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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 20/09/03, 3.00pm
Wigan Athletic
Healthy distance
By Matt Rowson

I like trains.

This is a standpoint probably influenced by the fact that I've never had a regular train commute (either to work, or to Watford games from Brighton, for example) trains from my perspective are good things in that they involve not driving, having ample space to move around, stand up, sit down as required, read, eat, drink, sleep, none of which are possible in the car. Strictly speaking. And if there's a train line which runs in a straight enough line from where I happen to be to wherever Watford are playing, and not wishing to tempt fate, so much the better.

It's a fair bet that were I a more frequent user of our train system, I wouldn't be as positive about the whole idea. Similarly, old-skool Wimbledon were always a much more enjoyable prospect at a distance than when we actually had to play them. So it may prove with Wigan... at a healthy distance, the presence of the Latics on top of Division One (their highest ever League position) is hugely entertaining and conjures the delicious image of David Dein's face when asked about the prospect of Athletic joining the elite Premiership club.

Athletic may not be as attractive a proposition at the weekend when Geoff Horsfield is knocking lumps out of our defence, or Wigan are following the pattern that has seen the Lancashire side win both competitive "home" encounters between the two sides (Watford having a 100% record at Vicarage Road). We shall see.

The Lancashire side certainly come into Saturday's game buoyed by a decent run of form which has seen them lose only five competitive games in fifty-five, but on paper the side's strong start looks to be built on more than momentum... this is a side with plenty of experience at this level.

Australian John Filan, once of Blackburn Rovers, will be in goal... players' player-of-the-year for the last two seasons he kept twenty-nine clean sheets in competitive games last year as Athletic won Division Two on the back of the best defensive record of any professional side in Europe. Veteran Gary Walsh is his deputy having arrived from Bradford in the summer.

Right back is Nicky Eaden, who has clocked up over three hundred games at this level for Barnsley and Birmingham. The versatile Paul Mitchell is another option, but has missed a couple of games with a dead leg. On the left, former Motherwell man Steve McMillan has a knock so Peter Kennedy is likely to be involved. Now thirty, Kennedy didn't manage to recreate the same goalscoring form during his second Division Two Championship season that characterised his first, but still managed to hold down a regularish place in the Latics' side. Leighton Baines is a young alternative on the left hand side.

In the centre, the loss of Canadian captain Jason de Vos with a foot injury will be significant, but former Norwich skipper Matt Jackson and one-time Rotherham defender Ian Breckin are still a formidable obstacle.

In midfield, former West Ham junior Jimmy Bullard is likely to be partnered with ex-Stockport and Wolves man Tony Dinning. Dinning owes his place in the side to a knee injury to Jason Jarrett but the messageboards suggest that he might have been worth his place in any case - off-pitch considerations are rumoured to have been playing a part in his earlier omission.

Wide positions are taken by two occasional strikers... Lee McCulloch on the left who arrived from Motherwell with Steve McMillan and Andy Liddell on the right who is currently the Latics' longest serving player but previously spent a few years at Barnsley. Another Scot, the pacy Gary Teale, can also play on the right whilst Kennedy has also featured on the left of midfield.

Up front, the Latics have an impressive array of options... Geoff Horsfield is a man of little mystery; you wouldn't want to get between him and Sean Dyche if such proves the confrontation. Nathan Ellington is likely to partner him and had scored his previous six competitive games prior to Tuesday night's win over West Brom. Welsh International Neil Roberts, who played against the Hornets for Wrexham in the Second Division, is likely to start on the bench as is Mark Burchill, who completes a one-month loan from Portsmouth.

At the start of the season, we'd have been sceptical at the suggestion that we'd be facing a table-topping Wigan side from the relegation zone in this fixture, but we know that our position is harsh and Athletic will not have had to cope with a major setback for a while. Derailing their early start has to be the objective for Saturday.