad most matchdays so should be well integrated with staff and players alike.

His only experience of First Team football came in the Papa John’s Trophy group stage against Crewe, a game Latics fell to a 2-0 defeat in. It would be hugely unfair to judge him based on that game alone but it’s good to see he’s earnt Leam’s trust to use him in the first team.

With Ben Amos and Jamie Jones still around and transfer rumours surrounding incoming keepers it looks as though Tickle will have to wait for a run in the first team. With that in mind there are 2 logical options: Another year in the 23s or a loan move away.

Sam Tickle isn’t the only talented young keeper at Christopher Park. Owen Mooney and Tom Watson are both highly thought of at the club and could each fill the gap left by Tickle in the U23 squad. This would allow the 20 year old to go out on loan and play professional first team football to help hone his skills.

Here’s 3 teams I think Sam Tickle would fit in well at:

Crewe Alexendra finished rock bottom of League 1 last season and will be looking for a return to the 3rd tier next season. But with only 1 first team keeper at the club now could be the perfect time to look for a young loanee to come and have the chance to impress.

It makes sense location wise, its a club that has a history of developing young talent and he should have a good chance of getting quality first team experience under his belt. Its a move that makes sense for all involved.

Another League 2 side in need of competition in the Goalkeeper position is Rochdale. Former Latic Richard O’Donnell is the clubs’ current No1 but could do with a young prospect to come, originally as back up but with the view to taking his shirt as the season goes on.

Dale look like they’re facing a struggle next season so Tickle would certainly be kept busy should he arrive at Spotland. Perhaps that’s what he needs at such a young age, in which case this would be the best move for him, but with uncertainty around the club it might not be the best environment to develop in.

My final suggested destination for Sam Tickle is Chesterfield where of course he’d be working under former Latics boss Paul Cook. The Spireites are in the National League but you’d imagine they’ll be preparing for another promotion push in the upcoming campaign. They’ve already signed one goalkeeper this summer but are still in need of another, that’s where I think signing Sam Tickle makes sense.

Having a good relationship with the manager of a loanee is important and obviously Leam and Cook know each other very well. He might not be No1 from the outset but Tickle would certainly get a good go at Chesterfield in a very testing division.

Charlie Hughes – Centre Back

The youngest player on this list is 18 year old Central Defender Charlie Hughes, the captain of Latics’ U18 side last season. His performances for Kieran Driscoll’s side earnt him his first pro deal which he signed in September 2021, his promotion to the U23s squad and his first team debut in January 22.

It was quite the season for Hughes and after a full pre season in the first team this summer it looks as though he’s only going to kick on further. Latics’ fans will have seen glimpses of Hughes in various friendlies and will all have been impressed by his composure, passing range and defensive qualities amongst other things.

We’re thin at the back so he’s closer to the first team than he might’ve expected, so with that in mind I expect him to remain at the club this season.

I think a full year in the U23s will do Hughes the world of good. Our youth team staff are genuinely some of the best in the country and it seems to be the perfect environment to develop in for any young player. Keeping him around the club would also allow him to feature in the cup competitions should Latics choose to prioritise Championship survival.

Similarly to our first team there isn’t much depth at Centre Half in our U23s so it makes sense to keep him here so as not to weaken the side. As well as this, if Hughes can develop a solid partnership with fellow CB James Carragher it could set them up to become our long term defensive duo.

Speaking of which…

James Carragher – Centre Back

When your dad made more than 500 top flight appearances and won a boat-load of trophies for Liverpool, there will always be some way to go to live up to those achievements.

But Latics’ U23 captain James Carragher is looking to forge a successful career of his own and has all the attributes to do so. He signed his first pro deal at the club last August after guiding our U18s to the Professional Development League title in 2020/21 and kicked on in the age group above last term.

With former defensive partner Adam Long completing a permanent transfer to Doncaster, Carra will be the senior figure at the heart of our U23s defence and will play a big part for the club next season.

As I mentioned when I was discussing Charlie Hughes the general lack of depth at CB throughout the club means it makes the most sense to keep Carragher at the club, at least until January. He’s a key player for Frankie Bunn’s side and a vocal figure in the dressing room which cannot be underestimated in youth football.

Despite only being 11 months older than Charlie Hughes he could play a big part in his development next season too. They’ve already featured together across all 3 age groups and hopefully it’ll be a successful partnership that will continue to grow into something special.

He’s featured plenty in pre season and has spent the entire summer around the first team so Leam clearly has faith in the 19 year old. At the moment you could argue he’s our 4th choice CB so I can’t see him going anywhere anytime soon. This may be subject to change in January though.

Scott Smith – Centre Midfield

Probably the most recognisable name on this list is 21 year old Scott Smith. The Wigan-born tenacious midfielder made 8 first team appearances last season before he picked up an injury in January that kept him out for the remainder of the campaign.

But with Smith back fit and with good minutes under his belt in pre season he’ll be hoping to be able to show his aggressive ball winning, his tidy passing and his unwavering commitment in the Championship during the upcoming season.

He signed a 1 year contract extension this summer and it kind of feels like a make or break season for him. With Jordan Cousins out for a number of months and no midfield additions this summer it looks like the plan is to keep Smith around the first team. But is that the best thing for his development?

If he’s going to play it’ll be in the first few months of the season whilst Jordan Cousins is side-lined with the latest of his long line of injuries. As it stands I have him down as our 4th choice fit CDM/CM so you’d imagine there will be times where he’s needed in the first team, assuming we don’t bring in anymore players in that position.

Hopefully he impresses in whatever games he plays in and finally cements himself as a key player at the club. There’s nothing better than seeing a boyhood fan play for their club and I’d love to see him become a regular starter but time is probably running out to make that dream a reality. For now it’ll likely be a mix of U23 football and first team football when desperately needed.

If things haven’t worked out in the first half of the season he desperately needs a loan move in January. Similarly to James Carragher my verdict on Smith could be subject to change in January but for now I’d like to keep him around.

Chris Sze – Forward

The final player on my list is the ‘2021/22 Michael Millett Academy Player of the Year Award’ Chris Sze. It was somewhat of a breakout season for Sze as he made his first senior appearance and netted his first senior goal for the club in a string of impressive performances.

A versatile forward, Sze played minutes at CF, RAM and ST in the first team last season but looks to be at his best centrally where he can use his ball control and agility to split teams open. He’s not got much of a physical presence but can play as a lone striker too.

This is the position from which he scored his first senior goal last season , a delightful chip against Shrewsbury in the Papa John’s Trophy group stage. He also netted 8 U23 goals and won the U18 golden boot, the lad can finish!

He’ll have competition in the forward positions next season though. Latics have signed an exciting attacking trio this summer: Luke Brennan, Youssef Chentouf and Josh Stones and all 3 will be getting regular game time under Frankie Bunn this season. Therefore, I think a loan move for Chris Sze could be the perfect thing to continue his impressive development.

Here are a few teams where Chris Sze could flourish:

Barrow shocked a few people when they stayed in League 2 next year and will be hoping to do the same again. But at the moment most Bluebirds supporters would agree they’re slightly light up top. They have a target man in Richie Bennett but could do with some attacking pace and I think Chris Sze would be the perfect partner for the lower league stalwart.

There might be some concern about the facilities at the club but they’re nothing to be sniffed at and I still think its an environment that Sze could develop well in.

Another League 2 side lacking depth up top is Gillingham who were relegated from League 1 last season. Neil Harris’ side’s only recognisable striker is former Wigan man Mikael Mandron and I think it would do him and the club the world of good should they bring in Chris Sze on loan.

Harris likes playing 2 up top and the ‘big man little man’ combination could be something he looks to utilise after bringing in Target Man Mandron from fellow relegation fodder Crewe.

Geographically this move has its problems as its a hell of a way for Sze to go and the Gills tend to recruit locally, but on paper I really like the idea of this move.

This might seem slightly unambitious given the 2 teams I’ve mentioned previously but bare with me. Not only is AFC Fylde a club that our staff have a good relationship with but its also a club with the infrastructure to aid youth development. If Chris Sze was to arrive at Mill Farm he would become a key player immediately and that pressure could be ideal for his young shoulders.

Technically he’s far too good for the level but the tests he’d face physically would be great and I’d be interested to see how he’d handle them. A year of goal scoring and ‘beefing up’ for AFC Fylde could be the perfect next step for Chris Sze.

Final Thoughts

This season is going to be pivotal for the club across the board and youth development is right up there in its importance. It saved the club in administration and we’ve seen players like Callum Lang and Thelo Aasgaard become fan favourites following their rises through the clubs’ youth ranks.

These 5 names could all join them in the first team in years to come and should all have ample opportunities to impress this year, be it at or away from the club. We’ve got many exciting talents at the club, some of which I haven’t mentioned today, and its time for them to make their marks on the game and this club!

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