Semi-final is a chance for Wigan to create history and is of huge personal significance to club owner but his priority lies elsewhere

Evening Standard

Given Dave Whelan’s past with the FA Cup, it is clear how much Saturday’s semi final against Millwall means to Wigan’s owner.

The former Blackburn player will lead his team out at Wembley 53 years after he suffered a double leg break in the Cup final against Wolves, an injury which ended his top-flight career. With a laugh, Whelan says: “I will not be wearing shorts on Saturday — I wish I could. I hope to go into the Wigan dressing room after the game as I only go in if we’ve won.”

It is Wigan manager Roberto Martinez who has insisted Whelan takes centre stage before the club kick off their first- ever FA Cup semi-final.

Should Wigan win, more history will be made as they will qualify for the Europa League — their first taste of European competition — providing their final opponents (Chelsea or Manchester City) finish top five in the Premier League.

But, for all the joy Saturday may bring, there is no doubt what really matters to Whelan. “Staying up is more important than winning the semi-final,” he says, bluntly. “No question about that. I have promised the players a holiday in Barbados not for winning the FA Cup but for staying up.”

Whelan finds it difficult to accept the Cup’s decline. “You wouldn’t imagine a change like that could happen. When I was growing up and playing, winning the FA Cup was something absolutely unbelievable. It [the decline] has happened. You get so much money out of the Premier League, it’s just phenomenal. And what these clubs are going to get next season is unbelievable.” Then, with a laugh, he adds: “It makes this season’s relegation battle all the more desperate.”

Thanks to the new £3billion TV deal next season, the club finishing bottom of the table next May will bank around £60million, the same as City received for winning last year’s title.

With those figures, it is no wonder Whelan is praying his incentive of a Caribbean break works, just as it has twice since Wigan reached the Premier League in 2005.

Wigan are third from bottom by virtue of goal difference following their dramatic draw with Queens Park Rangers on Sunday. Watching from his holiday home in Barbados where he has been going for 18 years to get away from the winter, he thought Wigan had blown it as they trailed 1-0 deep into injury time.

Then came the goal from Shaun Maloney that sent QPR into despair and Wigan into ecstasy. Whelan says with a laugh: “Did I jump for joy? It felt like the whole island did.”

The point was vital but the draw left him puzzled. “It was the worst I have seen us play for a while, very poor against 10 men. We should have made more of our advantage. I don’t think the semi-final was weighing on the players. It was an off day. But full marks to QPR. They fought to the death.”

The weekend results also convinced him the relegation fight will go down to the final game. “QPR and Reading look doomed. Sunderland fought very well at Chelsea but Sunderland are in the picture now big time.”

Wigan have a game in hand on 17th-placed Sunderland and despite the noose hanging over the north-east club, Whelan is surprised they replaced Martin O’Neill with Paolo di Canio. “Sunderland have made a massive mistake changing their manager.”

That opinion has nothing to do with Di Canio’s admiration for Benito Mussolini and comments in favour of fascism. “Mussolini was a very cruel animal in everybody’s eyes but, whatever he says about Mussolini, it makes no difference to me now. For me, it would not come into question when evaluating whether he should be a manager.”

Whelan’s argument is: “Changing the manager at this stage of the season is not something I would contemplate.”

Having had nine managers since buying Wigan in February 1995, he knows all about the importance of timing.

“It’s desperate when you’ve got to sack a manager,” he says. “I’ve done it twice, once on the phone from Barbados. That was the lad who took over from Paul Jewell [Chris Hutchings]. It was in November [2007]. We were in the bottom three. I appointed him at the start of the season and, in November, things weren’t going right and I had to sack him.”

But, despite again flirting with relegation, Whelan cannot even think of sacking Martinez, who will complete four years in the job next month.

“Roberto is unquestionably the best manager I have ever had,” says Whelan. “He has an ability to project confidence into players. Football is a game where you can run around but you can’t play without the football. He is one of the supporters of ‘get the ball and keep it’ because once you’ve got that ball the other team can’t play.”

This means all the more to Whelan because it is in such contrast to his football upbringing with Blackburn.

“For our pre-season training, they would not let us have a football for four weeks. They wanted you to be fit. Run, run, run was the thing and they gave us no football. My first manager was John Carey [a former Manchester United player]. United were all football but even Carey would not let us have a ball for three or four weeks. Madness. Now Roberto probably says, ‘Take the football to bed and head it in the night’ or whatever.”

That last comment shows he does not pry too deeply into what the Spaniard tells his players and indicates how, as the only Premier League owner to have played in the top flight, Whelan defines the owner-manager relationship.

“I never discuss football with Roberto after a match, only in the middle of the week. I would never say to Roberto, ‘You should have done that.’ I just ask him his opinion, ‘How’s training going, how are the lads playing, are you happy with the performance?”

And the fact that Blackburn’s Indian owners, Venky’s, have failed to develop such a relationship with their bosses saddens him.

“I’m thinking what the hell is going on at that club. To sack Sam Allardyce was bad management. That’s a foreign owner just not understanding what the club are, what they mean to people.”

His is also dismayed by events at the Football Association where David Bernstein must give up his chairmanship this summer due to his age.

“The FA have sacked one good lad because he is over 70,” he says. “At 76 I’m still chairman at Wigan. I still go to every match that I can and I still feel capable of doing it.

“There’s too many amateur people involved [in the FA]. It should be totally professional like the Premier League. The FA are not equipped to run the national team. The Premier League should be running the England team.” But he adds: “I can never see that happening.”


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