Dave Whelan: 'I could have bought United 20 years ago'

After defeat at Burnley, the champions play Wigan today, another Cinderella side. Dave Whelan, the rags-to-riches owner who rescued this local club, tells Chris McGrath why it will be a proud day – whatever the game's result
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Like many rich men, Dave Whelan knows the value of every copper coin. In his boyhood, in fact, the spending of a penny – in every sense of the expression – shaped much that followed. "When you've had nothing, you respect every pound you have and every pound you spend," he says now. "Even today, I'll turn out a light."

It is hardly an outlandish concept, a bit of northern thrift. But readers of his new autobiography may be shocked by the extremes he reached, growing up in wartime Wigan.

The winter of 1942 was so bitter that Whelan, then six, would not squander even the most primitive source of warmth. "You would pee on your hands every day," he says. "I lost count of the number of times I did that. Your hands were blue. We had 4ft of snow on the ground. It was minus-six, minus-10, minus-12, week after week."

Funnily enough, the man who persuaded Whelan to write his story, Tony Jacklin, has admitted to doing the same – as an antidote not to cold, but to blisters. For young Whelan, however, it was simply a desperate ruse. His father had gone away to war when Whelan was three, and his mother was left to raise four children in a Poolstock slum.

So when he found a penny in the street, in 1944, Whelan was in raptures. He knew at once what to do – take a ride on one of the smart new double-decker buses replacing the Wigan trams. His excitement soared when a soldier followed him on board. "Is that a real gun, mister?" he asked. The soldier responded kindly, and it emerged that they were getting off at the same stop. A thought seemed to occur to the soldier, and he asked the boy where he lived. "Chadwick Street," replied Whelan. "No 70." The soldier smiled. "Is your name David?" And that was how, for the first time since the outbreak of war, Whelan met his father.

This episode comprises the prologue of Whelan's book, but every chapter reiterates how the reeking hands of this destitute boy were somehow blessed with a Midas touch, a flair that would enrich the rest of his days.

First, there was the football, and a combative skill that ultimately compressed the best and worst of times in an FA Cup Final appearance for Blackburn Rovers when he broke his leg. Then, there were successive fortunes made in business, starting with a market stall in Wigan and building one of Britain's very first supermarket chains. He then bought a local sports shop, for £22,000, and in turn expanded the JJB brand to 400 stores and a Stock Exchange valuation approaching £1bn. And, finally, there was the salvation of his local football team, on the brink of extinction when he took over and now cemented into the Premier League.

And here he is, in the chairman's suite, preparing for the visit of the Premier League champions and near neighbours Manchester United and surveying swathes of seating newly emblazoned with his own initials. At 72, Whelan has gone back into business, retrieving part of the JJB empire from those who have presided over heavy losses since he sold up in 2007. It's the DW Stadium now. "When I sold my supermarkets to Ken Morrison, for £1.5m – that was a lot of money then," he remembered. "Do you need any more? But it's not money that drives me. You have to work. I can't stay at home. I have to be active. My mind's got to be active."

Wigan seemed to offer Whelan nothing; in the event, it gave him redemption. Without the Wigan Boys' Club, he suspects that he would have gone off the rails. "I would have been trouble," he says. "You start to steal – OK, it was only potatoes or carrots from a farmer's field, but it's stealing. One thing leads to another."

There was a time, 20 years ago, when he might have bought Manchester United instead. He had the chance to acquire a 51 per cent stake for £11m. In one of his few business misjudgements, he decided that partisan fans might spurn his goods if they became identified with one, resented club. "Would JJB Sports still have prospered?" he asks. "Yes. I looked at the likes of Liverpool. So I lose Liverpool, so what? You've got Man United, the biggest club on the globe. I should have done it."

But transforming his hometown club has offered him unique fulfilment. When he got involved, in 1995, Wigan were in the basement of the League, entertaining barely 1,500 spectators at the dilapidated Springfield Park. Characteristically, Whelan not only announced that he intended to take Wigan into the Premier League, but promptly did so –- famously accelerating the process by recruiting three young Spanish players, including Roberto Martinez.

Now back as manager, replacing Steve Bruce who steered Wigan to mid-table comfort last season, Martinez has presided over two surprising results. A win at Villa on the opening day, a mid-week home defeat to Wolves. Another unexpected result today, their first win over Manchester United in nine attempts, would indicate a promising start to their fifth successive top-flight season.

"To win the Champions League with Man United is fantastic," he says. "But what we've done at Wigan Athletic is unique. I grew up quarter of a mile from here. Every time I come to this stadium it gives me enormous satisfaction."

As such, Whelan should be celebrated as the very antithesis of Mike Ashley, whose excruciating tenure at Newcastle United has been so derided as a carpet-bagging misadventure. As it happens, Ashley is a long-standing commercial rival, and in his book Whelan laments not crushing his nascent business when he had the chance. Ashley had half a dozen shops; Whelan could easily have opened rival stores in the neighbourhood, to undercut his prices.

Whelan is a bona fide football man, anyhow, the only one to have played in all four divisions and then done the same as a club chairman. "It doesn't half give you some insight into what goes on in the dressing room, in a lad's head, on the pitch," he reasons.

"It is a ruthless game. One thing must burn through your body, and that's the will to win. Without that, you're dead. In football, you're up and down that field, some of them running 11, 12 miles in a match. And they're getting banged, thumped, kicked all over the park. You can see in a flash whether a player has the will, the graft, the heart."

Whelan was born in the very same year that George Orwell spent time researching proletarian life for The Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell memorably described his train leaving the town through "monstrous scenery of slag heaps, chimneys..." As the train passed a slum, Orwell found himself gazing at a woman kneeling on the stones, trying to clear a blocked waste pipe. She met his eye with "the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever seen".

For all we know, that woman might have been Whelan's mother. Judging from the affectionate portrait of his parents in his book, it seems unlikely. This boy could only have started the revolution, or become a self-made millionaire. In the end we see him out hunting with the Prince of Wales. "Ah, Whelan of Wigan," says the Prince. You feel he could imagine no more gratifying sobriquet.

Playing To Win by Dave Whelan is published by Aurum Press, £18.99. All profits go to Wigan Boys and Girls' Club

Whelan on Martinez: 'He'll end up at a Spanish club'

"I was sorry to lose Steve Bruce, but I was delighted to get Roberto. I half-suspected [Steve was moving on], and it didn't upset me one iota because I knew Roberto was available and I'd done the deal in two minutes.

"His English when he first came here [as a player, in 1995] was sparse, to say the least. But he'd improved that within weeks. He was a leader then, you could see that.

"He was good at broadcasting, wasn't he? And popular. And I thought when he went into management, he might not be tough enough. But he is. When I brought him here, the first thing I said was: 'Roberto, this is a tough league – and you've got to be tough.' 'Mr Whelan, I do what is necessary.' And that's what he does.

"You think maybe some of the experienced players might think: "Who's this young upstart?

"But they have moulded together absolutely fantastic. He will stay here for as long as he likes. Hopefully, he'll stay with me four or five years, and then I think he'll go to one of the big clubs in Spain."

Whelan on the Glazers: ‘Man U repaying loans is not right’

"Something has to be done. I'm bringing it up all the time at Premier League meetings. When they bought Man United, they said: 'You owe us money for our shares'. In what other business could you do that?

"If you want to sell your shares, fine, sell them on the market – it doesn't affect the business. At Liverpool and Man U, the clubs are responsible for the [owners'] loans. Between them they owe a billion. It isn't right, and something will be done about it. It's diabolical.

"From the moment the season kicks off, the only thing on the mind of 14 clubs in the Premier League is survival. The other six can jockey for the top four spots. But for 14 of us, survival is all you can hope for. And that isn't good for the game. It takes some of the magic away for the supporters, when you know you cannot be in that top four.

"But they do like to see that big four. And it's fantastic for a club like Wigan, or Bolton, or Burnley now, getting Man U or Arsenal at your ground. And if you can get a draw, or even a win, you're ecstatic for a month."

Other local fan owners

*Bill Kenwright (Everton)

Born in Merseyside and attended primary and secondary school there.

*Barry Kilby (Burnley)

A Burnley fan since the age of nine, he first joined the club as a player in 1968 and became chairman in 1998.

*Eddie Davies (Bolton)

Born in Little Lever, a large village in Bolton. He also attended Farnworth, a Bolton Grammar School.