Ex­clu­sive The amaz­ing story of Bri­tain’s youngest foot­ball chair­man

David Sharpe, who was 11 when his fa­ther took his own life, tells James Ducker, how he is lift­ing Wi­gan’s for­tunes

The Daily Telegraph - Total Football - - FRONT PAGE -

The youngest chair­man in Bri­tish foot­ball was proudly parad­ing the League One tro­phy at the DW Sta­dium yes­ter­day as Wi­gan Ath­letic cel­e­brated pro­mo­tion in front of their home sup­port­ers, even though Barns­ley rained on their pa­rade with a 4-1 win.

It was only 14 months ear­lier that David Sharpe, then 23, had taken over the run­ning of the Lan­cashire club from his grand­fa­ther, Dave Whe­lan. Wi­gan were in cri­sis on and off the pitch and Whe­lan, who had just re­turned from a six-week ban for racist re­marks he made as part of a bungled de­fence of be­lea­guered man­ager Malky Mackay, was now fac­ing ac­cu­sa­tions of nepo­tism. How, ar­gued the crit­ics, could the Wi­gan owner hand over the reins to a novice at a time when the club were be­sieged and rel­e­ga­tion loomed? Sharpe knew how the sit­u­a­tion looked but he also recog­nised that many were ig­no­rant of the fuller facts.

“When I took over, ev­ery­body looked at my age and thought, ‘23-year-old, sil­ver spoon in his mouth, he’s ob­vi­ously just a lucky, spoilt kid who has got this great present of a new foot­ball club’,” said Sharpe, who turns 25 on Wed­nes­day. “What they don’t un­der­stand is a foot­ball club is not a very good present. If you want to lose a lot of money, yeah, it’s a present. But they didn’t know what had gone on, how things had come around, the sit­u­a­tion with my dad, my grand­fa­ther. If they had an opin­ion of me, they’ve prob­a­bly changed it in a year.”

Sharpe’s story is un­der­pinned by per­sonal tragedy, one that has come to shape him in­di­vid­u­ally and which pro­vides im­por­tant back­ground to his ap­point­ment. He was 11 when he was awo­ken early one Oc­to­ber morn­ing in 2002 by a teacher at his board­ing school in North York­shire and driven home to Lan­cashire to dis­cover his fa­ther, Dun­can, had com­mit­ted sui­cide, aged 43.

Dun­can was Whe­lan’s son-in­law, hus­band to his daugh­ter Jayne and chief ex­ec­u­tive of the en­tre­pre­neur’s then sports­wear chain JJB Sports, as well as vicechair­man of Wi­gan. His death stunned the fam­ily, lo­cal com­mu­nity and wider busi­ness world. Sharpe has waited un­til now to dis­cuss it pub­licly. “I used to play a lot of rugby union and I was up in Scot­land for a tour­na­ment and my dad came up on the Sun­day to watch,” he said. “I didn’t know he was com­ing. It was pretty ran­dom be­cause he did not see me play much. We spoke a bit af­ter and then he just went back home.

“That night, I trav­elled back with my school on the bus and got wo­ken up the next morn­ing about 6am by a teacher who said, ‘Come on, we’ve got to go home’. I thought it was be­cause I’d bro­ken three fin­gers and had to get those sorted back home. But I got back and my mum told me the news.”

JJB Sports’ for­tunes had been fluctuating at the time and Whe­lan dis­closed that his son-in-law had been suf­fer­ing from a se­ri­ous stom­ach ill­ness and had been to see a doc­tor a few days be­fore. “It’s hard to un­der­stand when you’re so young,” said Sharpe, the sec­ond youngest of four sib­lings. “We all took it dif­fer­ently. My el­dest brother Matt went into a shell, didn’t want to speak to any­one, whereas my older sis­ter Laura wanted to speak with ev­ery­one. I went back to school af­ter four weeks off and I didn’t want any­one to act dif­fer­ently around me.

“I re­mem­ber the day I got back, we had a rugby game the next day and they put me on the bench and I was fum­ing be­cause I’d never been put on the bench in my life. The coach didn’t even put me on but, look­ing back, he prob­a­bly saved me there. My mum was un­be­liev­able. How she stayed so strong, I don’t know.”

The fam­ily’s pain was deep­ened by some base­less ac­cu­sa­tions lev­elled at Whe­lan. “We had pa­parazzi out­side the house when you just want to be left alone,” Sharpe re­called. “Peo­ple were say­ing stuff about my grandad. With ev­ery fam­ily there’s things that should be kept pri­vate and some of the ac­cu­sa­tions lev­elled at him were to­tally out of or­der.

“We don’t speak about it much as a fam­ily but my dad’s me­mory lives on. If he’s there look­ing down I know he would be very proud of me. Not many know but he is a big part of why the club is where it is to­day. He was the one in the back­ground put­ting the in­fras­truc­ture in place when we were in the fourth tier, he was the one who bought Nathan Elling­ton from Bris­tol Rovers and ap­pointed Paul Jewell as man­ager. As soon as we won pro­mo­tion I thought of my dad and ded­i­cated it to him be­cause I’m just do­ing the job he would be do­ing.”

Con­trary to pop­u­lar opin­ion, Whe­lan never in­tended for Sharpe to fol­low in his fa­ther’s foot­steps by run­ning the club. He had hoped his grand­son would take a role in the DW Sports em­pire, where he had worked in the re­tail sec­tor for a year be­fore a short-lived spell at univer­sity, but foot­ball was Sharpe’s long­ing.

“I had to ram it down his throat that this was what I wanted to do,” he said. A turn­ing point came in June 2013 when Sharpe got wind that Whe­lan was plan­ning to ap­point Owen Coyle as Roberto Martínez’s suc­ces­sor, walked into his grandad’s of­fice and asked why he was look­ing to re­place a man­ager who favoured To­tal Foot­ball with one who liked a route one ap­proach. “It was too big a jump and I knew it was never go­ing to work,” Sharpe said.

Within six months, Coyle had been sacked, with Sharpe the brains be­hind the ap­point­ment of Uwe Rösler, who guided the club to the Cham­pi­onship play-offs and FA Cup semi-fi­nals. His even­tual ap­point­ment as chair­man could not have come at a tougher time, though, with Whe­lan and Mackay en­gulfed in race storms and the

‘I had to ram it down his throat that this was what I wanted to do’

team fail­ing. Yet Sharpe did not wa­ver. His first move was to sack Mackay and in­stall Wi­gan’s cap­tain, Gary Cald­well, the for­mer Scot­land de­fender, as man­ager. Sud­denly, two novices were steer­ing the club.

“In a weird way I thought go­ing down was the best thing for us,” Sharpe said. “It al­lowed the man­ager and my­self to go un­der the radar a bit.” Cald­well and Sharpe make an un­likely double act but they are prov­ing some team. Wi­gan lost just two of their fi­nal 25 league matches and man­ager and chair­man share the same ethos on ev­ery­thing from play­ing style to bud­get re­spon­si­bil­ity. The wage bill was slashed from £24 mil­lion to £7 mil­lion, the squad re­built and next month the team will move into a new train­ing ground. If Whe­lan is an au­thor­i­tar­ian, Sharpe is a demo­crat, even if his ge­nial de­meanour should not be mis­taken for a soft touch. Staff who knew his fa­ther say they share many char­ac­ter­is­tics.

Sharpe re­mem­bers be­ing sar­cas­ti­cally ap­plauded into a ser­vice sta­tion by a posse of Wi­gan fans af­ter an open­ing-day de­feat at Coven­try City, not long af­ter he had claimed the club would “smash” League One. It is safe to say no one is snig­ger­ing any more.

Go­ing up: Wi­gan chair­man David Sharpe (left), who will be 25 this week, and (right) the club’s play­ers lift the League One tro­phy yes­ter­day

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