IN his first major press interview, David Sharpe tells our man Paul Kendrick his hopes for Latics’ future, pays tribute to his grandad and reveals a similarly ruthless streak.
David, first of all, how do you feel about being the new chairman of Wigan Athletic?
I love this football club – it’s the only thing I love, apart from my family – and I’ll be doing everything I can to get us back into the Premier League and create an Academy we can all be proud of. I know how much it means to the fans, and we’ve all got to stick togetherDavid Sharpe
“Obviously I’m very proud. But It’s something I’ve known was in the pipeline for a while. It didn’t come as a shock, it wasn’t an overnight decision. My grandad was talking about it happening during the Premier League days. It’s a title I’m very proud of, and it’s all I’ve had my mind set on since he mentioned it. It’s a challenge, but one I’m up for more than anything.”
When was it first mooted?
“My grandad spoke to the press about it during the Premier League years before he’d even spoken to me. I was reading the newspaper and it said I was going to be the chairman of Wigan Athletic one day. That put a smile on my face! At the time he was still going to every game, he was hardly ever out of the country, but we really started talking about it at the start of this season. I’ve always had an opinion on football, like every football fan, but he first asked for my opinion when Owen Coyle was manager. We were struggling, 3-0 down against Derby at half-time, and he came up to me and said: ‘David, what do you think about the manager?’ You can probably guess my response, and after the game Owen had lost his job. That was when I first started to realise he was taking my opinion on board and taking me seriously. When it came to appointing a successor, I told him Uwe Rosler was the only man I wanted, and he got the job. Prior to that (when Roberto Martinez left the club), I went in to his office and said there were two men for the job: Steve McClaren and Uwe Rosler. Anyway, he didn’t listen to me on that occasion! At the start of this season he brought me in to work alongside Uwe and the recruitment team, and you’ll have seen me around the training ground, and down at the stadium with Jonathan (Jackson), so that was when the wheels were put in motion. I think he was always going to step down at the end of the season. It’s just come about six weeks early. He called me from Barbados, two or three weeks ago, and told me that when he got back he was stepping down as chairman. The rest is history.”
What was your reaction?
“I initially tried to persuade him to stay on, because of how good a job he’s done and how much he’s still loved in the town. Nobody wanted to see him go, and I wanted him to stay on as chairman. But he’d made up his mind, and once that became clear I was keen to take the challenge on board – and make him a proud grandfather.”
It’s not like you’re coming in completely blind...
“Absolutely, it’s not like it’s day one, ‘Here’s a football club for you to run’. It’s been a progression over the course of a couple of years, slowly building up to this season and having much more of a say in things and an influence in decisions. I’ve had more of an input with Malky (Mackay) than I had with previous managers, primarily because my grandad was away, serving his ban, so I’ve had to be involved really.”
The cliche ‘big shoes to fill’ has never been more appropriate...
“I don’t think I will ever be able to fit in to those shoes. There’s only one Dave Whelan, and I’m not going to pretend I’ll ever be able to live up to his name. What he’s done for this football club is unbelievable, and will never be achieved again. But my ultimate aim is to get Wigan Athletic back up in to the Premier League.”
Being a football chairman must be close to a dream job?
“Every kid wants to be a footballer, but to be a football chairman is something that not many kids would dream of being. I’m one hell of a lucky grandson, I’m lucky to have him as a grandad, but I’ve got to take the challenge on board and really get stuck in.”
A lot’s been made of your age (23)...is it an issue for you?
“Not particularly, because I’ve been involved with football for so long. You get owners from abroad who have never watched a single game in their life, and all of a sudden they own a football club and they’re making massive decisions which impact on our league and the football we all love. The only thing I’ve ever known is Wigan Athletic. It’s in my blood. Obviously people will be looking from the outside in and think, ‘He’s 23, how can he run a football club?’ But I’ve had the best teacher possible and hopefully I can show everyone I can run a football club – with guidance from my grandad. I will always ask his opinion, of course I will, but it’s something I’ve got to take on board myself, get stuck in and give it my all. My grandad’s put a lot of trust in me, and he would never have done that if he didn’t think I was capable. He trusts me to make the decisions, and I will do that.”
You’ll be keen to be your own man as well...
“Obviously I’m only known as Dave Whelan’s grandson at the moment, but going forward I want people to know me for the work I’ve done.”
From your business experience, what have you learnt – good and bad?
“Obviously I’ve been involved in DW Sports, in both the leisure and retail side, and we also set up Sharpey’s restaurant. At the time I was down in Oxford at university, and my grandad called me up and said he’d got a building next to the stadium that he wanted to make into a restaurant, selling fish and chips. I told him I was at uni, but I wanted to work – and you get far too much spare time at uni! I wanted to prove to him I could do it and be a success in business, so he got me up here. I didn’t spend long down at Oxford, six months or so, and I only stayed at Sharpey’s for around a month or two before we said, ‘This isn’t enough for me, I need to get back to DW Sports’, so we left the manager there. Obviously we still had the final say on things, me and my grandad, but it wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to get stuck into DW Sports and the football club, and learn from my grandad.”
What’s the masterplan for Latics moving forward?
“In football you always have to have a short-term plan, which is to stay in the Championship, and we’re putting everything we can into making that happen. And there’s also a long-term plan, to get back into the Premier League and develop the Academy. Having a top-class Academy is something I’m so passionate about, we have to start making and creating our own players. We’ve only really produced two down the years in Leighton Baines and Callum McManaman, and the plan is to see more Wigan boys playing for Latics.”
How much of a shock was it when the rest of the board announced last week they would be stepping down at the end of the season?
“We had a board meeting immediately after my grandad made his intentions clear to step down and make me chairman, and they felt it was also their time - after doing 20 years - to step down at the end of the season. They wanted to stay for the next few months, because otherwise it would have been me and Jonathan (Jackson) on our own, to offer as much help and support as they could. They felt they had to go with my grandad, that it was only fair that I was allowed to start a new era with the people I want to take the club forward. It was nice of them to realise that it was something that started with my grandad, and that they should leave with my grandad. That’s football.”
Will those new board appointments be made at the end of the season, and do you have anyone in mind?
“Obviously I’ve got a lot of my mind at the moment, but it’s something we’ll sit down and talk about in the summer. Obviously people have opinions in football, and it comes down to the chairman’s opinion regarding the manager and things like that. But you do need to take on board the opinions of the other directors and, like we do at the moment, it will be nice to have people you can talk to about certain issues, certain decisions.”
When clubs change chairman, questions are often asked about the manager... do you see Malky Mackay being a long-term part of the picture?
“Malky is a big part of what we are doing here. He realised when he came in back in November that we had a squad that was living off reputations, and what they’d done in the past. They weren’t achieving what they should have been achieving, and we moved them on in January. We had 13 players out in total which – for a new manager coming in during January let along summer – is unheard of. We made some brave, brave decisions together – me, Malky, Jonathan (Jackson), Matt (Jackson) – to try to take this club forward, because we were moving backwards with those players. It’s something Malky has done, and we are fully behind him in terms of who he’s brought in and the squad he has put together.”
How important to the long-term plan is staying in the Championship?
“Obviously that’s the aim between now and the end of the season, but that doesn’t represent an achievement for me personally for Wigan Athletic to stay in the Championship. We want to be in the Premier League, and we should be fighting for promotion, not fighting to stay in the league. I’m not going to be shouting about it when we do stay up, if we do stay up, even though that is our short-term goal. But that was Malky’s brief when he came in, nothing else – you’ve got to keep this team in the division. That’s why we brought him in, because he knows the league well and he’s done it before.”
Will funds continue to be made available for the team?
“There will be money available, but of course we’ve got to look to the Academy. At the moment we’ve got the right people within the Academy who are working in the wrong building. We need to invest heavily in the Academy, which also impacts on how much you can invest on the first team. But, like we have seen this season, I want to see more and more Academy graduates progressing into the first-team squad.”
Would relegation affect plans for the Academy?
“No, that is 100 per cent not the case. Either way, whatever happens at the end of the season, the Academy is something we are going to be working towards making as successful as possible.”
Do you have a final message for the fans?
“Obviously they were great with my grandad at the weekend, and it was something I wanted to be right. They gave him a fantastic reception, drowned out the Leeds lot which was good, and it was nice to hear the reception they gave me when my grandad mentioned me. I know there will be sceptics because of my age, but I’m going to do everything I can for this football club. I love this football club – it’s the only thing I love, apart from my family – and I’ll be doing everything I can to get us back into the Premier League and create an Academy we can all be proud of. I know how much it means to the fans, and we’ve all got to stick together and push on with the new ideas I’ve got, like the Academy and the recruitment team. Recruitment is 95 per cent of what the club spends, and we’ve got that wrong in the past, in terms of last summer and in previous cases. We’ve got to get that right to take this club to the next level, and we’ve already had meetings about that. Whether we’re in the Championship, League One or the Premier League, we need to have the right infrastructure in place, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Your grandad’s just completed 20 years’ service...where do you see yourself in 20 years?
“I’ll probably be grey by then! You can never say, but hopefully we’ll be back in the Premier League by then, with another FA Cup in the cabinet. No-one would have thought my grandad would have achieved so much in the space of 20 years, so you never know.”