Who follows Dave Whelan?

Wigan Athletic have achieved a football miracle by establishing themselves in the Premier League but the long-term future of the club post Chairman Dave Whelan remains uncertain. The 75-year-old bought the Latics 17 years ago and has overseen their rise from the bottom division of the Football League to the Premier League, but when he has to retire the question of who will take over is unclear.

Who follows Dave Whelan?

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October 19th, 2012

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In the past Whelan has said that if someone wants to come forward with the financial resources required to run the club, he will happily make way. He would like someone with has the long-term best interests of the club at heart, but the risk is that whoever takes over the club after Whelan may not have the same level of commitment, the knowledge of football, or the financial wherewithal to keep the club at the top level.

Whelan has paved the way for his retirement by restructuring the finances of the club. He has effectively written off a substantial chunk of the club’s debt and it is likely that he will write off the rest when he does retire.

Chief Executive Jonathan Jackson believes the club is moving towards a situation where they can manage without Whelan’s backing. By increasing turnover and controlling costs at the same levels as the previous year, the club is continuing to progress to an annual break-even position. The club’s loss before tax of £7.2m in 2010/11 is one of the smallest in the Premier League, and with some prudent transfer dealings and other savings the club could have a viable future.

So what are the likely scenarios post-Whelan?

The first scenario is for a wealthy businessman/company to see Wigan Athletic as an attractive purchase (financial proposition). If the club has no significant debt and is receiving substantial TV income while keeping its expenditure in check, the club could become a target for a takeover. One should not underestimate the kudos of owning a Premier League club, one that has access to a global audience.

However with this scenario comes some high risks; just ask the fans of Portsmouth, Birmingham City and Blackburn Rovers who have all suffered following changes in ownership.

Blackburn Rovers for example, had previously had great success under their owner Jack Walker; winning the Premier League in 1995, but since the club was sold to Indian chicken farmers Venky’s in 2010 the club has been in turmoil. Rovers were relegated in the Venky’s second season and the vitriol directed at the owners from the fans is now reaching epic proportions. Fan protests and campaigns to get rid of the owners and manager Steve Kean have been a constant. Season ticket sales have been poor, crowds are falling and – although the owners have now removed manager Kean – it may soon become untenable for the Venky’s to remain in charge. So the high risks of not getting the right type of ownership are for all to see.

The second scenario involves Dave Whelan’s grandson Matthew Sharpe who could be given control alongside the existing board members. When Whelan spoke to FC Business magazine last year he said,

“What I would like to do is create a dynasty here at Wigan Athletic. My grandson is a bright boy, and is massively keen on football and Wigan Athletic. I’m inclined to let him have a go and I hope that happens.”

Little is known of the 25 year old grandson, only that he is currently the Managing Director of Vizwear and that he is the son of the highly regarded former Vice Chairman and Latics fan Duncan Sharpe. If the grandson is a ‘serious fan’ and wants the responsibility, then there is the possibility that he can work alongside the existing Chief Executive Jonathan Jackson and the board to steer the club forward.

The third scenario involves the creation of a Wigan Athletic Football Trust similar to the one created by the former Blackburn owner Jack Walker. Whelan is regarded as one of the richest men in sport with a personal fortune of over £140m according to the Sunday Times 2012 Rich List. Obviously the family would be the main beneficiaries of Whelan’s inheritance but a percentage could be set aside to run the football club. This is, of course, dependent on a huge piece of goodwill by Dave Whelan and his family but it is not beyond the realms of possibility.

The fourth scenario would involve Whelan writing off his personal debt and handing the club over to the supporters, that is by establishing a Community Benefit Society, like the one established by FC United in Manchester. The membership of the society would have a say in how the club is run based on a one member, one vote basis. The club would require a paid executive team but key decisions would be taken by the membership. Assuming the club was operating at near break-even, the increasing TV revenues, prudent transfer policy and developing revenue streams, the club could have a successful and democratic future.

All the above scenarios and combinations of scenarios are possible. However, Whelan may decide not to relinquish control until well into his eighties. He thrives on being at the centre of Wigan’s success, he has a great working relationship with manager Roberto Martinez and he enjoys the media attention. He may decide to mentor his grandson and continue to work alongside the existing Board of Directors.

In any event, it looks like the Whelan dynasty will be at Wigan Athletic for a long time to come and this has to be good for our future prospects.

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