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1st Team Goalkeepers: Ali Al Habsi (30), Mike Pollitt (40), Lee Nicholls (19) [on loan at Northampton]
It’s hard to know what to expect from Wigan this season. The finished the last campaign with the swagger of a team marching into the Champions League, but the evidence of the season up that point showed there were some serious issues with the team.
The uncertainty extends to Ali Al Habsi. He was simply brilliant last season. He was in fantastic form making a string of great saves and one incredible double save at Wolves. He has grown with each season and the shakiness which was in evidence early on in his Latics career has gradually disappeared from few. He’s now a far more convincing goalkeeper than he once was and combined with his reflexes and athleticism, that makes him a seriously good operator.
As good as his improvement has been, there are still some errors. In fairness to the Omani international, the frequency of those mistakes has reduced and he earns his team far more than he costs them. All goalkeepers make mistakes, but Al Habsi’s can be extra frustrating particularly in view of knowing how good he can be. If he starts the season well and continues to reduce the less than assured moments, his form will be massive in getting Roberto Martinez the good start to the season he wants. If he isn’t, it could be a struggle.
With a couple of weeks to go until the transfer window closes, the options on the bench are a touch worrying for Latics fans. The only other keeper registered in the senior squad is Mike Pollitt. He’s a hugely experienced keeper, but he has already considered retirement a couple of times and that’s not ideal. Previously Chris Kirkland was the second choice, but his history of injuries meant he was often unavailable too. The club released his when his contract expired over the summer and leaves Wigan’s goalkeeping ranks looking rather thin. Lee Nicholls is the club’s ‘one for the future’ and he will begin the season on loan at Northampton.
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1st Team Squad Goalkeepers: Ali Al Habsi, Chris Kirkland, Mike Pollitt, Lee Nicholls.
Overview: The signing of Ali Al Habsi is huge for Wigan. After the impressive season he had last year, I though Bolton would do everything within their power to reclaim him and turn them into their first choice. In the end, they were more than happy to let Al Habsi go and for a price that could end up looking very cheap in a few years time. It’s not even remotely hyperbolic to say the Omani keeper kept Wigan up last year and his securing of the club’s ‘Player of the Season’ award was thoroughly merited. The Latics will expect more of the same this term and there’s little reason to think it won’t happen. Early on in the season, I felt Al-Habsi played with a degree of uncertainly common in goalkeepers who don’t see much playing time, but as the season went on he settled in and we saw his ability blossom. There were a few mistakes and he isn’t always the cleanest handler of the ball, but he has always responded well after a blip. The affection the fans have for him has surely helped in this respect and undoubtedly had a major influence on his decision to return to the club on a permanent basis.
Al Habsi will start the season as first choice, but in reserve, Roberto Martinez has a couple of interesting options. The story of Chris Kirkland is a touch depressing. On one hand he’s spent much of his career in the Premier League and that’s the dream of many a person who has strapped up the gloves, but on the other, injury has seriously hindered his attempts to fulfill the ability we first saw at Coventry. At various times at various clubs, he has shown flashes of his ability, but no sooner has he got a run of games under his belt than another injury has struck. He’s now in his 30s and you’d have to wonder if he’ll ever get a sustained spell of fitness, but if called upon and if he’s fit, he’s more than capable of doing a job at Premier League level. If Kirkland isn’t in a position to answer the call, Mike Pollitt is next in line. You get the feeling that Kirkland’s injury woes are at least partially the reason why he’s still at Wigan. This season will see him turn 40 and although he’s rarely played for the last few seasons, having him around undoubtedly provides peace of mind.
Worst case scenario: Second season syndrome is the main concern with Al Habsi. It’s causes and it’s very existence are open to debate, but the fact of the matter is he set the bar high last season and if he doesn’t reach a similar level this time around, there will be some grumbles. Injury or a loss of form we see Martinez relying on Kirkland and that may be fine for a few weeks, but you always get the impression that another spell on the sidelines is on it’s way.
What will probably happen: Al Habsi will continue on the form of last season and limited Kirkland to the occasional cup appearance.