In-depth look at the Wi­gan chair­man’s play­ing and board­room ca­reer

The Football League Paper - - INSIDE - By Chris Dunlavy

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.

PIC­TURE: Ac­tion Images

KEEPS HIS WORD: Wi­gan chair­man Dave Whe­lan. In­set, Whe­lan cel­e­brates with the FA Cup

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