Thursday 26 March ~
"Mike Ashley has no class whatsoever. I think he has got what he deserves at Newcastle. You don't go in there and lower the standards." Such comments about Newcastle's beleagured owner could have come from any one of hundreds of football messageboards. Instead they were made yesterday by another Premier League chairman. Managers snipe at one another publicly all the time these days but it is quite rare for club owners to feud. It's less of a surprise however that this unofficial protocol should have been breached by Wigan's Dave Whelan.
Whelan's beef with Ashley doesn't really stem from his concern about lowered standards at Newcastle. This much is borne out by his other comments about Ashley's predecessor: "Whatever you think of Freddy Shepherd, he had great dignity. People say he made a good living out of it, but he was also Newcastle United through and through". That's the same Freddy Shepherd who alternately scandalised and embarrassed Newcastle supporters with his crass behaviour over a period of several years before making a huge profit in selling up to Ashley. Nor does it derive from concern that Newcastle might be looking to poach Wigan's Tyneside-born manager Steve Bruce in the Summer. This is all about business, specifically the two men's rivalry in the sportswear trade. Whelan has been trying, unsuccessfully so far, to buy back JJB Sports, the company he sold in 2007 but which is now facing administration. Sports Direct, the rival retailer owned by Ashley, also has a stake in JJB and is blocking Whelan's takeover.
Wigan's ground, once called Springfield Park, was renamed after JJB Sports ten years ago but has now become the DW Stadium after the owner's new sportswear company which happens to carry his own initials. One sign that football fame, or indeed fame of any kind, is going to someone's head is when they start referring to themselves in the third person, as Phil Brown has notably done this season. What, then, to make of football club owners who name grounds after themselves (Reading's John Madejski being a previous example)? In their chairman's mind, the Wigan story is the Dave Whelan story.
Wigan are currently seventh in the Premier League, a position that guarantees a UEFA Cup place for next season. That would remarkable for any club playing only their fifth ever season in the top division, let alone one with a hardcore home support of only a few thousand. While Steve Bruce has proved exceptionally astute in his transfer dealings over the past year, there can be no doubt that the club owe their lofty position primarily to the largesse of their owner. It was Whelan who bankrolled Wigan's rise from the fourth tier, by paying higher salaries than almost any other club outside the Premier League. When he announced the renaming of the ground, Whelan said "The JJB Stadium has made the town of Wigan known all over the world". In fact it's more a case of Wigan Athletic's recent success giving worldwide exposure to JJB Sports. Dave Whelan has done a lot for his club but it existed before him and it will be around after he has gone, even if in more modest form. Wigan fans have reasons to admire Whelan but it's a pity that they often have to wince when he opens his mouth.