Dave Whelan: The man who brought fantasy football to town Starting with next Sunday's visit of the champions Chelsea, Wigan's chairman is determined to make the club's first top-flight season more than a mere struggle for survival

Click to follow
The Independent Football

"Football always seems to write a script," says 68-year-old Dave Whelan, the Wigan chairman, in the boardroom at the JJB Stadium named after the sports retailing giant he has built up from a single shop. It is, incidentally, the only football club boardroom with a photograph on the wall celebrating the achievement of another football club: looking out impassively from a picture of the Blackburn Rovers 1960 FA Cup final team is D Whelan, full-back.

"Everyone says, 'Where's Wigan?'," continues Britain's 155th richest man, in the same Lancashire accent, unchanged by his estimated £300m, with which he grew up just round the corner in Chadwick Street. "And now we're playing Chelsea in a match that will be broadcast worldwide. And Arsenal away, the last match ever played at Highbury." A chuckle. "Nothing in football surprises me."

This phlegmatism extends to the difficulties Wigan have had recruiting new players this summer: from a long list of targets, Henri Camara from Wolves and Norwich City's Damien Francis are the only six-figure purchases so far.

"Wigan Warriors [whom Whelan also owns] are the Man United of the rugby league world. If you go to an Australian or Kiwi and say, 'Wigan Warriors want you', they say, 'We'll come'. But Wigan Athletic are totally different. When Scott Parker was on the market I agreed a fee with Chelsea and they gave me permission to talk to him. He's superb quality, that lad, and I was happy to match his wages. His agent spoke to Paul Jewell [the Wigan manager] and said Parker had four choices: Tottenham, Newcastle, Everton and Wigan. Now if you were a player who would you choose? Not Wigan. And I understand that. I've played the game. You go to one of the top teams where you think you'll be noticed by England and maybe win a cup.

"But we're not Newcastle. We're not even Charlton. We're Wigan Athletic, still making our way in football, and we've got to accept it's not easy to tempt players here. Paul has been through this before at Bradford. The difference is that we've got more money than Bradford. Money's not the problem here, it's reputation. We've got to build that slowly. If we can manage to stay in the Premier this year our credibility will rise. That's what Portsmouth have done, and it gets easier to get players in."

For now, though, the gap between Wigan and next weekend's opponents, both in terms of reputation and money, frankly, could hardly be wider.

"But they are in different company to every other team in the land, in the world. Good luck to Mr Abramovich and good luck to Chelsea. Why shouldn't they ride on the crest of a wave?"

Maybe, I say, answering his rhetorical question, because the rest of football is drowning in the crest of Chelsea's wave?

"Well," he says. "It's true that only three teams can win the Premier. I even leave Liverpool out of that three. And I can't see that changing until they bring in a salary cap. In American football they have a salary cap and enforce it strictly, and it's good for competition. The same in rugby league.

"Now, when I was a player the maximum wage was £20 a week and £14 in the summer. That wasn't right either. I got £23 for playing in a Wembley Cup final broadcast all over Europe, and if we'd won I'd have got £34. You think, where was all the money going then? So I look at what footballers earn now and I think the top players deserve top money. I've no qualms about that. But when you get a player coming over from one of the foreign clubs - and you know who they are as well as I do - and he thinks, 'I'll sign for three years, finish up with £6m, and I don't need to work too hard', that's not something I can go along with. I'm pleased to say that Paul Jewell will not have anyone in this football club who does not give 100 per cent every minute of every game. He's on to it like a flash."

Jewell both by name and repute, the Wigan manager will doubtless be mentioned the next time a big club seeks a change of direction, and Whelan knows it. "If he came to me and said Liverpool or whoever wanted him, I'd say good luck. When Andy Farrell [the former Wigan rugby league star] came to us and said he wanted to go to rugby union, we said, 'We certainly won't stop you.' He'd given us 12 years of brilliance and dedication. He's a great player and a good man. And you can't put a lid on ambition."

Whelan, in the spirit of Reggie Perrin's boss C J, whom he matches for hearty charisma, did not get where he is today by putting a lid on ambition. Least of all his own. The story of JJB Sports is one of acumen and bloody-mindedness, although he likes to start it with an anecdote about the day he bought his first sports shop, JJ Bradburn, in Wigan in 1978. "There was a fridge downstairs in that shop and I thought, 'I'm not paying the electricity for that', so I turned it off. But part of the stock was maggots because they used to sell fishing tackle, and we opened the fridge on the Monday morning and a thousand bloody bluebottles flew out. I knocked fishing straight on the head. I thought, 'I'm not having stock that flies away'."

The buzz in Wigan today has nothing to do with bluebottles, and Whelan is dismissive when I tell him that my cab driver, who delivered me from the station, identified himself as a rugby league fan who wasn't much bothered whether Athletic stayed up or not.

"He's a dodo. The rugby crowd is really beginning to appreciate Wigan Athletic. Yes, this is a rugby town and you can't just switch. But the two teams share the stadium and a lot of people are coming to watch both. The Wigan Athletic season tickets this season will reach an all-time high of 16,000, from 3,000 last year. We have a capacity here of 25,300 and we'll fill it most games. And the atmosphere when we're full is fantastic."

This brings us to Whelan's confrontation with the Greater Manchester Police, who he feels have charged the club dramatically over the odds for match-day policing. Just an hour or so before my arrival he has reluctantly settled an outstanding debt of £270,000.

"The chairman of the Premier League phoned me last week, and said, 'Are you going to settle this police bill? If you don't pay we'll have to pay on your behalf.' I understand his point of view, he wants to know whether Wigan v Chelsea will be on the TV, but he also agrees we've been treated most unfairly. I said I will settle the bill, but I'm counter-suing the police.

"All I ask for is fairness. I'm a great supporter of the police, but they're a monopoly; we can't get our policing from anyone else. And I think they're misusing their monopoly. They charged us £42,500 for Leeds United to come here last year, but Preston only paid £8,000 to play Leeds and Burnley £4,500. Bolton, which has the same force as us, paid only £11,000 to play Liverpool.

"The deputy chief constable explains that by saying Bolton is an easier ground to police, he says we're very near a retail park. Well, Bolton's on a retail park. I don't know whether this man has been given instructions by the Home Office to raise revenue from football, but I want it to go to the High Court where new rules will be written, either to say we've got to pay, or that the police have been unreasonable. The whole of sport will listen to the result of this case. If the judges rule against us and back the police so they can charge what they want, we're all dead."

Dave Whelan v Greater Manchester Police in the High Court, if it comes to pass, could certainly be one of the season's more intriguing fixtures. But in the meantime there is a real football match to prepare for. What sort of welcome will he be giving his Chelsea counterpart, Abramovich?

"A very warm Wigan welcome, as we do to all other chairmen. I've offered him the use of the helicopter pad here, which I know he'll take, and we will certainly offer him a pie. I don't know if he'll take one of those or not.

"But he'll get plenty of respect here. There's a lot of envy of Chelsea, just like Wigan Warriors are envied in rugby league, but I'm not one for envy."

It is ironic, I venture, that Abramovich, like Whelan only substantially more so, has become fantastically rich by making sound business judgements, while seeming to operate no hard-headed business sense whatever when it comes to forking out for Chelsea players.

"Yes, well, you would never run a business like you run a football club, where the heart very often rules the head. Leeds did that big-style, of course. But chairmen get all kinds of stick and it saddens me. Look at these people at Man U, the Glazers. They've put the money down to buy the club and the supporters should get behind them. Bob Charlton has his head screwed on and he says, 'Give them a chance.'

"Someone's got to own it. But those supporters didn't like Martin Edwards owning the club either, even though he was a good judge of a football player, him and his father."

Whelan can't wait to visit Old Trafford with Wigan, and fully intends to bring three points back along the A577. "When I bought Wigan Athletic [in 1995] a friend of mine, who supports Man U, said, 'What are you doing? You're in the Fourth Division. If you want to watch football, why don't you come and watch Man U?' I said to him, 'One day I'll bring my team to Old Trafford and beat you.' He phoned me when we got promotion and said, 'Well, you've done the hard part. Now all you need to do is beat us.'"

Another rich chuckle. "You know, when I played for Blackburn and we went up into the First Division, we beat Newcastle 5-1 away in our first game, then Leicester at home, then someone else. The fourth game was Man U away. I was 18 or 19 and it was the first time I'd ever seen Old Trafford. Matt Busby was stood at the door when we arrived. He came up and shook hands with me, and said, 'Welcome to Old Trafford, David'. I thought, 'Crikey, Matt Busby knows my name.' But he wasn't trying to make me proud. He wanted to fill me with fear, thinking about Old Trafford and Matt Busby. And it worked. He put the shits up me."

Our laughter rings round the boardroom and I ask him whether he might try the same tactic with Frank Lampard on Sunday. "Welcome to the JJB Stadium, Francis." He grins. "I might," he says.

Comments