Dave Whelan: 'I've said to the manager that anybody he sells, I'll give him the money and double it'

Brian Viner Interviews: The Wigan chairman was like a child at Christmas when he spoke to Brian Viner last August before his side's first match in the Premiership. Nine months on, he reflects on an 'utterly brilliant season' as he prepares for an emotional farewell to Highbury
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The Independent Online

My last interview with the Wigan Athletic chairman, Dave Whelan, took place nine months ago in the handsome boardroom at the JJB Stadium, a few days before the start of the club's inaugural season in the Premier League.

Whelan was as bullish as you would expect of a self-made multi-millionaire northerner, and as excited as a child on Christmas Eve about Wigan's first game in top-flight football, at home against the champions, Chelsea. But behind the excitement there must surely have been apprehension: could Wigan hack it with the big boys? Thirty-seven games later the answer is an unequivocal "yes", which is perhaps why this interview takes place in the less formal surroundings of the JJB's Italian restaurant, Rigaletto's. Whelan and Wigan no longer need to prove themselves.

It has to be said that Rigaletto's, with its cheesy frescoes of Tuscany, sits rather incongruously in the JJB Stadium. But Wigan do not sit incongruously in the Premiership. Not any more.

"It's been a fantastic season," says Whelan. "To start off with Chelsea at home and lose 1-0 with a minute to go... that was so disappointing, but in a way it set the scene. It gave our supporters some belief, and it gave the players belief, because we deserved at least a draw out of that game. And as the season went on we grew in our belief. We won eight or nine away games, which was outstanding."

For a miraculous few weeks last autumn, Wigan lay second in the table. But Whelan - who built the JJB Sports empire from a single shop in Wigan town centre and before that was an uncompromising defender for Blackburn Rovers - did not get where he is today by letting his feet leave the ground.

"I was never eyeing European football. This is Wigan Athletic, remember. It's our first season in the Premier League. And we've had a disappointing finish, with injuries to key players and some terrible refereeing decisions. But all in all, it's been a totally, utterly, brilliant season."

A pause, to sign somebody's autograph book. Not for nothing is Whelan, who also owns the Wigan Warriors rugby league team, known as "Mr Wigan".

"The only problem is that we've done so well that other clubs are chasing our star players. Man U, Newcastle, Tottenham, Liverpool, they're all casting their eyes over our players, and we've already lost Jimmy Bullard [to Fulham].

"But I've said to the manager that anybody he sells I'll give him that money and double it, or treble it, for him to go and get a decent squad. And to some degree we'll have to relax our wage policy now.

"It's fairly well-known that we kept wage limits to levels we could have coped with next year had we gone down. I didn't want to jeopardise this football club like they did at Leeds. But we can loosen the rein a little now that we've proved ourselves in this division."

The ultimate act of proving themselves, adds the chairman, was beating Arsenal in the semi-final of the Carling Cup. Indeed, Arsenal loom large in the story of Wigan's first season in the élite, because on Sunday the club will play a supporting role in Arsenal's valedictory football match at Highbury.

"We're so proud to be a part of that," Whelan says. "It's a massive game, something this town will remember for ever."

How well does he remember his own visits to Highbury as a player nigh on 50 years ago? "Oh, very well. For instance, at Blackburn our heating was one small gas fire in the dressing-room, and only our star players, Ron Clayton and Bryan Douglas, could get stripped either side of it. As a youngster I'd be on the far side of the room, shivering. But I remember walking into the dressing-room at Arsenal, where they had underground heating. It was so warm, I couldn't believe it.

"We'd just signed Derek Dougan from Portsmouth. That was the first game he played for Blackburn, against Arsenal at Highbury. Now, in those days at Rovers, they used to darn our football socks. These days they get a new pair every game, but back then they used to darn them and they'd shrink in the washing-machine. So the rest of us knew that we had to get into the skip and find socks that hadn't shrunk and hadn't been darned. That's what we did at Highbury that day, leaving just one pair, shrunken and with a big darn in the heel. I remember Derek Dougan picking them up and looking at them in disbelief."

Whelan chuckles and lowers his voice, touchingly reluctant to allow a swear word to carry to the other people dining at Rigaletto's, who happen to be members of the first-team squad.

"He said, 'What the fucking hell are these? You don't expect me to play in these, do you?' The trainer, Jack Weddle, said, 'We've no other.' But actually he had. He had two new pairs that he wouldn't pull out. Jack Weddle had to go and see the manager, Johnny Carey, and Johnny Carey authorised him to pull out a new pair of socks for Derek Dougan to play at Highbury."

Our laughter carries over to the players, who don't know they're born, what with new socks and free meals in Italian restaurants and all. But which of them will be eating in Rigaletto's next season remains to be seen. Moreover, just as Wigan's success means some of the players are coveted by other clubs, so too is the manager, Paul Jewell.

"Aye, well, it would have to be a big club to break my relationship with him. I get on with him wonderfully well, and we meet at least every other day to talk football. He's not the highest paid in the Premier League but he's definitely not the lowest, and he's a happy man, with a family happy where they are, living in Ilkley. I wouldn't stand in his way if a big club wanted him. He'll always be a friend, but he's happy at Wigan."

Whelan is similarly upbeat about the new coach of the struggling Warriors side, Brian Noble. Indeed, he recognises in Noble much of what appeals to him about Jewell.

"I watched him take his first coaching session and I thought it was Paul, in the way he behaved, the way he approached the players. They both have a fantastic work ethic, they're seven-days-a-week men, and I'm quite sure that Brian Noble will pull us out of danger this season [the Warriors lie bottom of the Super League], and produce a championship-winning team within two or three years.

"But the town can do a lot to get the rugby side out of trouble. A crowd can do so much by giving solid support."

Even opposition supporters, Whelan adds, have enhanced Wigan Athletic's experiences in the Premiership. "Wherever we've been - Liverpool, Everton - we've been greeted with great warmth. And I like to think we've shown warmth, too. I've had letters from Portsmouth fans this week, grateful for the three points, which we didn't want to give them, but also saying how well treated they were here. That's marvellous, that."

And so for Sunday, and an inevitably emotional afternoon in London. Wigan need a point from the encounter to be assured a top-10 finish, but it seems inconceivable that Arsenal, even with the European Cup final in prospect, will field anything less than a team capable of winning in style.

I ask Whelan what his relationship is like with David Dein, the Arsenal vice-chairman, Football Association bigwig, and prime instigator not only in the appointment of Sven Goran Eriksson as England manager, but also in the wooing of Luiz Felipe Scolari? After all, Whelan has made plain his disdain for Eriksson and was horrified by the Scolari business.

"I like David Dein. He's a gentleman. When we beat them in the Carling Cup he took it wonderfully, and gave us a case of champagne. If he thinks England should have a foreign coach, he's entitled to his opinion. It's not my opinion, but who's right all the time?

"I do think, though, that the FA's inefficiency over Wembley has been absolutely unbelievable. I spoke to Richard Caborn, the sports minister, when they were first having trouble. I said I would go on to the Wembley committee, and take with me the man responsible for building this stadium, an expert in construction. I said we'd give them some solid northern advice.

"He said, 'Thank you very much, we don't need it.' But they did. They needed one northern builder with his head screwed on. This stadium, with all the fixtures and fittings, cost me £50m. Tops. Wembley will have three times the capacity, and the cost is £750m and rising. It's a scandal."

Another chuckle. For a scandalised man, he looks decidedly cheerful.

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