OPINION: Ian Lenagan 10 Seasons at Wigan

In this article we are going to look back at the past ten years of Ian Lenagan’s ownership of Wigan Warriors and reflect on the impact of his tenure on the club during this time.

It was the 24th October 2007 when it was officially announced that Ian Lenagan would be purchasing an 89% stake in the Wigan club, from Dave Whelan. The official website press release at the time stated:

“Completion of the deal has taken longer than anticipated and today’s announcement is needed to end speculation for supporters and staff alike. I am delighted to announce that Brian Noble will remain as Head Coach” said Lenagan.

 The new management team, which includes Ian Lenagan as Chairman and Joe Lydon as Chief Executive of the newly-formed Holding Company, are determined to build on the Wigan Club’s proud heritage whilst at the same time enhancing and expanding the business through true partnership for the good of the team, the Club, the town and the game of Rugby League as a whole.

The Warriors acquisition includes the option to stay at the JJB Stadium through to 2050, the freehold of the High Performance Training Facility and Stadium at Orrell.

David Whelan finished, “I was only prepared to let the Club go to someone with the best interests of the Club at heart and I firmly believe that Mr Lenagan is that man. We wish him well.” 

At the time of the takeover, Wigan had finished the 2007 season with a 36-6 Play-Off Semi-Final at the hands of Leeds Rhinos at Headingley. A fate that was to be matched in the 2008 season and the 2009 season, although this time, at the hands of arch-rivals, St Helens.

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Upon the announcement of his takeover, Ian Lenagan, told BBC Radio 5 Live that “It is my intention to return Wigan to what it has always been – a club with pride, with integrity and with supporters who are liked throughout the rugby league world, a club that performs in every respect on and off the field.”

I believe that statement made to BBC Radio 5 Live formed the cornerstone in which Lenagan planned to restructure Wigan and now, in 2017, we can reflect knowing that Lenagan has a club with pride, integrity and has a club that is performing on and off the field.

A Time for Change

At the time of the takeover in 2007, the Wigan club appeared very different to me as a supporter – frustratingly under performing and annoyingly mismanaged off the field. The shambles of the 2006 season probably epitomised the decline of Wigan, as a club, in the Super League era. They seemed like a club that struggled to adapt with the change to the summer era, whether that be an even playing field from the professionalism of the game or the imposed salary cap. Things just weren’t the same as 1988 – 1995 and no one, really knew why.

The 2006 season, which in truth, was the catalyst for change, saw Wigan start the season managed by Ian Millward (a St Helens hero!), only to be replaced by Brian Noble at Easter. A world record transfer fee was paid for Stuart Fielden, a loan deal for Catalans in-form player Michael Dobson (a team exempt from relegation in their first season). A points deduction for salary cap breaches, 3 wins in the first 18 games of the season – and just about avoiding relegation by the time September arrived, mainly thanks to a Michael Dobson-inspired, 10 wins from the final 12 games of the season.

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A club that won eight Challenge Cups in a row, was fighting off relegation and having only won the Super League once in its 11-year existence and one Challenge Cup in the same timeframe. The club was a mess, on and off the pitch and change was needed…

2008 and 2009

The 2008 and 2009 seasons saw Ian Lenagan flex his muscles in terms of recruitment and ensuring Wigan were competing in the Play-Offs at the end of the season. A Challenge Cup Quarter-Final in 2008 and Semi-Final in 2009, along with two Super League Play-Offf Semi-Finals suggested that Brian Noble was on the cusp of repeating his Bradford success with Wigan, should his contract be extended for the 2010 season.

The semi-final against St Helens in the Super League was to be Noble’s last game in a charge. A heroic defeat in a season that saw the emergence of a young half-back named Tomkins gave cause for optimism moving forward, but surely not renewing Noble’s contract was to be a mistake. I remember vividly, standing in the away end at Knowsley Road, applauding another valiant defeat and signing “There’s Only One Brian Noble” – surely we’ve have got to re-sign him, he is the best coach in the UK I thought – who could we get that was better?!

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The announcement on the 7th October, that Wigan were to appoint, an unknown current Melbourne Storm assistant coach, Michael Maguire, to be the new head coach at Wigan was treated with sincere astonishment. I remember thinking, this is Wigan, we shouldn’t be hiring people we haven’t heard of? We need a Daniel Anderson or a Wayne Bennett.

At the time, Lenagan was said:

“We are delighted to have secured the services of Michael as Head Coach. He is one of the most highly rated young Coaches in the world game with particular expertise in bringing young players through successfully into First Grade Rugby League. He has learned under a Master Coach, Craig Bellamy, at Melbourne Storm and part of his role at Wigan is to develop a hierarchy of excellent future Coaches for the Club. Michael has impressed me with his abilities as a Coach, Conditioner and Teacher and with his enthusiasm to be given this opportunity with Wigan in Super League.”

Time would tell if this appointment would be a success but I would suggest most Wigan fans were sceptical than optimistic at his appointment.

2010 Season

What the 2010 season brought us, in a hindsight and from a supporter’s point of view, seemed to be a culture change at the club. There was obviously a change in playing style that came with the appointment of the former Melbourne Storm Assistant. But the feeling around the club, from supporter’s optimism to how the players seemed to interact was different. When you read interviews from back in 2010 or even now, referring to the club, the words culture and family are two words that you will see quite often. I do believe that the 2010 season saw Maguire change the club to a family club once again and restored pride from the players through to the supporters.

The 2010 season saw Wigan win their first Grand Final since 1998, a remarkable achievement when you look back at the fact the Maguire only signed one player and that was veteran half back, Paul Deacon.  At the time, a much bigger focus to the academy seemed to be vested from Lenagan than perhaps we had seen from Maurice Lyndsey and Dave Whelan, the appointment of Shaun Wane as assistant coach seemed to add weight to this – he was a coach that had worked with many of the young players coming through the academy system at the time, the likes of Sam Tomkins, Lee Mossop and Liam Farrell.

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Continued Success

The 2010 season was the catalyst that changed the fortunes of the club, three Super Leagues, Two Challenge Cups and a World Club Challenge Trophy since 2010 suggests that is true. But how did Wigan ensure they were able to compete year-in year-out for trophies are such a barren period since the inception of Super League?

My thoughts are that the vast majority of this success is due to the planning of Ian Lenagan to ensure there is a continued development and continued success. A key appointment was that of Kris Radlinski who was made Rugby Manager and is now a Director of the club. Having a Wigan legend in such a key position I believe, has proved to be vital in the succession since 2010 – 2017. The careful handling of youth players and opportunities they have been granted under Shaun Wane in particular, in the past eight seasons has ensured that a succession of international quality players have been developed by Wigan in Lenagan’s tenure.

The controversial, at the time, decision to allow players like Joel and Sam Tomkins to go to Rugby Union and the NRL respectively was a decision that has ultimately proved to be a successful one. Such is the culture and atmosphere the Wigan club now has, players have the opportunity to try such experiences but should they wish to return to Super League, their first choice is always Wigan. The return of the Tomkins brothers, Lee Mossop, Joe Burgess and Thomas Leuluai during the past ten years prove that Lenagan’s stance on this was correct. Had these players not been allowed to leave the club originally, the development of players such as Dom Manfredi, George Williams, Lewis Tierney and even Joe Burgess himself may have been hampered and their opportunities limited.

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The continued development has also resulted in the signing of so-called, experiential players. The likes of Ben Flower, Gil Dudson, Tony Clubb and Dan Sarginson have been brought to the club as a project signings and have all improved significantly whilst at Wigan. Again at the time of signing, many fans probably doubted the players and questioned why Wigan were signing such players. However, now with hindsight, who can say that the signings of Flower, Clubb and Sarginson in particular were not resounding successes?

The family club feeling harboured since 2010 does not mean that during Lenagan’s first ten years at the club, that all has been smooth sailing and that there have not been any discipline issues at the club. I believe that mistakes are made and bad decisions are made by individuals, but how these are dealt with, defines the club and those involved. I cannot have any arguments about the way Lenagan and the club conduct themselves when such issues arise. The way the Gareth Hock non-transfer and subsequent loaning to Widnes, a team that at the time could not influence Wigan’s ambitions was exemplary, likewise the Sean Long employment and then apparent non-employment, the Haydock Races incident – all dealt with, internally with professionalism and fans informed at the time in which the club felt they could be.

Perhaps the biggest example of how well I think Lenagan has handled the Wigan image in light of bad press was in the aftermath of the 2014 Grand Final, The Ben Flower Final as it is probably known as now. The club was keen to support Flower but at the same time, show that he would be disciplined but perhaps more importantly, ensure that St Helens got the praise they deserved for winning the Super League and for the incident to not overshadow their success.

For me, I cannot thank Ian Lenagan enough for the past ten years, the dismay of the 2006 season was something that no Wigan fan expected but to contrast that with the success we have experienced within the following 10 seasons is also something equally unexpected. Lenagan should be applauded and commended by all at Wigan, his vision and business mind has ensured that he has delivered pride, integrity and success – the original blueprint that he highlighted to BBC Radio 5 Live in 2007. I have always found Ian Lenagan to be open and fair to fans and always takes the time out to speak to us, whether that be in the early days via fans forums or nowadays via Wigan TV.

I am delighted that he is Wigan’s chairman and owner but part of me also wishes he had some influence with the RFL and Super League. I believe that he has the realistic ambition to grow the game in the right manner and his track record of the past 10 seasons suggests he knows what he is doing. The succession of power from Lenagan to Radlinski looks set to be something that I would expect to happen in the next 10 seasons at some point, with the Lenagan family retaining the ownership of the club – I wonder whether at that point, a role in the RFL is possible for Mr Lenagan at that stage?

From all Wigan Fans, thank you for the past 10 seasons and we look forward to the next 10!

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