OUT OF THE MAYHEM – INTO THE BIG TIME!
THIS time next year, Gavin Massey hopes to be battling Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion for a place in the Premier League.
“Nobody expected us to beat Man City and we did that,” says the Wigan winger, who last week capped a memorable campaign with promotion to the Championship. “So who knows? The way we’ve played this season, anything is possible.”
Yet, just 12 months ago, the 25year-old was facing trips to Barrow, Bromley and a life in Non-League football.
Relegated with Colchester in 2016, the Watford graduate had joined Leyton Orient with dreams of a swift return to League One.
Instead, he found managerial mayhem, unpaid wages and a club driven to destruction by the neglect of owner Francesco Becchetti.
By April, the O’s were doomed and, just a year after his heartbreak at Layer Road, Massey was relegated again – this time to the National League.
“I’m a professional footballer, a privileged guy,” says Massey. “But relegation still affects you. I’d had two, back-to-back, and I was down in the dumps. Just really low.
“It does hurt your confidence and I’ve seen lots of players in that situation kind of drift away and give up on football. So, to be here, with Wigan…it’s amazing how quickly things can flip and change.
“After we beat Fleetwood to win promotion, I was sitting on the coach when our captain, Sam Morsy, stood up. He said, ‘Gav, can you possibly describe your last 12 months in football?’.
“I thought for a while and said ‘No mate, I don’t think I can’. This time last year, I was heading out of the Football League. Now, I’m standing here having beaten Manchester City, got to the FA Cup quarter-finals and won promotion into the Championship. It’s surreal, totally crazy.”
As was that chaotic 12 months at Brisbane Road, in which Orient rattled through six managers before eventually losing their century-long grip on league status. “It still saddens me,” says Massey, who finished the season as Orient’s top scorer. “Potentially, we had a great squad. I even spoke to the gaffer here when I joined Wigan (Paul Cook – pictured left) and we both agreed that team should have been pushing for promotion. “But, from the moment I signed, things started going wrong. You try to stay professional, ignore all the chaos. After a while, though, you can’t.
“One manager would get the sack. Then another. Then they’d bring in an Italian manager who couldn’t speak a word of English. You’re thinking, ‘What’s going on here?’.
“When he gets sacked, you think ‘Right, it can’t get any worse’. Then there’d be another bad decision or something else would go wrong. Then, all of a sudden, nobody is getting paid. It was a farce.
“The fans had their views of the owners and, believe me, the players did as well. But we were just trying to keep going, keep the club intact – even when we knew we’d probably get relegated.
“We really fought for that club and I think we developed a strong bond with the supporters. But, by the last two months of the seasons things were just ridiculous. Totally impossible.”
For Orient – mid-table in the National League – the slog back to respectability is likely to take years. For Massey, just months.
The Londoner had twice impressed in games against Portsmouth and, when gaffer Cook swapped Fratton Park for the DW, signing Massey was an early priority.
And, where Orient quickly turned into a nightmare, Massey rapidly realised life in Lancashire would be very different.
“From the day I joined to the day we went up, there wasn’t one moment when I didn’t think we’d be in the Championship next year,” says Massey, who had never ventured north alone before taking the train to sign for Wigan.
“And it all comes from the
staff. The gaffer and his coaches are so down to earth. There’s nothing big-time about any of them.
“Work ethic is everything to them. The message was basically that we’ve got some real superstars in this team who probably shouldn’t even be in League One. So, if they put a shift in, who can stop us?
“Opening day, we played Milton Keynes, who were tipped to reach the play-offs. We were down to ten men after half an hour, right up against it. But we scored a goal, then grafted to hang on for a 1-0. That set the tone really. You could just tell that the boys could smell promotion.”
Chief among those superstars is Nick Powell, the former Crewe protege who lost his way after a big-money move to Manchester United. Now 25, the 15-goal playmaker is the stylish heart of this Latics side and is once again on the radar of several Premier League sides.
“Nick is hands down the best player I’ve ever played alongside,” adds Massey, who has chipped in with six goals of his own this term. “This boy does things in training I’ve never seen before.
“In a match, everything is so calm. When you watch him on the pitch, you can tell that everything is just too easy for him. He’s levels above everybody else in the league.
“When we beat West Ham in the FA Cup, they highlighted Nick on Match of the Day. The pundits were all saying he looked like a Premier League player that day, but he looks like that every week. He definitely shouldn’t be playing at this level. “And it isn’t just him. Will Grigg is the ultimate goalscorer. He’d probably be one of the best strikers in the Championship. “For me, it’s great to learn off these players. It’s crazy, because Nick’s younger than me and I’m watching everything he does. But you can’t be proud about it – it’s an incredible opportunity to play alongside lads like this. I feel very lucky.”
Aside from cantering to League One promotion – Wigan were outside the top two for just five of the last 34 game-weeks – Cook’s side also dumped Bournemouth, West Ham and City out of the FA Cup before falling to Southampton in the quarters.
“Everyone said the FA Cup would be a distraction, but it actually spurred us on,” says Massey. “I mean, how could beating Man City not breed confidence?
“Before that game, we actually had a little blip. You want to take on a team like City full of confidence, but we’d just lost to Southend! At the back of your mind, you’re thinking ‘God, if we lost to them, what could this lot do to us?’.
“But then we went out, beat them 1-0 and, suddenly, you’re thinking, ‘If we can beat them, we can beat anybody’.”
It is that mentality which Massey hopes will prevent a repeat of 2016-17, when Wigan followed promotion under Gary Caldwell with an instant return to League One.
“I’m confident, and I think the boys are as well,” he says. “After some of the performances we’ve put in you can just tell we can be a good side in the Championship.
“It’ll be a lot of hard work, but the quality is there. We’ve proved that. And after the year I’ve had, I’ve learned anything can happen.
“I’ve gone from potentially playing in front of a few hundred people to playing in front of 30,000. So who knows? This time next year, maybe we’ll be pushing for the Premier League.”