Dave Whelan: From Wigan to Barbados, the incentive that's hard to beat

He insists he is no Abramovich of the North. But he still makes money talk. Ronald Atkin meets the owner on the threshold of an unlikely dream

Shrewd operator that he is, Dave Whelan has tabled an enticing offer to his players: beat Reading this afternoon and I'll take you all on holiday to Barbados next Friday. For the Wigan Athletic chairman, an ex-professional footballer who was a self-made millionaire even before he built his JJB Sports empire, an ascent into the Premiership guaranteed by this victory would be the culmination of an incredible 10-year march through the divisions, the fulfilment of a personal dream, and well worth the cost of the 30 seats he has provisionally booked on the departure from Manchester for his players and training staff.

Shrewd operator that he is, Dave Whelan has tabled an enticing offer to his players: beat Reading this afternoon and I'll take you all on holiday to Barbados next Friday. For the Wigan Athletic chairman, an ex-professional footballer who was a self-made millionaire even before he built his JJB Sports empire, an ascent into the Premiership guaranteed by this victory would be the culmination of an incredible 10-year march through the divisions, the fulfilment of a personal dream, and well worth the cost of the 30 seats he has provisionally booked on the departure from Manchester for his players and training staff.

The 68-year-old Whelan, who owns a house in Barbados, said: "I have told them they can play golf, snorkel or just eat. They will enjoy it. They have earned it."

Before that confirming phone call to the airline, however, there is a game of football to be won, a Coca-Cola Championship game against opponents who also need to win to keep alive their promotion hopes via the play-offs, so Whelan is cautious.

"We don't count chickens here," he insisted. "We lost a play-off place in the last 30 seconds last season, and this is a tough match, very tough. But the destiny lies in our hands. Go and beat 'em, and we're up. The only bad thing is that I'm not playing. I would love to be out there."

But Whelan clearly didn't get where he is today by being short of decisions and opinions, so he has taken a careful look down the golden pathway leading to football's top flight. In addition to the windfall from TV exposure, he says he is prepared to dig as deep as necessary to buy the half-dozen new men needed if Wigan go up and intend to stay up.

So will he be the Roman Abramovich of the North? "No, Wigan is Wigan, and we have limitations. What we want is to be a Bolton or a Blackburn, because there is no way to prevent the Premiership comprising three divisions. You've got the top three, then the next eight or so, and then you've got the rest. We would like to be in the middle where Everton and Bolton are. Which is not easy. But the important thing is to stay up.

"If the right players are available and [the manager] Paul Jewell asks me the question, 'Can I buy him?' and he is the right player, I will support him.

"The problem if we do go up is the short buying gap you've got until next season, with the window closing at the end of August. So, needing to strengthen, you've got to find the players in 10 weeks. That is more of a headache than finding the money."

Refreshingly, Whelan is not a devotee of importing talent. "What I don't want to do is find money for foreign players who come here with the attitude of, 'I want the money'. They bring great skills but they have also taken a hell of a lot of money out of our game, and some of them haven't given value for money. What you get from most home-grown players is effort, and some of the foreign lads don't give 100 per cent. Not all, but some."

While acknowledging that Sam Allar-dyce has manufactured a successful side out of imports and loans at Bolton, Whelan claimed: "Sam has been brilliant. He has had a go. He has done deals, and while some have worked for him, others have been a complete waste of time. Who wants to watch foreigners every week? I don't mind one or two, but not seven or eight. There should be a limit on foreign players, and if we get up I want to sign good young Brits where I can."

That said, Whelan bemoans the loss of the Danish international Per Frandsen, a free transfer from Bolton last summer. "We lost Per in September, an innocent tackle shattered his knee, finished. Had we had that lad playing all season we would have been champions by now."

The sort of injury suffered by Frandsen is achingly similar to the experience of Whelan, who broke a leg in the 1960 FA Cup final. In those days of no substitutes, Blackburn's 10 were beaten 3-0 by Wolverhampton Wanderers. After a two-year absence, he came back in a pre-season friendly against Preston, marking Tom Finney. "Being the gentleman he was, Tom let me take the ball off him two or three times. All he was doing was being kind, because even when I was fully fit I couldn't take the ball off him."

After a spell with Crewe Alexandra, Whelan's career closed in 1966 with a £400 compensation payoff, which he used to open a stall in Wigan market. This was rapidly parlayed into a discount business, eventually sold to a supermarket chain for £1.5m 12 years later. For his next trick, the former full-back transformed a local sports shop, JJ Bradburn, into JJB Sports, and is now worth not far short of £300m.

His involvement with Wigan Athletic began in 1995 when a director asked him to loan the club £760 to cover the players' wages for the week. "And bingo, I was in." Whelan also bought Wigan's rugby league team, the Warriors, and spent £25m on a new stadium to house both clubs. "It has not been easy bringing both together," he conceded. "The rugby league supporters didn't like twinning, they regarded the Warriors as the gods of their code, but with the success of the football team those attitudes are changing.

"Rugby has been king in this town for over a hundred years and I don't think anybody is going to take the mantle away from Wigan, the most famous club in the world. But we are getting rugby league supporters following both teams now, and that's brilliant."

Strange, then, that Whelan is reported to have been listening in the past few days to offers to buy the Warriors.

For the moment, the football is what he wants to talk about. "When I took Wigan Athletic over they were in the old Fourth Division, so if we can make the Premiership we will have worked wonders, turned all sorts of corners, rewritten all the books, because in that time we have built a new stadium, knocked down two old ones and revolutionised the thinking of the supporters."

This fan of brass-band music, who still plays trombone at Christmas charity occasions, is scornful of the wages currently being offered to footballers and is in favour of the sort of salary cap which operates in rugby league and American football. "I think eventually the Premiership and Europe will have to go down that path, too." he said. "I got 29 quid for playing in that 1960 Cup final, and £3 of that was from the Milk Marketing Board for drinking their product. Now they are talking of offering Steven Gerrard £90,000 a week to stay at Liverpool. Unbelievable, isn't it?

"Good luck to them if they are daft enough to pay it, but it's not the way the game should be run. I don't think I could push myself to pay stupid money. I would rather stay in the Championship."

Whelan is equally outspoken about football as a business. "If you are going into it to make a profit, don't bother. Only Man United make a profit. If you want to enjoy it, and can afford it, do it wisely. Don't let people spend your money. Managers will do that. This one here [Paul Jewell] won't. He treats my money like his own. If he comes and asks me for something, I often go and look at the player he is interested in, I look to see what we're going to buy.

"He sent me to Sweden to watch this lad Andreas Johansson, who has come here and only been on once, for 15 minutes. It has taken him three months to settle to our game compared to Sweden. Now he is coming through strong, and Paul said he will be on the bench against Reading. I thought I had made a mistake and that Paul would have a go at me for spending the money.

"We are so lucky to have him as manager. We have had five or six over the 10 years, and when Paul came for the interview he was so upfront and so honest he impressed me. Liverpudlians are like that, but usually they have not made good managers. The manager is the difference between a good team and an average team. It's all about one guy, and I've got a good one. Any chairman who wants to interfere with his manager, forget it. If you get a good one, back him, give him total support. Paul speaks my language, no messing about, no nonsense. He will not put up with any ill-discipline whatsoever."

This afternoon's crunch contest is a rare sell-out for Wigan, and while Jewell is demanding "a bouncing stadium" his chairman insists that the lighting of candles or other good-luck omens is not for him. "No, I'm not nervous like that. I'll enjoy the game, it's football, anything can happen. I was never on edge as a player, either, because you can't be. You can feel sick before a game, though, like I was as a teenager when I had to go and mark Finney or Stan Matthews. I wouldn't sleep a lot the night before."

But Dave Whelan will admit to one small concern - whether he will be able to take up those 30 seats for Barbados when the final whistle blows.

Biography

Dave Whelan

Born: 24 November 1936 in Bradford.

Lives: Parbold, Lancashire.

Family: wife Pat, daughter Jane, son Paul and four grandchildren.

Club: chairman of Wigan Athletic. Owner of JJB Sports. Britain's 155th richest man last year with family wealth of £250m.

Investment: £50m including RL club. Bought football club 10 years ago; built JJB Stadium to replace Springfield Park.

Biggest signing: Jason Roberts from West Bromwich for £1.4m.

Playing career: Blackburn Rovers 1956-60: 78 apps, three goals. Crewe Alexandra 1962-66: 115 apps, 0 goals. A right-back, broke his leg playing for Blackburn in the 1960 FA Cup final defeat by Wolves.

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