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A Tribute to Dave Whelan and 20 Years of Wigan Athletic

Can one man define a football club? In years gone by we always talk about the great managers who changed a clubs history. For Wigan Athletic that great man who changed the course of our history was the man who bought us as a lowly Fourth Division club and led us to the Premier League.

Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

Following the news this week that Dave Whelan has stepped down as chairman of the club after a spell of 20 years at the helm. I take a look back at just what the man achieved in his time as chairman and the legacy that he leaves behind.

In the 90's when you asked people about Wigan you would probably get two responses, Wigan Warriors and Wigan pier. There was though another sport played in the town other than the Rugby club; yet we were the much smaller club in town.

In 1995, Wigan Athletic played their games at the much loved Springfield Park with crowds in the region of 1,500. We were at the lowest point since our inception into the Football League in 1978 and although our finances weren't great we were standing on our own two feet.

Then along came a local business man who was in the mix with his new multimillion-pound sporting brand JJB. It was in February of 1995 that a deal was struck and Dave Whelan took a controlling stake in the Latics.

From that moment on nothing would ever be the same for the club.

Whelan immediately put forward his intentions, the club would have an all new, seater-stadium; and they would make it to the Premier League. Many people laughed at him, the fans believed and backed him; a decade on Mr. Whelan would have the last laugh.

There was more as the club invested and signed three of our most famous players; The Three Amigos. Jesus Seba, Isidro Diaz, and, of course, Roberto Martinez. They were a statement to the world that Dave Whelan and Wigan Athletic were serious.

When the first of Dave Whelan's promises came true in 1999, with the opening of the then JJB Stadium, people were beginning to realise that he was going to shape this club to how he wanted it. To realise that dream he would have to wait another two years until 2001 when the right man would drop into his lap as manager.

Paul Jewell had taken Bradford into the Premier League and kept them there before being let go and unfortunatky went on to have a poor spell at Sheffield Wednesday. Dave Whelan though saw something in the man and gave him the job, it was to be a match made in heaven; although it didn't start of so well.

It took Jewell two seasons to get the club out of the then Second Division, it also took a large amount of Dave Whelan's backing with the signing of Nathan Ellington for £1.2 million, a then club record fee. This was in the days of sensible money for players!

The Duke would go on to form part of a team that would romp to the league title, winning it comfortably with only four defeats all season and 100 league points. It included a side with the likes of Matt Jackson, John Filan, Jimmy Bullard, Gary Teale and many many more of the names we came to love.

Excitement amongst the fans was high as we entered the then Division One (Championship), pundits were calling us a Sunday League pub team. How wrong would they be? Only a poor dip in form in the second half of the season saw the Latics slip out of the play off places in our first season in Division one, having been in and around the top of the table all season.

The same mistake wouldn't be repeated, though, as we fought right until to the end in the 2004/05 season, following more investment from Dave Whelan the club had collected an extremely talented squad. Led by the striker partnership of Jason Roberts and Nathan Ellington the club gain automatic promotion.

Mission achieved for Whelan, the aim was to stay up. That aim would go on to be achieved eight-fold more than any pundit cared to guess.

In our inaugural season in the Premier League we turned heads with our let's-go-and-get-them attitude as we battled against bigger clubs and at one point we was second only to a Jose Mourinho led Chelsea team. We would also reach a cup final, as Paul Jewell led the boys and Wigan to a Carling Cup final at the Millennium Stadium.

To keep in the Premier League was now the aim for the manager and to do it whilst keeping the club financially self sustainable. Dave Whelan and the club recognised its potential to be a spring board for young and talented players to bigger clubs.

This resulted in the likes of Antonio Valencia, Pascal Chimbonda, Wilson Palacios, Charles N'Zogbia, Victor Moses, James McCarthy and James McArthur all going for well over the costs we paid for them. In fact the total money collected in sales for all of the above players hits just over the £70 million mark.

This period of the club showed the kind of business man that Dave Whelan was as he started to build an infrastructure at the club to make us self sustainable. An image and dream mirrored by the arrival of the much loved Roberto Martinez as manager.

To follow would be arguably one of the most entertaining and successful periods in the club's Premier League history as we beat every single one of the 'big six' sides. Of course all good things come to an end and in 2013 it all came crashing down, but that wasn't before one final moment of Wigan magic.

As the 2012/13 season drew on injuries kept piling up and our league form dipped in and out. In the FA Cup though we were building confidence and the luck of the draw was on our side. The 3-0 win over Everton had us all believing maybe we could win this as we headed to Wembley.

A routine and comfortable victory 2-0 over Millwall set up the big final as we faced Manchester City led by Roberto Mancini who more or less knew if he lost his job was on the line. The resulting game will more than likely go down as one of the best performances in Wigan Athletic history.

Dave Whelan at the centre of it all as the media built up around a man who had plucked us from the bottom of the Football League as we were now about to enter one of the grandest stages in world football. The FA were kind enough to allow Mr Whelan to walk the team out onto the pitch.

Come full time he would have the biggest smile in the place has he put over 50 years of hurt behind him since breaking his leg in 1960 for Blackburn in the FA Cup final at old Wembley. It meant one of two things, a club who until 1978 hadn't been in the Football League, had won the FA Cup and we were going to Europe.

Another season of adventures awaited as we and Dave Whelan had to deal with the fallout from our relegation from the Premier League and the subsequent departure of Roberto Martinez to Everton. That took the shape of Owen Coyle and some backing in the transfer market.

From here on in we know the story. Uwe Rosler took charge and led us back to Wembley and nearly back into the Premier League; falling short in the play-offs to QPR.

Had that happened things would look very different from now. Instead, Rosler was let go after a poor start to the season and Malcky Mackay was brought in as Dave Whelan got himself mixed up in the wrong sort of headlines.

Whelan's legacy, though, lives on. The man put, not just Wigan Athletic, but Wigan the town on the map. You can go across the world and mentioned the name Wigan and people know who we are. Whilst the muddy stands of Springfield Park are long forgotten with the all-seater DW Stadium now are home.

Yet it wasn't just to the club he built. Dave has a passion for helping in the local community through sport, much mirrored with our community programme and by the creation and return of the Wigan Boys and Girls club; more locally known as the youth zone.

And for the future? Money and plans are in the pipeline for a brand new training and academy complex, which we are told have been frozen out from any plans with the club in terms of further relegation or financial problems. The plan is to start creating local talent and we need a place to do it in.

You may disagree with what he has done at times, but Wigan Athletic owe Dave Whelan everything and as he steps away from the club in an official role it is a sad time for the club.

As a final goodbye though we need to come together and push the team and club that Whelan help build, to survival. Under the new leadership of his Grandson David Sharpe you never know just what the future may hold.