In-depth look at the Wigan chairman’s playing and boardroom career
HE’S used helicopters to pick up players, built Wigan Athletic a £30m stadium and once flew the FA Cup to the Bahamas on his private jet.
But for all his trinkets and fabulous wealth, Latics chairman Dave Whelan has never lost sight of the bottom line.
“I remember being the last one at the stadium when I heard this grumbling voice outside,” said Kevin Kilbane, the former Irish international who spent three years at Wigan.
“It was the chairman, furious at all the lights being left on. ‘Costing the club money’, he said. ‘Who do these lads think pays the bills?’ Then he headed off down the corridor to the gym, shaking his head, flicking every switch.”
By then, Wigan were a Premier League side. Yet the ethos hadn’t changed a bit since the day in 1995 when Whelan bought the club, then housed at ramshackle old Springfield Park and struggling in the Third Division.
Paul Rogers was a player at Wigan in those days and remembers well how Whelan – already a millionaire through his JJB Sports shops – kept his cash firmly in his pocket.
“It was run on an absolute shoestring,” he said. “Dave owned all of JJB Sports and yet we had to go to the secretary to get a ten per cent discount for one of his stores. And there was one card.
“He even used to count the sandwiches. If there were 18 of us travelling to Plymouth the kit man would go to the JJB factory canteen and get 18 sandwiches, not 20 or 21!”
Yet that focus on thrift should come as no surprise. Now 77, Whelan grew up under the shadow of the Luftwaffe and spent his teenage years in post-war Wigan, with food shortages and ration books a daily reality.
So even when he forged a career as a full-back at Blackburn, his eyes were always on the look-out for a bargain.
“If you wanted something, you went to Dave,” said Bryan Douglas, a team-mate at the time. “He was always ‘If you get me some of this, I’ll get you some of that’.”
As a player Whelan was nicknamed ‘Crunch’ by Rovers fans, for obvious reasons. “He was a fearsome full-back, a real tough guy,” said Douglas. “He wasn’t particularly good on the ball, but he was very fit and very fast. Opposing wingers never enjoyed playing against him.”
That combative streak would ultimately spell the end of Whelan’s playing days; a mistimed challenge in the 1960 FA Cup final at Wembley handing him a broken leg.
A botched repair job in hospital eventually left him with one leg shorter than the other and though he returned to the game with Fourth Division Crewe, Whelan was forced to retire in 1966, aged just 30.
By then, however, he already had his own market stall. “I got £400 when I retired,” he says. “So I used it to buy stock.”
Within a few years that stall had become a chain – Whelan’s discount stores – and by 1978 had grown so lucrative that Whelan sold up to supermarket kingpin Ken Morrison for £1m.
Next came JJB, another fortune and, in 1991, an £11.5m deal to buy Manchester United, then just months away from their first trophy under Alex Ferguson.
Whelan was talked out of it by his wife – “I was stupid,” he says.“I was sitting on a goldmine” – but United’s loss was Wigan’s gain.
On his arrival, Whelan talked of Premier League football within ten years. “I thought he was crazy,” said Kevin Sharp, one of his first signings. “But he was as good as his word.”
Promotion from Division Three in 1997 was followed six years later by a place in the Championship. By 2005, Wigan were in the top-flight and would remain there for the next eight years, crowned by FA Cup glory in 2013. And remarkably, Whelan has remained on good terms with all his managers, from John Benson and Paul Jewell to Steve Bruce and Roberto Martinez.
“He gave me such great confidence,” recalls Jewell, who took Wigan into the Premier League and to a League Cup final in 2006.
“I remember once when it wasn’t looking too good for me. He went into the dressing room and said ‘Look, the manager is staying – if you don’t like it leave your boots there and go’. “When a chairman backs you like that you know you’re on to a winner.”
And those thoughts are echoed by Bruce. “We had our ups and downs,” said the Hull boss. “But for me, there’s no better chairman in the business.”
Or – as his £125m fortune attests – at business.
KEEPS HIS WORD: Wigan chairman Dave Whelan. Inset, Whelan celebrates with the FA Cup