OUR reporter PAUL KENDRICK was the only print journalist to be granted access to speak to Dave Whelan on the historic day he stepped down as chairman of Wigan Athletic. Here’s his exclusive interview ...
Q: It feels like the end of an era...
Old age is something we’ve all got to experience and, as I draw closer to the age of 80, things do happen in your life and you’ve got to slow downDave Whelan
A: It certainly feels like one, I suppose. It’s 20 years since I bought the club, back when we played at Springfield Park. I’m trying to think what I paid for it, something like £400,000, to a couple of lads who came from London. From that day, we’ve made some fantastic progress - we played in the Premier League for eight years, we reached Europe and we won the FA Cup. We obviously got relegated into the Championship but, football being football, we’re still ambitious, we’re determined to get back and this is still a great football club.”
Q: From the fourth tier, to the Premier League, Europe and the FA Cup, it must be a great journey for you to look back on?
A: It’s been a fantastic adventure, a fantastic story. From start to finish, we’ve had Wigan Athletic doing all sorts of things to defy the odds. Getting to the Premier League was incredible but, for me, to then go to the FA Cup final against Manchester City – the reigning champions – and bring the trophy back to Wigan, that was something really special. It’s been a wonderful 20 years. When I bought the club, I think we were third from the bottom of the fourth tier, we were in an awful state financially, and the ground at Springfield Park – while historic, and full of memories – was not really fit for purpose, for climbing the leagues like we wanted to do. Now we have the DW Stadium, which is one of the finest stadiums in the division. It’s not Anfield, it’s not Old Trafford, but it is the home of Wigan Athletic and Wigan Warriors, and we’re very proud of it.”
Q: The stadium and the stability at the club is a nice legacy to leave?
A: It is nice to do that, and it was always my ambition to do that. We really, really feel at home here.”
Q: Your love for football and the club is still obvious, what makes this the right time to step down as chairman?
A: As everyone will know, I was recently charged with being a racist which really, really hurt me, because racism is something I cannot even contemplate. I was banned by the FA for six weeks and I went to Barbados, out of the way, for 10 weeks. While I was over there I was asked to speak at the government’s annual sporting presentation. After I’d spoken for 20 minutes, they presented me with a trophy to recognise my services to the island of Barbados, which was a fantastic honour for myself and Wigan Athletic. After being charged here with being a racist, it was something that lifted my spirits enormously, to know that people did realise I wasn’t a racist. The FA cleared me of being a racist (he was found found guilty of using racist language), but it was still very disturbing when they issued me with the charge.”
Q: You’re stepping down as chairman but you remain the owner and, presumably, a big fan of the football club on a matchday?
A: Absolutely, and for the rest of my life, I remain Wigan Athletic through and through. I am going to support my grandson, David, and I would call on the fans and the town to get behind him as well. We still have great ambitions to get back into the Premier League and to get back into Europe.”
Q: For Wiganers who perhaps don’t know too much about David, are you confident he is the right man?
A: Old age is something we’ve all got to experience and, as I draw closer to the age of 80, things do happen in your life and you’ve got to slow down. I’ve had David there at the training ground, part of the staff, for the last 12 months learning what a football club is like to run, talking to the management and the players, and I think he is ready to step forward now and take on the responsibility. He will have my total support, and I will be sat beside or behind him this weekend.”
Q: You’ll remember the ovation you received at the Middlesbrough game back in November, I’m sure you’ll be hoping there is a similar reception for David this weekend...
A: I hope they take to David, because he is a mad, mad-keen Wigan Athletic supporter. I’m sure our supporters will do that. Looking back to my own reception against Middlesbrough, that was so moving. It let me know how much the supporters were behind me, and they realised I had been charged with something I was not guilty of. I had a tear in my eye that day, and I would say a big thank you to all of our supporters. It was a great tribute to myself.”
Q: You’ve mentioned David being a wigan athletic fan, how important is that - to have someone who understands the club and is passionate about it?
A: Absolutely. In a football club it is about honesty, passion and being true to the supporters, who are the most important part of any football club. Our supporters do know that I respect them enormously, and David has the same respect for our supporters that I have.”
Q: Do you have a message for those fans as you hand over the reins?
A: It’s been a difficult time for me. I’ve been away for 10 weeks and I’ve been having serious thoughts about the situation. But I really do think it is the time to step down and to pass it on to a younger generation. For me, it is a very sad day, but also a very exciting day. I’m getting old, while he is so young, so ready and so up for the job, and his enthusiasm is fantastic. I’m looking forward to more good times at Wigan Athletic.”
Q: Who was your favourite player during your time at Wigan Athletic?
A: It’s very difficult to pick one, because we’ve had so many great players over the years who have given us everything, but I would have to mention Roberto Martinez. A lot of our supporters will remember when I signed the ‘Three Amigos’, which caused a lot of excitement in football and in our town. Those three lads lifted Wigan Athletic to new heights, and Roberto lifted us to even greater heights when he led us to the FA Cup.”
Q: Looking out at the DW Stadium, you’ve had some great games here ...
A: Wonderful days, and beating Manchester United here would be up there. I was talking to Sir Alex Ferguson after the game, and he was seriously unhappy. But after 10 minutes he was the most friendly man again, as he always was, and he congratulated us on beating Manchester United. I’ll never forget that. What a great night.”
Q:And many more great times to come?
A: Hopefully. I’m quite confident David has got his head screwed on. He is sensible, he knows football inside out and I hope our supporters will get behind him and back him.”
Q: What now for Dave Whelan?
A: I’ll still be coming down here for every match, and to as many away matches as I can get to. But I do know I have to slow down. Unfortunately, age makes you slow down, and it’s up to us to realise that we cannot keep doing what we have always done. Okay it’s disappointing, because I don’t feel right when I’m not involved in a football match, when I’ve got to stay at home and watch it on TV. But age is something we all have to deal with, and the Wigan Athletic supporters of my generation will know and understand that. Come Saturday, though, I’ll be here, and I’ll be here with pride. I’m looking forward to David taking over, and I’m looking forward to him having success. And as long as I live, I’ll always be here, supporting Wigan Athletic.”