14 August 2005

Brough Scott travels deep into rugby league territory and finds a football team aiming to do more than just survive in the Premiership

On Monday night Dave Whelan and his Wigan manager, Paul Jewell, had flown to Norway and back to watch a player in a practice match. “He was no bloody good,” said this ultimate in hands-on football chairman as he accepted a glass of red wine. “He had a bit of skill but would not get stuck in, would not do for us.” He sipped, smacked his lips and started an unwittingly symbolic story. It was about his first day’s foxhunting.

Whelan had never sat on a horse but he had been challenged by a friend who had already failed to best him at water skiing in Majorca. He took two days of lessons, saddled up a gallant beast called Captain and went at the fences with the best of them. “We had some falls,” he said, “but I was hooked, did it for 20 years. It was the best buzz outside of football.”

The sound of the horn and the stirrup cup may sound an unlikely setting for the 68-year-old former right-back, who famously broke his leg playing for Blackburn in the 1960 Cup final and started the road to his JJB Sports empire using his £400 compensation to buy a store in Wigan market.

But when Whelan sets his heart on something a quite astonishing, uncompromising energy comes with him. The football world is ready to patronise him when Wigan play Chelsea at his own JJB Stadium today. It could be a dangerous game.

“We are still only a little club but we are growing fast and doing things properly,” says Whelan, silver haired, genial but with those direct, don’t-care-what-you-say eyes that have faced down worse things than Premiership snobs. Ten years ago he bought a bankrupt Wigan Athletic with a latest attendance of 1,450. Six years ago he completed the spanking new 25,000-capacity stadium but last season’s average gate still didn’t beat 12,000. In 1985, he told a disbelieving audience that he would have Wigan in the Premiership “in my lifetime”. Now he just says, “go and see Paul in the morning. He’s got things moving.”

Paul Jewell is a Scouser, otherwise a younger, squarer, wittier, chip off the Whelan block. At 41, he still has the rolling footballer’s walk which took him round the leagues as a player, including 117 appearances for Wigan and an FA Cup goal for them against Chelsea in 1985. Somewhere along the way the nose was realigned in the domed head, but the brain never stopped ticking behind it. “It’s not rocket science,” he says, the Mersey still amid the words, “work right, train right, eat right, live right, build a unit together. There is genius in simplicity.”

He is looking out at the 25-man squad being sent through their fitness routines at the Christopher Park training ground by a chunky little Australian slave-driver called Joey Galana. Wigan got promoted through the simple virtues, young Leighton Baines got into the England Under 21-squad, but the collection of hard-working athletes in front of us contain no great marquee names, and while record signing Henri Camara is battling away with the rest of them, his £3 million fee from Wolves is small change for Chelsea.

“I can’t do nothing about that,” Jewell says firmly. “Can’t do nothing about people’s perceptions. What I can do is to ensure that everything is done here right. This is not about me, or the chairman, or 11 players, it is about a unit. The team have to come first and every player has to contribute to it.”

Jewell may look and sound like an archetypal football man but his mind has been opened by proximity to rugby league. Galana, the Aussie conditioner comes from Wigan Warriors, who set new benchmarks for fitness almost two decades ago and on the door of the new state-of-the-art hydrotherapy room is a “Stand together, believe in yourself” epigram borrowed from Bradford Bulls.

It was, of course, at Bradford where Jewell not only cut his teeth in management but took them up to the Premiership in 1998-99 and, significantly, kept them up the next season. That experience of keeping underdogs alive could be crucial, but Jewell is not satisfied with mere survival as an ambition. “We can’t just aim to be fourth from bottom,” he says, walking from the field. “We have to believe in ourselves, believe we can beat anyone, even Chelsea. I am not happy with ‘little Wigan, flat caps and pies’ and all that. We are in the Premiership because we played good football and deserve to be.”

The energy is now almost visibly beaming from him. “Look,” he says, an edge to the tone. “When I got here, I didn’t like what I saw. Of course, we are still a long way behind the top clubs, but each year we have progressed. The chairman has backed me and we have built not just proper facilities but a work ethic and a winning mentality. I feel as if I underachieved as a player and my great desire is to leave my players feeling that I got the very best out of them. I will leave no stone unturned for that.”

A lot of stones have been turned and the best part of £40 million spent at the immaculate JJB stadium to which Jewell now repairs for the Wigan media day. At 25,000 capacity it may be small by Premiership standards but today it remains as much a testament to the team and the chairman’s faith as when it first incongruously held court out to the west of town for what was then Third Division Wigan in 1999. Looking around this week makes you think that for all Whelan’s other achievements with his first discount store (speciality end-of-line tins for 10p a can) with currently somewhat beleagured JJB Sports, and, yes, with the local pie factory, this is the business he was born to lead.

Whelan’s move to the new stadium also involved taking Wigan Warriors and their mastermind Maurice Lindsay out of Central Park, thereby getting the 20,000 rugby league gates while football started building. The Wigan rugby league set-up was famous for looking after children and families and Wigan Athletic’s aim to grow their own crowd is seen with more than 4,000 season tickets sold to children. The facilities, albeit that such assorted items as the players lounge and the referee’s changing room were still not finished on Tuesday, will be as smart if not as extensive, as those of any rivals.

There is even an Italian restaurant carrying the singing name of the chairman’s father – Jimmy Whelan was a stand-up entertainer who performed as Tony Rigaletto – hence Rigaletto’s. Along from the restaurant, Jewell is trying to convince a coven of disbelieving hacks before leaving us to the delicate task of asking reserve goalkeeper, Mike Pollitt, how he expects to fare against Drogba, Duff and Robben.

Last season 33-year-old Pollitt had to pick out 69 goals from the Rotherham net as they sank beneath the waves of the Championship. “It’s my big chance,” says Pollitt, originally apprenticed to Manchester United in the pre-Beckham, pre-Schmeichel era before plying his trade in rather lesser company thereafter. “It’s what I have been around all these years for.”

All heady stuff but we have been here before. Eight years ago Danny Wilson was in the same position as Jewell as Barnsley set off on an improbable voyage into the Premiership. Danny said all the right things but you knew the survival odds were stacked against him. Logically, Wigan are as doomed as their Yorkshire brothers but something about being in the place on Monday made you not so sure.

William Blake is famed for writing about “those dark satanic mills”, plenty of which disfigured the skylines of both these one-time northern mining and industrial giants. But he also penned the line “Energy is the only life”. And between them Jewell and Whelan have enough to float the fleet.

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