Football: Wigan's peerless dealer

Dave Hadfield explains why Wembley Way will be memory lane today
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The Independent Online
WHEN DAVE WHELAN leads out Wigan Athletic in the Auto Windscreens Shield final at Wembley this afternoon, he will be treading that famous and sometimes dangerous turf for the first time since the day 39 years ago that led to the end of his football career and the start of another, more successful one.

Today's final against Millwall takes the football club from the rugby league stronghold to the stadium for only the second time in their history. But their chairman's involvement with the place goes back a little further. "The last time I came out here, there were 100,000 people, but I was stretchered off in the 42nd minute with a broken leg," he said of that visit, with Blackburn Rovers, to play Wolves in the FA Cup final of 1960.

His was one of a string of celebrated Cup final injuries in the 1950s and 60s, but he is one of the rare footballers to have become better known after a mishap that eventually ended his career than he had been before.

Contrary to the folklore, Whelan's career as a high-class full-back did not quite end there and then. A comeback with Blackburn was curtailed by another broken leg sustained at Sheffield Wednesday a year later, and even after that he had three seasons with Crewe. "We won promotion from the old Fourth to the Third Division, so I played on every ground in the Football League," Whelan remembered.

Nevertheless, it is for what Whelan did after the injury finally forced him into retirement that he has become something of a self-made legend. Starting with a stall on Wigan market, he created a supermarket business that he sold for millions, and then built up another enterprise, JJB Sports, that dwarfed it and which has made him one of the richest men in the North-west.

His wealth led him back into sport, initially as the sponsor who fuelled much of Wigan rugby club's success in the 1980s. He was not at Wembley when the Latics went there and beat Brentford in what was then the Freight Rover Trophy in 1985, but he was there for the rugby league team's rather more memorable Challenge Cup victory over Hull the same year and has been back with them - although not on to the pitch - frequently since.

That sums up Wigan Athletic's standing in the town. "We're used to seeing Wigan rugby league at Wembley," Whelan said. "So it's ironic that the year they've got knocked out we should be going."

Even as a veteran of the really big occasions at the stadium, he has no truck with the standard dismissal of today's as the Mickey Mouse final. "To get to Wembley and play in a final is fantastic for the players. So few of them get the chance to do that. For the club, there is all the prestige - and Bournemouth made about pounds 500,000 out of it last year." Whelan, it would be fair to say, has the reputation as a man who homes in on the financial bottom line.

Latics' supporters who expected him to buy them promotion, like Mohamed Al Fayed at Fulham, have so far been a tad disappointed. "We're the second- biggest spending club in the division," he says, but it is bargain-basement stuff compared to Fulham's shopping spree and Wigan remain eight points adrift of the Second Division play-off spots.

"That's our priority," Whelan says. "To get into the First Division - and then anything can happen. I sincerely believe that we're one of the three best teams in the division and we're not out of the reckoning yet."

If the Latics ever do step up, they will have the stadium for the job. They will leave decaying Springfield Park at the end of this season and move into the new 25,000-seater ground that they will share with the rugby league club for the start of next.

This afternoon, they will also share the experience with them of walking out at Wembley. "I've been persuaded to lead us out," Whelan said. "We will have about 10,000 supporters travelling down. I know Millwall will have a lot more than that - it's like a home game for them - but I think there will be West Ham and Charlton fans supporting us." And possibly the odd rugby league fan as well.

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