“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 beleaguered owner and his fondness for XXL replica shirts could have come from any number of columnists. Instead they were made 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. Of course, Whelan’s beef with Ashley doesn’t really stem from his concern about falling standards in the boadroom. This much is borne out by other comments at the same press conference 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 £50 million in selling up to Ashley.
This is all about business, specifically Whelan and Ashley’s rivalry in the sportswear trade which, as the Mail on Sunday’s Patrick Collins points out, makes criticism of the Newcastle owner’s dress sense seem a little misplaced: “In Whelan’s world, trainers and replica shirts equal a palpable lack of class. Yet they are the articles of leisurewear upon which his own fortune was built.” The Wigan chairman has been trying, unsuccessfully so far, to buy back JJB Sports, the company he sold in 2007 but which is now facing bankruptcy. Sports Direct, the rival retailer owned by Ashley, also has a stake in JJB and is blocking Whelan’s takeover.
Wigan’s ground was named the JJB Sports Stadium when it opened ten years ago but has now become the DW Stadium after the owner’s new sportswear company. 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. 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, although he now has the laudable aim of making the club debt-free within 18 months, as he told the Telegraph: “I would encourage every other club to the same. I don’t think it is right that we have teams in the Premier League that owe three quarters of a billion pounds”.
When he announced the renaming of the ground, Whelan said: “The JJB Stadium has made the town of Wigan known all over the world.” 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 it is 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.
From WSC 267 May 2009