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 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