Thoughts on a trip to Fleetwood and Ian Lenagan

 

Click here to view the Administrators’ Press Conference.

What has been happening at Wigan Athletic over these weeks? Or perhaps we should say what has not been happening. Trying to get an accurate picture of what is going on is akin to that of finding a needle in a haystack.

The footage from the administrators’ conferences with the press and supporters club did little to clarify that picture.

Prior to that I had listened to Jonathan Jackson and Caroline Molyneux. The love the two of them have for the club shone through during the broadcast, even if the mechanism by which the funds donated by the fans would be used as a back-up to help the club survive did not really crystallise in my head after viewing.

The ins and outs of what we have heard from the administrators and Alan Nixon have left me confused. What is the real case scenario?

But Gerald Krasner had said that the club and the stadium would not be sold separately……….

With my mind in a state of confusion I found Jay Whittle’s interview with Wigan MP, Lisa Nandy:

Nandy’s clarification of events and procedures was welcome after the conflicting information that had preceded it. Nandy backs the Jackson/Molyneux initiative and sees a supporter-run club as an alternative if a buyer is not found. Her reference to the efforts of Warriors chairman, Ian Lenagan, to raise funds for a local buyout of the club was of particular interest.

My mind was boggled but then I remembered that the administrators said that we can at least start the incoming season. Of course, amid all the financial talk one can forget: we have a Carabao Cup game in eight days time at Fleetwood. What a pleasure to think of that, rather than the depressing, worrying stuff about the long-term future of the club.

I watched Wigan Athletic play at Fleetwood in my early teens. Decades have passed since then. It was when Fleetwood were in the Lancashire Combination and Latics in the supposedly-superior Cheshire League.

Despite having so many school friends who derided Latics as “tin-pot”  I used to love watching them as a non-league club and I built up a resentment towards those who thought everything in Wigan revolved around the cherry-and-whites at Central Park.

I must admit my mindset has not changed so much, despite the academic degrees I have accumulated and having lived and worked in far-flung beautiful countries around the world. To say that I retain a lack of empathy towards the rugby club is an understatement. It is nothing rational: it just is.

I was brought up just around the corner from St Patrick’s, a prolific breeding ground of rugby league players. Ian Lenagan went to primary school there before going to West Park Grammar School in St Helens, which provided him with a base to launch a distinguished career. Lenagan went on to academic success at Manchester and Liverpool universities before making his money in software products for workplace management on a global scale. He was also a successful theatre producer, with over 30 productions before becoming the major shareholder in Harlequins and Oxford United, then becoming chairman of the Football League. Lenagan bought the Wigan rugby league club from Dave Whelan in 2007 and his record speaks for itself.

The rumours of Lenagan trying to buy the DW Stadium this week have provoked a shockwave among Latics fans. Part of their anxiety rests in the problems that English football clubs have had after selling their stadium. But more of it lies in the enmity between football and rugby in the town of Wigan.

Football has had a hard time establishing itself over rugby over the decades. In August 2011 I wrote an article entitled “Is Wigan a Rugby Town” providing stats to show that the football club had better attendances in that era. Latics were in the Premier League and blue and white was starting to challenge cherry and white in the town centre.

Wigan is a small town, albeit in the massive conurbation that is Greater Manchester. Rugby League runs on low budgets and Warriors can excel at being a big fish in a small pond. Latics are a small fish in a huge pond. To spend eight years in the Premier League, reach the League Cup Final, win the FA Cup was a massive overachievement that will probably never happen again.

Part of Latics’ problem is that they have fans from that era who have high expectations, based on the years that were funded by Dave Whelan’s benevolence. It is hard for those fans to envisage a club that is probably never going to reach such levels again. Gate receipts over these years have been poor, despite generous season ticket prices. Attendances were never going to be high in an environment where not only rugby is competing, but thousands travel to Manchester and Liverpool to watch the elite clubs play.

But let’s get back to that perhaps irrational fear of Lenagan and the rugby taking over the DW Stadium.

We have heard that the stadium company loses money year upon year. So why would Lenagan like to take it on?

On the face of it Latics might be better served financially by a rugby takeover of the stadium. Reports suggest that Dave Whelan charged the Warriors 10% of their gate receipts to use the DW. Should Lenagan succeed he would have to deal with a Wigan Athletic on its knees, possibly unable to pay the kind of rent he would need. Why would he want to buy the stadium?

Some things don’t add up.

“We strongly believe that Wigan Athletic is better being locally-owned. As sustainability and ownership of the stadium is equally important to both clubs, we are currently working with our longstanding advisers KPMG and talking to external parties. Our intention is to identify other investors quickly and start due diligence on the football club with the intention of making a bid in due course. We have made the Administrators aware of our interest and hope to explore this with them further over the days ahead.

Wigan Warriors and Wigan Athletic are both local sporting institutions and it is our belief that this is a unique opportunity here to bring the ownership of these two great clubs together under one roof, each operating independently as before, but under a Wigan Sporting Partnership banner. It is envisaged that each club would retain all its training grounds, management and facilities.”

The announcement on July 7 came on the Warriors’ web site. It was light years away from that infamous 80’s interview with the controversial Maurice Lindsay that really stirred things up with the football aficionados of the town:

Lenagan has not adopted such a tone. He has been a breath of fresh air coming from a club that rarely provided it towards its football counterparts. His message in July was positive and conciliatory. But there has been a lack of communication since then.

The administrators today poured cold water on the prospect of somebody buying the stadium but not the football club. But will that position last if no club buyer comes through? Is Lenagan simply looking after the well-being of his own club by ensuring that they can continue to play at the DW Stadium whatever happens to the football club?

Ian Lenagan is a bright and talented businessman. The question is whether his motives towards Wigan Athletic are primarily well-intentioned or business- minded.

As an early teen I enjoyed the games at places like Fleetwood, Congleton and Hyde.

The Fleetwood club of those days has had reincarnations, the latest result being Andy Pilley’s Fleetwood Town. I would not be surprised if they beat Latics by a big score next week. But I will nevertheless make every effort to watch the game and stay hopeful. The circle has tuned halfway, Latics falling two divisions from their zenith, Town at their highest point.

I remain nervous about our club’s survival but look forward to the game at Fleetwood in eight days’ time.

In the meantime the Daily Mail reports that what Nixon referred to as the French American team are ready to buy the club. Let’s hope the deal happens soon and it includes the DW Stadium.