Sharpe exclusive interview: '˜We've had a bad year, but there's no crisis here'
Latics chairman David Sharpe opened up to Paul Kendrick about the season, the mistakes, and the abuse he received.
First things first, David, Thursday’s game against Barnsley is obviously massive given the situation...
“A win would give us an outside chance. The win against Rotherham on Saturday was just nice...the way it came about anyway.
“The game itself was horrible to watch, obviously Rotherham had nothing to play for, and when the pressure’s off you can play in a more relaxed manner. It was in stark contrast to our players.
“We looked like we had the weight of the world on our shoulders, and they looked totally drained of confidence.
“We didn’t look like we wanted to get on the ball, but the way the win came about, with the 97th-minute winner, was very special. We’ve still got a chance. It gives us some belief back. We’ve got a chance, and that’s all you need sometimes.”
How have you been bearing up in general, has the pressure been getting to you?
“I’m okay. Football’s a fickle industry, isn’t it? We all had success last year, and when you’ve tasted so much success in one year – my first full year in charge, Gary Caldwell’s first full year – it’s a massive come-down when the next season doesn’t go as well.
“It’s two vastly differing emotions – from one massive high to one massive low. It does take you through the range of emotions, but you can’t let it get to you.”
It’s obviously not been the season we were all expecting after last year, can you come to terms with how it’s gone, and comprehend what’s happened?
“It was always going to be tough. Any club going up from League One to the Championship finds it tough. We’ve obviously been used to success in recent years, in the Premier League and the FA Cup, and that success – even though it’s been great, and we’ve enjoyed every minute of it – was achieved by us massively punching above our weight.
“Even in the Championship, when you look at the size of some of the clubs competing at the top end, we are massively up against it. Whether you look at Leeds, or Aston Villa, or Nottingham Forest...even the likes of Barnsley get more fans through the door than we do...it was always going to be difficult to compete.
“Don’t get me wrong – we’ve made a tough job of it. There were a few decisions made last summer that I look back on and can see weren’t the right ones, in terms of players leaving the club and players coming in.
“Certain signings I agreed with and I thought would be good signings, and have proved to be just that. Other ones haven’t quite worked out. There were players leaving – whether it was Jason Pearce, or Sam Morsy, or Chris McCann – that I didn’t necessarily agree with, but I had to back the manager.
“We had a really good team spirit last year, something you don’t get very often, and I felt we had to keep that. But that’s all in the past now, and you have to learn from it. We all have to sit back and have a look at ourselves.
“The managers who’ve been here, the players, the staff...we all have to take responsibility. I more than anyone, being at the helm, have to take a massive part of that responsibility. The players, too, have to take their share of the responsibility. They’ve had three managers now this season – they won two games under Gary, under Warren (Joyce) it was also poor, and the win on Saturday was their first under Graham (Barrow) since he took over.
“I have to say the performances have massively improved under Graham – against Newcastle, I thought that was the best we’ve played, even thought we got nothing from it.
“It’s been a long, tough, year. But it did hurt me on Saturday, hearing people shouting stuff at me when we went 1-0 down. I have to say it shocked me. I know the supporters have had it tough this season, we’ve had a difficult year and we haven’t won enough games.
“That’s what we’d all love to have done, but the club’s not in a bad place to be honest with you. I know we haven’t won many games of football, and we’ve been towards the bottom of the league all year, and it’ll be a massively uphill struggle for us to even stay in the Championship.
“But when I compare our clubs to other clubs, there’s no crisis here. Yes, we’ve had a bad year, but we’ve got everything under control.
“To be honest with you, I think we were in a crisis when we took over. When my grandad stepped down two years ago, we’d had a terrible year, under first Uwe (Rosler) and then Malky (Mackay).
“We’d had a lot of controversy off the pitch. We’d got a wage build of £26m. We’d spent £10m on transfer fees. And we were in the bottom three, and cut adrift.
“That was a bad, bad time for the football club, and we managed to restore order and do something about it.
“We regained control of the finances a lot better...because it was spiralling out of control. The club was due to lose in the region of £10-12million that year if we hadn’t controlled things.
“We slashed the wage bill massively, and Gary did a great job in taking us back up. I know a lot of people talk about Warren not having the experience, and it was a massive risk, a massive gamble...and I agree with that.
“I look back on that and I hold my hands up – it was a bad decision. But when I appointed Gary, he was coaching the Under-15s at the time, and not many then fancied him for the job of first-team manager, apart from myself.
“I still believe in my own judgement. I hold up my hands over Warren – that was a lack of foresight really.
“But at the same time he had achieved special things at Manchester United. Anyway, that’s history, we all have to move on.”
You’ve touched on it there, but how upsetting is it when the abuse gets overly personal?
“I try not to listen to it, but it’s hard to miss it sometimes – especially on Saturday.
“When you see stuff online, you know it’s mostly just keyboard warriors. But when people are directing verbal abuse at your face, it does hurt me.
“It’s not something this football club has ever been about. I can take stick. I’m only young but I do have broad shoulders.
“And I know I deserve stick – I deserve stick for Warren. I can take that, I can front up.
“But what I won’t take is people saying I don’t care about this football club, or that I’ve let the club down – because I haven’t. It’s not just me. All the staff are in it together, including Jonathan (Jackson). We’re up against some very wealthy clubs, with some very wealthy owners.
“The majority of owners in the Championship are billionaires, never mind the Premier League. It hurts me, it hurts Jonathan, it hurts Graham, it hurts the players – especially after the success of last season.
“When you’re on such a high, and you’re enjoying every second of it...we’d come such a long way since Malky, and it was such a good feeling.
“It seems to have gone a little bit negative again, and we all have to take responsibility for what’s happened.
“All we can do is learn from it, improve for the future, and I’m sure we will.”
You sound like you’re as committed as you’ve ever been to the club?
“Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had a really difficult year. It’s easy for people to question my age, and I know why they do that.
“But I believe in myself and my ability to do this job. I took over this job with the club in a very bad way, and I know my grandad is a very hard act to follow, because he did very special things for this club.
“I’ll always be compared to him, and that’s the way it is. My family own this football club and, let’s be honest, there’s nobody coming in to buy the football club or invest.
“They’re looking for Premier League clubs, and those at the top end of the Championship.
“We are adamant we are committed to this football club, and we’ll run it sensibly. We won’t throw money down the drain, and sign big players on big wages.
“I’m doing the job that my grandad is instructing me to do. I’ve got limits, and if I go over those limits, we’ve got a problem. I know this year has been tough, and I apologise to the fans.”
“We deserve better. We’re excited about the future, but we also have to face reality – and that’s the fact we are no longer a Premier League club, or a top-end Championship club.
“We’re still punching above our weight, and we have been for a number of years now. As much as I want to get the good times back, we also have to face facts.
“I understand the supporters’ negativity. At times, I was watching the football on offer this season, and I hated the brand of football I was seeing.
“It was something I never thought I’d see during my time as chairman.
“My footballing beliefs are good, possession-based, attacking football with a high press, and every manager I’d been involved with had bought into that.
“I thought Warren would be the same – but it didn’t surface. I had to make a decision. I could have been stubborn about things, and said: ‘This is my man’, but I know when things aren’t going well.’
“I’m man enough to admit I’ve made a mistake, and I wish him all the best for the future.
“I wanted to do the best for this football club and the supporters, and the next man we bring in will hopefully bring back the success we all want.”
Don’t miss next week’s Observer for part two of Paul Kendrick’s interview.