‘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 twelve 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 90’s. 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 of 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 son’s 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 the new custodians of Wigan Athletic. 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 in 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 it’s 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.
First published in the Wigan Post, Friday 9th November 2018