The 12th Man Column: Looking forward to the next 23 years

Joe Royle with IEC Chief Executive Melvin Yan Min Zhang
Joe Royle with IEC Chief Executive Melvin Yan Min Zhang

Wigan Athletic fans on IEC's takeover - and matters on the pitch

Stuart Glover

So it has finally, actually all been completed. The takeover, which we seem to have been waiting for longer than a David Perkins goal, is done.

We’ve been waiting expectantly for it, simply because it was first mentioned such a long time ago, not because we couldn’t wait to get rid of the Whelan family. In fact over the last week or two there has been almost total unanimity over what a wonderful owners, leaders and representatives the Whelan family have been over the years.

Whelan made mistakes, for example the way he treated some managers early in his ownership, but he learnt from his mistakes. And you cannot say fairer than that.

Perhaps the most controversial decision that he took was to appoint Maurice Lindsay as a director of the club. While Lindsey has had a successful career in sports management, he is the very personification of why a significant number of Latics fans dislike of town’s rugby club.

Yes, most people have had issues with Dave Whelan’s running of the club at one time or another, but as his period of ownership ends, everyone seems united in the view that his stewardship has been good for the club. And for good reason.

Simply put, if he has never bought the club, there probably wouldn’t be a Wigan Athletic now. And if there were one, it would likely be a non-league club.

I started watching Latics in 1991, so I do remember the pre-Whelan era. I remember the dark days of Bill Kenyon and the steadying of the ship under Stephen Gage. Yet Whelan’s chairmanship was not just good relative to those, it’s been good in absolute terms.

What is the legacy of the Whelan family ownership, and in particular the chairmanship of Uncle Dave?

Eight years in the Premier League? Five promotions? Four league titles? Two major cup finals? One Auto Windscreens Shield? That one glorious FA Cup win?

What about the numerous giant killings? The best players we’ve ever seen at our club? The pitch walkabouts? The new stadium? That speech in the centre circle when he stood down as chairman?

As it happens, I would agree with a friend of mine who once told me that when we speak of the achievements over the last two decades, yes there are all these sorts of things, but

Whelan’s greatest achievement and his lasting legacy is that we are now a far bigger club than we were when he took control. We have gone from a club who deserved to be towards the bottom of the league structure, to one that feels at home in the second tier. And crucially, we are of comparable size to our competitor clubs around us. Bolton, Preston, Blackburn and

Burnley. Significantly increasing the size of the club is his overall legacy.

I was fearful when Whelan took over. I didn’t know anything about him except that he was a business man who used to be a footballer. I feared him because he was a business man, but trusted that an ex-footballer wouldn’t do anything to hurt the club.

As we head into a new era, owned by pretty generic far-eastern holding company and run out of the 21st floor of a generic tower in downtown Hong Kong, not far from the ‘observational wheel’, the future is not all that easy to see.

Where will we be in five, 10, 20 years time? With talk of reviewing match day income, what will happen to ticket, refreshment and hospitality prices?

While there may be an injection of money in the short-term to pump prime the business, it seems certain that the new owners are not here to put in lots and lots of money over a long period. They have spoken about developing the academy and building up the club gradually. However with so few academy players making it into the first team, even at a club like Wigan, it is hard to see how successful this approach can be alone. And if you want to see of how far we have to go before we’re ready to achieve the IEC goal of promotion to the top flight, you only have to look back to last Sunday and the gulf in class that there was between us and Leeds.

Kieran Makin

Although Saturday’s result was disappointing, the right team won on the day and I have to say I think Leeds will be right up there come the end of the season.

The way they move the ball is simply sensational and their fitness levels were there for all to see, especially during transition play where they taught us a real lesson about top level Championship football.

Having said that I do think we gave as good as we got and there’s no need to panic just yet. We just lacked the quality in the final third without our first choice front four: Massey, Powell, Jacobs and Grigg.

Anyway, the game was the least important matter on Saturday. The fixture was tinged with perspective as an immaculately observed period of silence helped us remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice and Leicester City Owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, who tragically passed away.

To add to the emotion of the day, it was obviously the Whelan family’s last match in charge of Wigan Athletic.

At 22 years of age, the Whelan era is all I’ve ever known, and I can’t thank him and his family enough for the memories they have given me.

I have been lucky to witness nothing but the glory days. A relegation from the Premier League and two relegations from the Championship has not been enough to damage the memories of the good times.

I’ve seen us beat the big boys, I’ve seen us defy the odds in the promised land for eight years, I’ve seen us in a League Cup final, I’ve seen us lift two League One titles, I’ve seen us in

Europe and I’ve seen us win the FA Cup at Wembley. How many football fans can say that?

This club is a huge part of my life. They’ve given me highest if highs and the lowest of lows, but I will never forget one second of it. So thank you Dave Whelan and thank you David Sharpe, without you we may not have a club to call our own.

Onto the next era.

Paul Middleton

Well, it’s finally here. The takeover of Latics by International Entertainment Corporation has now been completed. The response generally, although fairly muted, has also been relatively positive. In fact, I seem to be one of the very few who still have serious reservations about whether the takeover is actually good or bad news for the club.

IEC have some very rich people involved, that’s for sure. But we’re not talking about individuals, we’re talking about IEC as a business. Assuming my non-accountant’s eyes have read it all correctly, they seem to have little in the way of assets, apart from a single Filipino casino/and hotel. They also seem to have a history of posting losses every year. It could, of course, be a tax ruse in some way. It might also mean that any money spent at Wigan Athletic will add to those losses to benefit other parts of the Head and Shoulders (not that one) group of companies.

My worry is that such intentions mean that there’s no real will to further us as a club, at least on the field. There’s not a single Latics fan out there who is under any illusions about the potential of WAFC as a way to make a massive pot of cash. We are a – let’s be honest – small club in a regional football ocean. Add to the fact that Wigan is a small, very working class town with the club having a history of needing to fight for every single supporter, and it really isn’t clear why a Hong Kong mergers and acquisitions group ever wanted in on the deal.

We know that it was only a matter of time before Dave Whelan wanted out, so it was inevitable that the club would be sold at some point. But why IEC, and why the interest in us? I suppose time will tell, and whether we offer Nick Powell a deal that will keep him here will tell us of their wider intentions.

As for the structure of the club itself, I’m also bemused by the appointment of the Royle father and son duo to the board. Darren Royle (the son) seems to have acted as the go between for the deal, and was always destined to have some sort of role, post takeover. But Joe as a board member? That’s an odd one, for me. It now all just feels like there’s too much power consolidated into too few hands. In all the press releases and interviews in the last 24 hours, Jonathan Jackson, still the CEO of Latics, hasn’t warranted a mention. For the only footballing link to the Whelan era to be effectively sidelined is a worry.

For every foreign takeover like we’ve seen at Man City or Leicester, there’s half a dozen like we’ve seen at Birmingham or West Brom. Many new owners just don’t understand that, unless you are in the top half dozen clubs who hoover up the majority of the TV money, making a profit is not a given. That’s especially true outside the Premier League. It may be that IEC plan to append enough to try and get back to the PL, but Financial Fair Play rules mean that’s not as straightforward as it once was. And what happens if, at some point, IEC decide it’s all been a big expensive mistake? Remember we’re not talking about a family with their roots in the club and the game. We’re talking about people who want to make money.

I hope I’m wrong, I really do but, at the moment, there are more questions than answers about the ownership of Wigan Athletic by IEC.

Sean Livesey

‘Don’t be sad it’s over, be glad it happened’

That was the message posted by David Sharpe across social media following Wigan’s 2-1 defeat to Leeds on Sunday, and the final match with the Whelan family as owners. Sunday was disappointing from a football view, and it was a shame that the family bowed out on a low point from a football point of view but a narrow defeat against the promotion favourites isn’t the real story this week and as such there’s no need for me to focus on that. Let’s instead focus on the end of 23 years of unbelievable highs for Wigan Athletic and look ahead to what the future may hold for this very special football club of ours.

Even though it’s been in the offing for over 12 months now it was still emotional to see David Sharpe and Dave Whelan take their seats as the custodians of our club for the last time. My seat is as close to the directors box as you can possibly be and it’s always interesting to see who has joined the Whelan family in there at each match. It will be strange not seeing David Sharpe and his Grandad sat in those seats from now on, but I’m sure the Whelan family will still be a presence at games.

Looking back over the last week or so gives you time to reflect on just how much change our club has experienced since Dave Whelan came to help a club in need in the early ‘90s. I began watching Wigan Athletic in 1993, one season before Dave Whelan took over the club. Anyone around at that time will realise Latics are un-recognisable to the club that stood there before Dave Whelan came on board. Latics were in dire straits before Whelan arrived, and although philanthropy may not have been Dave Whelan’s first consideration when he agreed to help out the club with players’ wages and then actually buying the club itself a few months later, it was that philanthropic spirit that would see his home town football club thrive.

I appeared on a BBC Radio Manchester special on Friday night when it was clear that the Whelan’s would be stepping down this week and the breadth of people queuing up to pay tribute to the Whelan family spoke volumes, from Emmerson Boyce who will forever be associated with our Premier League years and that day in May, to Roberto Martinez, signed by Dave

Whelan in what was probably a publicity stunt in 1995 but became like a son to Whelan and indeed one of Wigan’s most famous sons despite being born over 900 miles away.

The aforementioned Mr Martinez summed it up perfectly when speaking to the BBC: “It’s difficult to explain in words and do it justice. Dave Whelan is and was the reason Wigan achieved what they achieved. He had an incredible vision, he was a winner and everything he did was done properly, and that was contagious.

“When you see what happened in his 20-year reign it is quite incredible, it’s why we’re all involved in football.”

It isn’t only Dave Whelan who’s tenure at Wigan Athletic was coming to an end this week, David Sharpe, a young man who many ridiculed when he first took over from his Grandad, departed the club he had represented so well over the last three years. It’s such a shame that a place couldn’t be found for Sharpe in the new set up at Latics and as Whelan alluded to in interviews it was hurting Sharpe badly. David Sharpe took over at a low point in Wigan Athletic’s history – the club was battling for its reputation and Sharpe restored the club’s respect and good name throughout football.

He also helped to achieve some pretty special moments on the pitch as well, the sacking of Gary Caldwell and subsequent hiring of Warren Joyce was clearly a mistake but he rectified that with the hiring of Paul Cook and managed to give Latics fans two of the best seasons we’ll probably ever have.

He also helped to reconnect the club to its supporters – a great example of that was the Joseph’s Goal walk last season where David joined the other charity walkers all the way from

Euxton to Fleetwood. There aren’t many chairman in the football league who would do that. Sharpe is a Wiganer, he’s a Wigan Athletic fan and he will always be welcome among Wigan

Athletic fans – because he truly is one of us. His father who was present at the start of the journey would have been proud of what he has achieved.

Time doesn’t stand still for anyone and as we bid farewell to the family who transformed Wigan Athletic it’s time to welcome their new custodians. IEC completed their takeover on

Wednesday and the early signs do indeed seem promising. With both Darren and Joe Royle on the board of directors there is vast experience within British football and from Darren

Royle’s background football administration. There is continuity from Jonathan Jackson remaining in place as Chief Executive and we finally know more about our new owners with Thomas

Chan appointed to the board of directors, whilst the Chief Executive of IEC Melvin Yan Min Zhang gave an impressive round of interviews earlier this week. One has to hope Paul Cook is central to that plan, despite recent results he has done a fantastic job for Wigan Athletic and deserves the chance to develop this football club under its new ownership structure, the fact that Jonathan Jackson will be remaining and he’ll be dealing with two fellow Scousers in the Royle’s can only be a good thing.

The new owners’ approach to the club and its infrastructure certainly makes sense, there seems to be a consensus to provide financial support but equally not throw millions at Latics.

Which may seem surprising to some of our more excitable fans who would be hoping we would become the new Manchester City but heartening to those of us who would prefer to see

Wigan Athletic become a self-sustainable football club. Of course talk is cheap and we won’t see how Latics may develop under the leadership of IEC for some time yet. Question marks and concerns remain, why should a consortium with no prior investment in football purchase a provincial football club from South West Lancashire without any real prospect of increasing its profits without Premier League football? But there isn’t much we can do apart from support our football club as we always have and hope that our new owners support Wigan Athletic as

well as the Whelan family have done for the last 23 years.

They’re certainly a hard act to follow.

Barry Worthington

It was an emotional day last Sunday as the Latics bid farewell to the Whelans. The 23rd minute round of applause was a great tribute celebrating 23 years of the family’s ownership of the club – and what a 23 years it has been.

Whatever your thoughts on Dave Whelan’s reasons for buying the Latics back in the day, and there are a vast array of opinions on this, one thing that cannot be disputed is the success that he brought to what was a very small club, struggling not only to retain its league status but also struggling to avoid going out of business.

The first game under his stewardship, a Tuesday night in late February, 1,452 fans turned up to a dilapidated Springfield Park as we beat Hartlepool 2-0 in what is now League Two, hardly an indication of what was to follow.

I was at that very first fans forum when he declared that the aim was Premiership within 10 seasons, I didn’t laugh, I thought that is just what we need - ambition and that had been missing at the club for a number of years where survival was the only goal.

The journey had started, the first promotion under John Deehan was achieved, the new stadium being built gave us the focus that we were indeed on the up, exciting players came to the club, great managers, two more promotions, eight years in the top flight, the magic of the FA Cup win and a European tour, what an absolute privilege to be around to witness this.

So thank you Dave Whelan, David Sharpe and all the family who have provided me, through the Latics, with so much pleasure over the past 23 years.

Welcome to Melvin Yan Min Zhang, Thomas Chan, Joe and Darren Royle, you have big shoes to fill, hopefully you can build on the success and legacy that has been passed on to you.

Looking forward to the next 23 years.

Up the tics!