x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

FA Cup final: Wembley smiles down on Wigan Athletic owner Dave Whelan

Upset over Manchester City in English FA Cup final proves little guys can still win big title.

Wigan Athletic’s Jordi Gomez, centre, lifts the trophy after winning the English FA Cup final. Andy Rain / EPA
Wigan Athletic’s Jordi Gomez, centre, lifts the trophy after winning the English FA Cup final. Andy Rain / EPA

So fairy stories do still happen. Wigan Athletic's success in the FA Cup final, one of the great shocks, was a victory for sentiment over cold logic, romance over modern football. The total cost of their starting XI on Saturday was £12.5 million (Dh71.9m); the average cost of each player in the Manchester City team was £16m.

For Dave Whelan, the Wigan owner, it was the culmination of a tale that began in 1960 when, two minutes before half-time, he broke his leg playing for Blackburn Rovers against Wolverhampton Wanderers in the FA Cup final. Blackburn went on to lose 3-0 and Whelan's career never recovered.

He was in plaster for 10 months. He had already bought a grocery store with his wife, and one day, bored with the drudgery of rehabilitation, he accepted an offer to work in a store on Blackburn market that sold toiletries.

Gradually he expanded and set up his own chain of discount stores. When he had 10, he sold out for £1.5m and used the proceeds to buy a local sports shop called JJ Blackburn.

Whelan had spent time in the US. There, he realised, the sports shop experience was very different to Britain.

"Over there, they were laying out all the merchandise in the store - trainers, clothes, the lot," he recalls. "You could pick a tennis racket up and try it, swing it about. In England everything used to be behind the counter in cabinets. So I came back and did it their way."

Within six years JJB sports had expanded into national chain with 450 stores.

In 1995, Wigan, who only came into the league in 1976, were ailing. They were a fourth-division side with an average gate of 1,500 and they desperately needed £760 to cover players wages. The director, Stan Jackson, asked Whelan if he would help.

He did. And he kept investing. Within a decade, they were in the Premier League. Next season, even if they are relegated, which remains a distinct possibility, they will play in the Europa League; 40 years ago, they lost to Scarborough in the final of the FA Trophy, the tournament for semi-professional sides.

There are those who sneer at Wigan's comparatively low attendances, who scoff at the fact they only sold 21,000 tickets for the final; what they fail to recognise is that 21,000 is more than a quarter of Wigan's population. Whelan has brought a sense of collective joy to his adopted home.

"What an incredible story," the manager Roberto Martinez said. "The chairman broke his leg in 1960 and today, finally, it's finished business for him."

Though the day ended in blue-and-white ticker-tape and the warm glow of a giant-killing, it began with a miserable reminder that the Cup isn't what it was, that modern football has lost touch with its soul.

There are many reasons why the FA Cup final is no longer the pinnacle of the season – money and its unequal distribution foremost among them – but the English Football Association haven't helped. Even in the most minor details, they seem intent on desecrating what should be their showpiece.

The late kick-off time – which made it impossible for Wigan to catch the last train back to the north-west – the awful butchering of the traditional hymn, Abide with Me, and the national anthem, by a quartet called Amore, who didn't lead the communal singing so much as drown it out, adding trills and vocal tricks to confound anybody who was trying to sing along, were disappointing.

Wigan fans won't care, nor should they. Even before kick-off, as Whelan, now 76, led the team out for their first FA Cup final –at Martinez's insistence – theirs was one of the great stories of modern football, proof that money isn't everything, that it is still possible for minnows to work their way to the top.

The only side in the past 10 years to win the FA Cup and not qualify for the Uefa Champions League in the same season was Portsmouth, who were relegated to the fourth-tier, the awful consequence of the overreaching that propelled them to glory.

Wigan, even if they do go down, are hardly in the same state. They would lose players, of course. The neat, progressive footballing team Martinez has compiled would be broken up.

It is hard to imagine Martinez, who showed great loyalty in turning down Aston Villa two years ago, would stay, particularly not with a club of the stature of Everton sniffing. Nobody could begrudge him if he decided he had earned a move.

Whatever happens, they will always have this day, the greatest day in their history, and despite the FA's best efforts, one of the greatest days in the history of the competition.


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