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Published on February 5th, 2018 | by Bill

The Wigan Fear

Alan Moore from the excellent podcast, The Pie at Night takes us through the long-running rumours of a takeover at Wigan Athletic.

Wigan Athletic are top of League One and looking to be a shoo-in for promotion. They’ve got the best defensive record in all four divisions and a goal difference that’s second only to Manchester City, who they are lined up to face in the fifth round of the FA Cup. To top it all, we’ve just, allegedly, turned down a bid for one of our players that would be enough to keep most league one clubs going for a couple or three seasons. Yes, it’s fair to say us Wigan Athletic fans have got nothing to moan about at the moment, but I can’t help it, I’ve got a dose of The Fear.

We’ve known for some time that Dave Whelan had been open to offers for the club that he’s been majority shareholder of since 1995, but the appointment of Garry Cook as a non-executive director this summer was the first public sign the Whelan family were now actively seeking offers. We’d always known this era would have to end at some point, but I guess we’d always expected it to mean we’d end up with his grandson, David Sharpe, and Chief Exec, Jonathon Jackson in charge of a stripped back version of the club.

After all, who would want to buy a small-town northern club, with no history, no fans (copyright – anyone who’s ever commented about Latics on the internet), no cash and a natural place somewhere between the Championship and League One.

Twenty-three years ago, Dave Whelan did want to buy us.

Admittedly he did have to be persuaded by the late Duncan Sharpe and Stan Jackson. Whilst we’ll probably never know what they said to convince the purportedly most tight-fisted man in Wigan to invest in a struggling lower league club. However the motives of Sharpe (Whelan’s son-in-law) and Jackson (a man who on more than one occasion had been single-handedly responsible for keeping the club afloat) were clearly in improving the club’s fortunes.

In my view, Whelan, at least in part, it was in it for status. His reputation was all around his hard-nosed business approach, painting an image of a, less comedic, Bradley Hardacre. I think he saw ownership of a sports club as a way of enhancing his reputation, to gain the respect (and love) of the public, to earn his statue in Wigan Park and maybe a mention in the New Year’s honours list.

We weren’t his first choice, for years Whelan had an unrequited relationship with the town’s rugby league team, his money might have been welcome but, as a “football person”, his face never really fitted in. He also claims to have had a tilt at owning Manchester United, around the time the Michael Knighton deal fell through (he also claims responsibility for United being floated on the stock exchange if any of their fans are still looking for scapegoats). But once his money was on the table he caught the Wigan Athletic bug badly.

He might have gathered a fair bit of cheap publicity for his business interests along the way but it became a secondary consideration behind helping little Wigan stick it to those who looked down their noses at us. Ok, so I’m being a little over-romantic, but, it’s safe to say that for much of his tenure, Dave Whelan’s wishes and the dreams of the majority of our fans were mutually compatible.

There have been wobbles over the last few years, but coming into this season, we finally looked like a steady ship under the stewardship of another Sharpe/Jackson duo; Whelan’s grandson, David (Chairman) and, son of the late Stan Jackson, Jonathan (Chief Exec). We’ve been lucky enough to nearly always have Latics fans in key positions at the club but here we a had a couple of lads both grounded in the club’s history and realistic about how to build the club’s future.

I’ve heard people use the phrase, “it feels like we’ve got our club back” and maybe we had, but at the very least after a lot of hard work, a bit of pain and three relegations, we’d started to look and feel like a football club comfortable in its own skin. One that knew its natural position and was ready to enjoy it. At the start of the season, the Premier League was back to being the pipe dream it should be, and plenty of Latics fans were happy to wish good riddance to it.

Until 16th October 2017 when it turned out that Garry Cook was, maybe, a better salesman than anyone had given him credit for. That’s when the story broke that Latics were the subject of a £15-20m takeover bid. A story which has never gone away since, even though, besides persistent whispering and “ITK” posturing, we really are none the wiser about it.

We’ve seen changes in the club’s Companies House records, but as to what those changes mean, we are still in the dark. We’ve heard that the Football League is on the verge of crossing and dotting various letters on their authorisation, but whether there is any truth in this, we don’t know. There might be an announcement to shareholders soon but there might not. We think the prospective new owner(s) are Vincent Huang and his “wealthy” K8 online gambling group, but… well, this is where I should quote Donald Rumsfeld’s famous “known knowns and unknown knowns” speech at you, but you get the picture – at the minute there’s a lot of things we simply don’t know.

We’ve guessed at a million reasons that a Chinese corporation might want to buy our third division football club, but none of them seem to make sense.

There are those say this is the dream. The equivalent of a billionaire turfing up to turn us into his Premier League vanity project. For them, of course Wigan Athletic makes good sense for a Chinese investor, look at our transport links and nearby Chinese communities of Liverpool and Manchester. They claim it doesn’t matter who owns us, as long as they invest or tell us they don’t care because they just want to get back to the Premier League, whatever the cost.

And then there are those that think that, despite eight years in the Premier League and an FA Cup win, Wigan Athletic’s biggest achievement over the last ten years might be how they managed to pull back from the precipice of becoming like almost every other Premier League club, shackled with spiralling debts and a mortal fear of relegation. Who were happy that Whelan’s prudent nature meant the club’s future would never be deliberately put at risk.

Those who are ecstatic that, whilst cash-flow is an issue for Latics; debt, planning and business structures aren’t and, in one way or another, we own our own ground, a ‘training centre’ and our overdraft is seemingly all but paid off.

The fact I’ve written this piece for STAND hopefully tells you which group I’m in, I’m not going to try and tell you that I’m right and they’re wrong, but I will tell you again, the whole thing is giving me The Fear.

If you look Vincent Huang and K8 up, you’ll find stories about their sponsorship deals with West Brom, Cardiff and Man City. They’re trying to promote the new(ish) UK arm to their online gambling presence and buying a club is a natural step up in that quest. But why Latics?

We are for sale, which is a start, I suppose. We’re probably cheap too, which helps. As, I’ve already said, we come with little financial baggage and a couple of assets (no sniggering at the back) to boot. Beyond that there’s… well… not much else really. Well, there’s one thing and I guess it’s the crux of my Fear.

I can see how that Garry Cook sales pitch might have gone…

“Look, they’ve already got a top-flight stadium and decent facilities, all they need is some investment on the pitch. There’s hardly any other shareholders so you’ll own all-but all of the club. Best of all, they’ve no fans, they can’t organise, you’ll have free reign to run it how you want with no opposition. You’ll get none of that crap that they got at Cardiff or Hull.”

Whilst I’d counter the “no fans” element with evidence that shows we do alright for a town of our size, I worry that the punchline is spot-on. Latics fans have a stronger record for falling out than they do sticking together. I, and others, bear the scars of attempts to set up Independent Supporter’s Associations, of campaigns against high ticket prices and complaints against the appointment of Malky Mackay.

All of which were met with some enthusiasm, large chunks of apathy and fairly vicious opposition. For a traditionally Labour town, collective action doesn’t seem to be in our blood, some will happily sit back and see what happens whilst others shout down anyone who tries to challenge the status quo.

That’s not to say that I’m writing off our new owners before they’re even in the door.

They could well be here to play the long game, use their contacts to improve our commercial position and strengthen our cashflow. They might want to build a stable club in the way that Dave Whelan can no longer afford to. They might be happy to run a tight ship, live within our means and be realistic with their ambitions. The Premier League might be the dream, but not at any cost.

It might be, but if K8 are offering odds then I wouldn’t bet on it.

If, as I suspect, this is about promoting their other interests, then does anyone think League One will give their brand enough exposure? No, I thought not. The championship will be better, but will still miss the big, prime-time, global appeal. My guess is we’ll be running hard at the Premier League pretty quickly and that takes money.

Money guarantees you nothing in football these days, look at Sunderland or Villa with their American billionaires. Look at the implosions of Portsmouth or Blackburn. Just think about the situations at Cardiff and Hull. These situations don’t always end up in catastrophe, but they aren’t exactly prone to going well.

And when your pet billionaire gets bored and the fans revolt over false promises? When they realise that their plans for self-promotion are stymied by the FA’s objection to betting sponsorships or increasing pressure on the government to legislate about it? When the dream goes sour and your owner wants to cut his losses and run away through a myriad of holding companies and offshore accounts?

When the shit hits the fan, that’s when you really find out how strong your football club is. How together its fans are. History, and that creepy feeling in my spine that tells me I’ve got The Fear, say that Latics fans might fail that test. That they might sit in silence as new owners pick up a lump of muck and not even duck as it’s hurled towards the rotating blades. That they might sit and watch their club go to the wall to avoid reprisal for sticking their head above the parapet.

I hope not, but we might get to find out soon enough…

See you on the other side.

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