Wigan Atheltic owner plans his exit
Mon 21st Nov 2011 | Clubs Ownership
The story of Wigan Athletic can not be told without the theme of Dave Whelan being at the core of every page. Whatever your opinion is of Whelan there is no questioning his emotional and financial commitment to the football club and indeed the town of Wigan.
There are of course the critics who rightly and wrongly discredit him for his often loose tongue on football matters from general governance to his recent comments regarding his position on the John Terry racism row.
A fascinating character in the world of football is now admitting that his time in the spot light is “drawing to an end” and the housekeeping has already begun.
I’m meeting ‘Mr Chairman’, as all the Wigan staff refer to him as, at the DW Stadium. The stadium was of course funded to the tune of £30m by Whelan and opened in 1999. The plush lounge we meet in gives a perfect setting to the start and the potential end of the Dave Whelan and Wigan Athletic story.
“When I took over this club in 1995 we were playing at Springfield Park and were in the forth tier of English football. Now we’re into our seventh consecutive season in the biggest league in the world.”
It is a fact that can’t be ignored. The Dave Whelan era (regardless of any potential relegation this season) has to be referred to as a playing success.
“It’s a miracle on all aspects,” Dave confirms.
This miracle also came with huge amounts of finance from Whelan himself, of course. In addition to the cost of the stadium the debt once owed to him did crescendo at just over £50m. Whelan assures me that the finance was one of a number of ingredients that has equalled success:
“It has been down to determination and a will to succeed that runs through this club and through this town – we don’t give up, ever!”
Fighting words indeed and something that is already being called for as relegation looks more ominous this season than ever before.
As Whelan prepares to hand the reigns over it would be a shame if he could not do that in the Premier League. Preparation has commenced regardless.
Whelan converted £48m owed to him into equity this year in a bid to make the club more financially attractive, secure and to protect his family he tells me:
“I’ve got no chance of getting that money back so I may as well convert it to equity, which is what I did. I didn’t want Wigan Athletic having the responsibility of owing that to me or my family further down the line.
“I didn’t want to pass on and leave that burden on the club or the door open for someone to sue the club for the money.”
Sobering comments I’m sure you’ll agree. It is, however, these actions that will separate Whelan from other benefactors who have financed the rise of clubs they own. Yes, Wigan was and is built on debt (the debt figure at the club is still around the £20m+ mark) but does the end justify the means?
The reality is this: Wigan will break even this season and has one of the smallest debts in the Premier League.
Yes, they operate the highest dependency of Premier League TV cash (88% of their revenue is made up of Premier League rights) and have the smallest commercial income (just £1.5m) but we are also talking about a club who have Manchester United, Liverpool, Everton, Manchester City, Bolton and Blackburn as direct neighbours – not an easy challenge.
So, who does Dave want to take up that challenge as owner/chairman and lead the fight once he passes on the reigns of power?
He has been quoted extensively in the past about his desire to conduct a ‘Sir Jack Hayward’ style takeover but his thoughts have now changed. However, if you were thinking that he is now looking at recouping some of his fortune from a sale you couldn’t be further from the truth.
“I’m no longer actively pursuing a sale in the Jack Hayward mould. Time comes to everyone where you need to retire or take a step back because you’re simply not what you used to be.
“That time has got to come to me in the next two years.
“What I would like to do is create a dynasty here at Wigan Athletic. My Grandson is a bright boy and massively keen on football and Wigan Athletic. I’m inclined to let him have a go. I hope that happens.”
The notion of a dynasty is a testament to the emotional links he undoubtedly has for the club and probably equally the cynicism he holds against a non-believer taking over.
The cynics will of course look to the fact that a current twenty-one year old probably has neither the life or business experience to run a Premier League size organisation. Yet, as I have discussed many times the running of a football club is unique in that you know your probable turnover, manage that correctly and the rest is down to the ‘art’ of maximising what you do have.
Naturally, Grandson Whelan would also have Jonathan Jackson (Chief Exec) and co. to continue the administration and running of the club making the idea of a dynasty more than conceivable.
It appeared, post that comment that Whelan has already settled on that route of action with the rest of the interview shifting to him talking in the past tense about his club.
“It’s been a wonderful success, I’ve enjoyed myself immensely.
“I don’t think it will, but our time in the Premier League may come to an end this season. If that happens I’m not worried. There is resilience in this club that is unlike any other I’ve come across. This club will always be here for the people of Wigan.”
Whilst his thoughts of Wigan are ones of reflection he remains very much outspoken when it comes to general football governance and structure.
“Reality has got to come into football and at the moment it simply isn’t there. We have to contain the amount of money people want to put into it.”
Many will think that these comments are contradictory as he has built his club on huge levels of debt, which he has now converted to equity, but as I asked earlier, do the ends justify the means?
Financial Fair Play is designed to quell Dave’s worries about the game (not principally, of course) but he remains skeptical about the likelihood of success of that also.
“Look, I think it is a good idea and I hope it works. However, will they have the bottle to punish the big clubs? I’m not 100% convinced they will, I don’t think anyone is.
“If there is a strong English and German influence then maybe there is a chance but some of the other countries are too airy-fairy when it comes to actually implementing things.
“I hope it does work because that could be the precursor for similar rules in the Premier League.”
His frustrations are not exclusively placed with UEFA. He reiterated his view that the England Team should be run by the Premier League (even though this would technically not be allowed under FIFA statutes) and that the FA itself is no longer fit for purpose.
“I don’t have a lot of confidence in the FA. I think there are too many people there that are in the amateur end of the game that have too much say and even a vote in some cases.
“Professional football should be run entirely by professional people and I think the Premier League could quite easily pick up that mantle.”
He went further to discuss the possibility of the Premier League taking over the running of all four professional leagues:
“I’m not sure if they would want the responsibility of taking another 72 clubs on and it would be one of the biggest changes football in this country has ever seen but would it be for the best? I think so.
“We need to be under one umbrella. The past few years has shown that when you have multiple stakeholders with different agendas then the only thing that gets hurt is the game itself.
“I can’t criticise the FA all the time because some good work does happen and there are some excellent people. Even so, I think football needs to come together as one.”
Radical and typical Whelan, yes, but in the debris on what he is saying is a point that I totally agree with – the point that football’s key stakeholders do need to remember what is good for the whole game as well as looking after their own interests. Something that is almost impossible to achieve under the current structure and how the recent ‘Elite Player Performance Plan’ demonstrated.
So, as Whelan enters the final few chapters of his story at Wigan he is positive, emotional and reflective.
“I don’t think we could have done a single thing better. We’ve had a wonderful time. We’ve come from the fourth division to the Premier League – it is a dream come true.”
When Whelan does decide to hand the keys to the DW Stadium over to Whelan junior football has to remember him beyond the controversy, the harsh comments and radical suggestions. I say this as despite upsetting a lot of people in the game, he has remained steadfast to Wigan both emotionally and financially – everything an owner and Chairman should be.
His recent benevolence in the form of the debt to equity transfer was motivated by polar opposite forces to similar actions from other owners and clubs.
Finally, like or loath him, where would the game be without personalities like him? If he does hand over the keys with the club in the Premier League, breaking even and reducing that relatively small debt, then the end will have certainly justified the means.
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