Chinese Whispers

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It’s all going a little bit too well at the minute down at the DW. Almost too well, and it’s easy to take your eye off the future when you’re having such a good time at the present.

There’s no smoke without fire as they say and ever since Garry Cook was appointed in the summer on a non-exec basis, it has looked increasingly likely that the Whelan dynasty could be coming to an end at Wigan Athletic. We can only hope our future owners are more Sheikh Mansour, less Thaksin Shinawatra.

This is the problem isn’t it? There are good owners out there but there are also bad ones. Apart from a small vocal online minority who insist that Whelan has trousered millions from Wigan Athletic, I’d say there is a pretty strong consensus that our current owners are good owners.

Yes, there was appointing Maurice Lindsay to the board, putting matchday tickets up to £35, giving Blackburn Rovers fans a free pie and that whole Mackay / racism business but apart from that, we have had one of the best owners anyone could ever have and been on the sort of journey this past 20 years that no club of our size could ever dream of.

We have heard for a number of years that Whelan has been privately looking to sell up and the appointment of Garry Cook perhaps only served to escalate that ambition. Yet this prospect has been met with a mixed reaction amongst Latics supporters.

There seems to be some that are delighted with the news: it’s been clear that we don’t raise the level of income to compete at Championship level, nor does Whelan himself hint at another round of investment of his own – and why should he, he must have put £100m in for the last 20 years and as with most things – as time passes, you generally get less for more.

The other response is a much more cautionary one, perhaps one which I subscribe to. We’re in a good place right now, by that I don’t necessarily mean League One. We are top of the league, winning games, we’ve got a great manager, playing good football and the fans all have a smile on our faces. Dave Whelan is still our financial guarantor but the solid footing we are now under is much due to the credit of Messrs Sharpe and Jackson, and all three of these men are fervent supporters of Wigan Athletic.

So we know that Whelan doesn’t want to keep putting in, after all he’s in his 80’s but I suppose some of us are even asking, even if someone else does – do we want to be that club again? To put it harshly (as many other fans’ would) a sugar daddy’s plaything. For all the good times we had, the Premier League is an obscene bloated cesspit of money set aside a circus of hype and sycophancy.

Can’t we just enjoy being a (near) self-sufficient club for a while watching a young team develop and flourish? We might start struggling again next year if we do get promoted but we have a solid, honest base – players we generally like and appreciate and do not earn a salary that is completely beyond our comprehension.

Do we really want to send them on their way in favour of spending tens of millions of pounds of overpaid mercenaries from here, there and everywhere to become a top Championship side? Then if that pays off, spend tens of millions more just to compete in the Premier League. It’s sacrilege to say it, and I speak as a massive fan of Roberto Martinez and the FA Cup winning squad he assembled but neither he, nor his squad hung around for long once relegation kicked in.

As a League One team, we are actually in a position where we can offer players new contracts and they want to sign them rather than getting a flat refusal because Sunderland have offered them an extra thirty grand a week. Kids can get their names put on shirts without fear of their favourites getting flogged to the first bidder in January.

Do we really want to trade this fine, developing team and a sustainable future for a few more years of millions-splurging madness?

Well, it appears that we do.

Oh and by the way, that only happens if we get a good one. If we get a bad one, then literally anything can happen and you don’t need me to spell out what the worst that can happen is.

I suppose we need to ask why a Chinese consortium would want to invest in little old Wigan Athletic. Why us? There are much bigger clubs that are much further up the pecking order than us. Big city clubs in the Championship whose residents would jump on the bandwagon of the prospect of investment. Of course, many of them have already had it and it’s as hit and miss as it comes.

If you’re lucky you just have the threat of a change in identity to cope with (Hull, Cardiff). If you’re unlucky, you could have all manner of foreign charlatans darkening your door (Birmingham, Leeds). Not that local, home grown chairmen are any better than our own Dave Whelan as Bolton and Blackpool have found out to their cost.

My personal wish, if we assume that this is going ahead, is that any changes are minimal and we can carry on just as we are because we are in a good place right now. If you read the club’s accounts, you will know that the only reason our club is a going concern is because all its debts are personally guaranteed and secured by Dave Whelan.

It’s a scary prospect but if someone else wants to come in and honour that guarantee then at least we know we will have a football club to support. Taking it out of the Whelan’s hands is a big unknown prospect however, and who knows what motives any new owners will have.

It is very difficult to monetise the club based on our attendances, ticket pricing, commercial revenue and merchandising. We’re great at raising money in the transfer market but selling our assets inevitably weakens us. The main concern is that we can only pull in 8,000 fans at the minute and if they don’t come now when we’re top of the league playing great football when will they come?

Last year in the Championship we barely mustered up 10,000 home fans despite cheap as chips season tickets, so you could suggest that even if we went up to the Premier League again one day, we wouldn’t get anywhere close to the 15,000 home fans we managed last time let alone the 20,000+ who were there in our inaugural season, many of whom were purely there out of novelty.

Whereas having thousands of empty seats is par for the course in the Championship or League One, in the “Best League in the World”, it is pure reputational suicide.

So what is the attraction on pumping money into a club like ours with no guaranteed return?

Is it even possibly to pump money into the club anymore with the new Financial Fair Play regulations unless you have some convoluted group structure and an army of clever accountants a la PSG or Man City investing money here, there and everywhere else it’s permitted to manufacture revenue to spend on the pitch?

I have more questions than answers I’m afraid and I just hope that the club is open, honest and accountable to what is going on at every step of the process (and remember all we have to go off so far is a Sun journalist)

There is uncertainty already and the club has done a fantastic job since the Mackay episode to reconnect with the fans. Knowing that the people in charge of the club are actually fans always gives the majority of us fans some level of comfort that it is in good hands without the need to challenge them.

That could all change in the future and there are countless stories up and down the country of delinquent owners coming in and ruining once proud football clubs and you don’t even have to move out of Lancashire to find three of the worst examples.

All these clubs’ fans have quickly galvanised under the banner of protest groups and fans’ trusts. All of them waited till the s**t hit the fan until that happened and the one thing that I’ve learnt from independent fans’ groups from Barnsley to Coventry is that you should mobilise while the sun is shining and not wait till the turbulence comes. But most football fans don’t think like that.

Personally, I’ve been involved with attempted set ups of fans’ trust at Wigan on three occasions now and I very much doubt there will be a fourth given the abuse and sly tricks aimed in our direction.

We are not a sturdy football club with decades of top flight history or a large captive fan base to call upon. Even a large proportion of the town prefers to support someone else and many rugby fans have been only to keen to express their delight if we were to ever go bust.

I reserve the right to express my opinion on this and raise concerns however as someone who has operated with fanzines and independent writing for nearly 30 odd years, but as I say, actually doing anything about it is futile.

But trust me when I say that appointing an owner of a football club is a thousand times more critical than appointing a manager or anyone else for that matter, so if you’re not concerned about these latest developments, then you should be.

In spite of all this, concern is all we can be as we are pretty powerless to do anything about it. As fans, we are of meagre financial means when compared to Dave Whelan and mysterious consortiums (or should that be consortia?)

There have been some interesting departures over the past few months including Ed Jones and Ian Laithwaite, both good fellas and by all accounts, unfortunate casualties of a football club needing to trim its cloth accordingly. Yet maintaining Jonathan Jackson and David Sharpe will be essential to good governance if a takeover does materialise.

For all Dave Whelan has done for Wigan Athletic, his track record after leaving other businesses and rugby club isn’t exactly the best and despite the sneery comments online about his tender years, David Sharpe has been a fantastic chairman for Latics.

We are also highly reliant on the Football League’s fit and proper test being er, fit and proper for any incoming owners but without knowing what their objectives are, it is impossible to determine whether this could be a great takeover or not.

And even good intentions don’t always work out. I’m fairly sure it wasn’t League One that the Venky’s were referring to when they talked of making Blackburn Rovers a “top five” club.

I’ve always maintained that following Wigan Athletic has been a journey of incredible highs and lows and the main thing for me is that the journey never comes to an end given the adversity we face in our town and elsewhere.

We have done terrifically well so far, but these are daunting and fascinating times. Sit back and watch it unfold and here’s hoping that the next chapter is a good one.

Jimmy

 

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3 Comments

  1. I agree with pretty much all of that. You make a lot of valid and interesting points. The big thing is, if the Whelans want to sell up and get out, its crucial that we have an injection of investment with new owners. I was always worried about the suggestion that they would “gift the club to the fans” as a gesture, and make us another community-owned, and ran, club. My opinion of that is, we wouldnt last a year once Barclays called in the loans that Mr Whelan has been guarantor of. So when I heard about the sale to the Chinese consortium, I thought “great”.
    Why do the Chinese want us? Well, we are smack bang in the middle of the North West, which has large Chinese communities and history in both Liverpool and Manchester. We are smack bang between those two cities, whos 4 clubs, much more bigger and famous than our own, are all foreign owned and unavailable. I suppose we are the nearest thing! Another factor is the excellent Chinese Economy, which is seeing links forged with the UK and a massive increase in business commerce over the next decade or more. I heard a couple of years ago that big Chinese investment was coming to Wigan, seeing a regeneration of the Pier quarter and surrounding area. Also, my son’s high school has been selected in a group of schools that are adding Mandarin to the language curriculum. It all sounds very promising, doesnt it?
    We can only trust the due dilligence process to check out the owners suitability, perhaps the Football League have learned their lesson with some of the previous take overs that were not suitable at all.

    I am in favour, and I am looking forward to it. My only concern is crazy changes, like replacing the manager with a big name like someone like David Beckham as a ‘showpiece’ appointment. We dont need that, we need patience and continuity. Our current manager and staff are doing a great job. If they come in before January, dont come out and throw anything crazy at the manager, money wise. We dont need that, yet. No more than 5 million for player signings (knowing Paul Cook he would be shrewd enough to spend a munimum of that anyway…sensible) You mentioned the Venkys at Blackburn. In the summer I was talking to our former manager who also managed them (you know who). Had a cracking chat. Said about the Venkys…lovely people, just no idea about football. They took over and chucked £100 million in, which was wasted by a succession of managers. They then attempted to put another 10 million in, in order to chase their losses….like a gambler chasing debts. I can only hope we keep people like JJ and Garry Cook involved in the club, so sucg crazyness doesn’t ensue.

    Regarding poor crowds….im staggered by it too. Not sure what more can be done to attact people. A lot will re appear when we are almost guaranteed promoted. When the wigan steets are full of people celebrating and acting the bellend, theres a good chance that person was missing until March or April.

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