Wigan chief Dave Whelan: why I should have bought Manchester United in 1989
22 August 2009 01:58
Dave Whelan sweeps his arm across the table in a majestic arc, those blue eyes sparkling as he describes the image in his head.
A dome. A big, red glass dome. One with a health club and swimming pools and shops. One that can be seen from miles around. He can picture it now, sitting proudly behind the football ground.
But what he sees is not Wigan Athletic's DW Stadium, renamed after its local benefactor this summer. It is Old Trafford and his unfulfilled vision for Manchester United.
Back in 1989, Whelan's friend and United chairman Martin Edwards called to ask if he wanted to buy a controlling 51 per cent stake in the club for £11m.
According to Whelan, Edwards wanted to sell up to help his brother who had run into financial trouble selling boats in Majorca and Michael Knighton's takeover had fallen through, shortly after the flamboyant businessman had announced his arrival by playing keepy-uppy in front of a packed Stretford End.
Whelan agreed but quickly changed his mind, fearful that fans of United's rivals would turn against his JJB Sports empire.
It was not, he admits, one of his better business decisions. 'I should have done it, no question,' he says.
'I would have got a controlling interest in the biggest club in the world for £11m. I thought towns like London, Liverpool and Leeds wouldn't take kindly to me being involved with Manchester United and JJB Sports. I was probably wrong.
OK, Liverpool people would have taken exception. So, you don't do a lot of business in Liverpool. But what a deal and what a buy.
'Michael Knighton was at the table when Martin offered it to me and so was Bobby Charlton. He refused to talk to Knighton, full stop. Bob's view was that Knighton shouldn't even be at Old Trafford. He thought what he'd done was despicable.
Doomed: Michael Knighton shakes hands with Martin Edwards at Old Trafford but his Manchester United takeover never happened
'Knighton was absolutely full of himself. He had front, an awful lot of it. Why I don't know. He'd been on the pitch kicking the ball about and scoring a penalty. How much front have you got to do that?
'Then he said he couldn't get the money. I was seriously, seriously tempted.'
It was then that Whelan had his vision for the red dome next to Old Trafford. 'I'd got plans to build a massive health and leisure club with a shop underneath and a big red dome on the top with lights coming out of it that signalled 'We are Man United'.
'I drew up those plans and Nike wanted to be the sponsors of it. Everybody would have been able to see it. It would have been fantastic as a landmark and changed United from what it is now to the Manchester United of the world.'
So would Lancashire lad Whelan have been a better owner for United than the Glazer family?
'One thing I couldn't have got for them is more success,' he says. 'What Sir Alex Ferguson has done there is absolutely incredible. He's the king and has been for 20-odd years. I would have loved to work with him.'
Instead, Whelan suggested to Edwards that he float United on the stock market. He did, for £18m. Fifteen years later, Malcolm Glazer bought the club for £790m.
In his new book, Whelan is forthright about the Glazer takeover. He describes the Premier League rules that allowed the American tycoon to borrow money to buy United and then load his debt back on to the club as 'disgusting'.
'The Glazers haven't broken any rules,' says Whelan, who also revealed that Blackburn never told him of Matt Busby's interest in signing him for United when he was a full back at Ewood Park in the Fifties.
'But they borrowed money on behalf of Manchester United to buy the shares in the club. That is incredible. The league should clamp down on that. And it will happen.'
A plaque in the foyer at the DW Stadium commemorates the day on August 4, 1999, when Ferguson brought his Treble winners to Wigan to open the new ground.
Wigan have not taken so much as a point off United since they came up to the Premier League four years ago.
United won the title there in 2008 and went a long way to retaining it with another victory in May. They return today after their shock defeat at Burnley.
'The alarm bells must have been ringing in United's dressing room after the match,' he says.
'To lose at Burnley will be a wake-up call for those players. They will be on fire when they come here. If we can beat United, it's time for a celebration.'