Opposition supporters amazed at the hospitality on offer at Wigan's JJB stadium have been sending letters of congratulation to Dave Whelan on a daily basis this season. Free car parking and a marquee for both entertainment and refreshments have moved many a cynical fan to pen and paper, and the response of the Wigan chairman is reciprocal.
The Premiership has exceeded almost every expectation the sports retail magnate had when he began his mission to transform Wigan Athletic 10 years ago - "I always thought the Liverpool board would be a bit stand-offish, but they treated us as equal partners last week," he said. Yet it is the absence of another quality that leads Whelan to fear the letters will not arrive for much longer. Competition.
Wigan's charismatic chairman will savour every moment of his team's visit to Chelsea this afternoon, "but I won't touch their pies if they've got curry in them", though as he surveys the surroundings at Stamford Bridge, he will identify an inequality that he believes poses a serious threat to the future of our national sport.
Whelan may have already upset the champions by calling for a 10-game ban for Michael Essien this week, yet just as that view was shaped by the tackle that ended his career with Blackburn Rovers in 1960, so his opinion that Chelsea's unrivalled riches will ruin English football is also formed by experience.
The dominance of Wigan rugby league club from the mid-1980s to the 1990s established the Lancashire town on the sporting consciousness, and it also drove the crowds away until the introduction of the Super League and a cap on salaries and squad sizes helped to revive the sport from a lingering death.
It is a lesson, Whelan insists, the Premiership must heed. "I've always been in favour of a salary limit, even if it is £25m which is still a lot of money and out of the reach of a lot of clubs. If Chelsea win the League six or eight times in a row then the competition is finished. The days when Burnley could win the League and Bolton win the Cup are long gone I'm afraid."
Whelan sounds a lone voice among Premiership chairman, many of whom discount his theory as simply unworkable due to the resistance of leading clubs, the absence of a salary cap in Europe and the likelihood of richer clubs offering other incentives to top players.
"Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal would argue against a salary cap because they would say they cannot compete in Europe with a limit of £25m, and you've got to accept that.But I think eventually other leagues would come into line. Look at Spain: only Real Madrid or Barcelona win the league."
Whelan could express his views about a salary cap to Roman Abramovich at Stamford Bridge today, but will not do so. "His grasp of English isn't that good. I did find him to be a very kind, nice and courteous gentleman when he came to Wigan. The man seems to be a genuine guy. He didn't have any pies here though. I don't think he has food or drink at any of the grounds. Doesn't he trust us?"Reuse content