There's a little bit of truth in Dave Whelan's admission that he regrets not buying Manchester United for the £11.5m sum which he shook hands on in 1989. “Now it's valued at a billion or £1.2bn. Another ghastly mistake!” says the man whose Wigan journey reaches its apotheosis at Wembley.
You sense he does not so much grieve for the lost money as for the big red dome – planned by Whelan's architects for the Old Trafford rebuild he envisioned – which he never got to build. "We were going to have lights shining out of it on the top and – you know, 'The Reds', 'Man U'," he says. "I had all the drawings done. It would have been a much bigger set-up there. I mean, Man U's not really changed."
There was no dome, of course, no huge office and leisure complex across the river from the stadium, no installation of Bobby Charlton as Whelan's chairman – because when he returned home to tell his wife, Pat, that "I've just been and done a deal and bought Man United" (as you do), she asked him whether, football tribalism being what it is, him being Mr Man United would damage his JJB Sports trade in Liverpool, Birmingham and other places where the business was growing like topsy. "I thought, 'Hmm, could be'," Whelan says.
He told United chairman Martin Edwards, who was frustrated at that time at Michael Knighton's failure to find the money he claimed to have, that he should try floating the club instead. And the rest is £1.2bn of history.
It was a very different proposition when he bought Wigan Athletic instead, six years later, but the ambition was certainly as fierce as it always is when Whelan has a mission. This was a club labouring in the Third Division at the Springfield Park ground which Whelan immediately decided must be consigned to dust. He viewed the dressing room after his first match in charge – a 2-0 win over Hartlepool before 1,400 people on 28 February 1995. "Two showers, one hot and one cold. That's all. The visitors had even less," as he remembers it. And yet this was – and still is – the club where he could locate a piece of his soul.
The FA Cup final, an event shrouded in the anxiety of Wigan's most monumental fight yet against relegation, will conjure all the old monochrome images of the Whelan of Blackburn Rovers stock being carried from the field in the 1960 FA Cup final against Wolves, with a woollen blanket covering the agonies of a broken leg. But Whelan's life – and his life's work – have belonged in Wigan, the Lancashire town 25 miles south of Ewood Park.
The work is very much in progress, as is evident in the surroundings where he sits down to reflect on it all – the £6m youth centre which he has had built to provide a purpose for the teenagers of the town, ploughing several more millions in himself when the North West Develop- ment Agency which had pledged some was closed down because of the austerity budget. The place is called Wigan Youth Zone but for Whelan it is the "Wigan Boys' and Girls' Club", because it was the town's own Boys' Club which rescued him when he drifted into "bad things", as he puts it, while his father was away during the Second World War. "Stealing, shoplifting. Crisps and biscuits and things. I was 10. During the war you nicked what you could. You did that because you were hungry."
It was when his father, Jimmy, came home from five years stationed with the army in Finland that he marched him straight up to the Wigan Boys' Club, which straightened him out, got him boxing – though one punch ended that adventure – playing football, an E-flat bass, a euphonium and trombone in the Boys Band.
It was the band that first acquainted him with the Springfield Park dressing rooms. "I remember once playing in the band when Newcastle were here in a cup game. They refused to change in the changing rooms," he recalls. "They got changed at the hotel and travelled on the coach in their kit. That's how bad it was."
His football adventures began with a place in the English Boys' Clubs team to play France at Wembley – another twin towers occasion ruined by injury when he got "a big stud" in his knee which went septic a week before the game – and advanced to the British Army alongside Bobby Charlton, Duncan Edwards and Dave Mackay and then Blackburn Rovers, before this extraordinary relationship with Wigan Athletic began.
Wigan first tried to entice him in the mid-1970s, when the club were in the Lancashire Combination, chairman Arthur Horrocks was on his uppers – couldn't pay the wages – and they invited Whelan on to the board. "We went playing Haslingden in the Lancashire Combination," Whelan recalls, "and it was pouring down and there were only four seats in the directors' box and I was told I couldn't go in there. They said: 'You've only been on the board for three or four weeks, these lads have the seats so you'll have to stand outside.' I thought: 'Oh, how inviting that is!' The first night I went to a board meeting they had no money. The wage bill then was about £400. They said: 'We've no money to pay the wages' and they all looked at me. I said: 'Are you insinuating that I pay these wages, lads?' They said: 'Well, we've no money.' So I paid the wages and resigned immediately. I said: 'I'm off. Goodbye'."
He took some persuading when Stan Jackson, a Wigan car dealer and father of the current chief executive Jonathan Jackson, came pleading with Whelan to buy the club out of penury, 20 years later. "But it's football again," Whelan relates. "It gets in your blood. It's in your blood. It's there. So I gave them £400,000 and all of a sudden I had Wigan Athletic. We had no training ground. They trained on the car park. The ground was a big dump. The stands were dreadful. The club was so bad it was unbelievable. I thought if we were going to go anywhere we would have to have a new ground. I called a press conference and they asked me what my ambition was. I said we would get to the Premier League in a new stadium in 10 years. They looked at me as if I was mad. They said: 'We're bottom of the Fourth Division.' I said I'd get there in 10 years and they said: 'You'll be lucky.' I said we'd see."
There was immediate evidence of the ruthlessness which saw Whelan employ seven managers over six years before Paul Jewell began taking them places, when he immediately asked the incumbent Graham Barrow, now one of Roberto Martinez's assistants, to step outside, where he sacked him. "His assistant, Joe Hinnigan, grabbed me and was going to give me a smack," Whelan smiles. "Barrow grabbed him and threw him on to the floor. Graham said: 'You do never do that to a chairman at a football club.' Joe was quite a big lad!"
Wigan were the peasants when clubs like Manchester City were in town. Whelan tells how they had to host the City directors, including then-chairman David Bernstein, at a local hotel during City's third-tier campaign in 1998 "because they had a board of about 10 people and we couldn't entertain them at Springfield Park". The Wigan largesse – there was champagne – was not reciprocated at Maine Road. Only when City had won the game with a dubious goal did the alcohol come out. "They didn't give us a drink, nothing," Whelan relates. With a twinkle in his eye, he reminded Bernstein of this recently.
But the seeds to better days ahead were sown almost immediately with Whelan's decision – visionary as it was before Swansea City tried the same – that he must despatch someone to Spain to find him three ball-playing technicians to bring football back to "kick and rush" Wigan. Whelan is vague about who that someone was – "I sent a lad out," he says – but he was some scout. Roberto Martinez, Isidro Diaz and Jesus Seba, the so-called "Three Amigos", changed the world for Wigan.
Whelan housed them in his mother's old house. "She'd passed away so they all lived together in her house, on Poolstock Lane," he says. "They couldn't speak a word of English so I had to put a friend in to look after them. She cleaned for them, made the beds, cooked for them and generally looked after them. But those three lads changed everything about Wigan Athletic. The thoughts and ideas. One of them was called 'Kay-sus', as we'd pronounce it. But the Wiganers had a big sign at Torquay away – 'Jesus is a Wiganer'. And I thought that was the best thing I'd ever seen! And these three lads, when they saw that sign they couldn't stop laughing! Wonderful!"
Seba is still a scout for Wigan and Martinez, of course, is still the soul of the place – and a tougher soul than that benign exterior suggests, Whelan points out. "You never see him lose his cool," he says. "I've never heard him swear. He's that type of lad – he doesn't fall out with anybody. But there's no drinking. He sends out his people to watch what the players are doing, make sure they get home, to bed. You've got to watch your players. Some of them are very good, some of them are a bit iffy, sneaky, when they're out they're having a beer. Good managers always have people looking out. Fergie's a bit like that. Roberto's like that."
Of course, relegation stalks the club today and Whelan is resigned to at least contemplating it. "It's eight more games in the Championship. That's a very, very tough league but if we go down our philosophy will continue there," he says. "We get the ball, pass it around and keep it. The football is precious. Keep it." It's the spirit he engenders which makes you feel that top-flight English football will be impoverished without him.
He believes in a type of courtesy in boardrooms, shared by clubs such as Everton, Stoke City and West Bromwich Albion, which he considers to be a product of English ownership. "Most clubs you go to now there are no English people there," he says. "If you go to Chelsea do you see the owner? No. He won't come near you. He stays in his own room. The foreign owners are welcome because they put the money in, but their clubs lose their heart. A lot of the clubs you go to now you won't see anybody. I went to Liverpool last year and there was nobody in the boardroom. Alan Hansen was there on his own with his wife saying that they'd asked him to represent Liverpool. It's never right, that. I think now Wigan are respected in the Premier League. I think quietly we have a lot of support to stay in that league."
For this day at least, the only preoccupation is his sneaking belief that the Wembley turf, just like the Etihad turf which Wigan dominated in an unlucky 1-0 defeat last month, will suit his team. "Roberto's confident," Whelan says. "Wembley's a lovely big area and playing surface. Exactly what he wants."
Whelan has already told Ian Lenagan, the Wigan Warriors owner, that if Athletic bring home the FA Cup he's got to win the Challenge Cup too. He can already picture the attention that accomplishment would bring to the town he loves. "We're never short of ambition," Whelan reflects. "If we bring two cups back the whole world will look on Wigan and say, 'My word, well done boys'."
Wigan warrior: Dave Whelan life and times
Born 24 Nov 1936, Bradford
Dec 1953 Signs for Blackburn after playing for Wigan Boys.
1956 Makes debut against West Ham. Called up to National Service and joins Army team, befriending Bobby Charlton and Duncan Edwards.
1960 Returns to Blackburn but breaks leg in FA Cup final against Wolves ruling him out for a year.
1963 Joins Crewe, making 115 appearances over four years.
1977 Sets up small grocery in Wigan Market, using £400 injury compensation. Eventually sells 'Whelan's Discount Stores' for £1.5m. Buys sports store in Wigan, called JJB, which by 1994 was worth £64.5m.
1995 Purchases Wigan Athletic, of the Third Division.
1999 Funds £30m for construction of the JJB stadium.
2005 Steps down as JJB chairman, selling £50m of shares. Wigan promoted to Premier League.
2006 Wigan reach League Cup final, losing to Man Utd.