Playing To Win
The Autobiography
By Dave Whelan
Aurum Press, £18.99

As a boy in wartime Wigan in north-west England, Dave Whelan would steal turnips from the fields and pee on his hands to stop his fingers freezing.

He has spent his later years at his holiday home in Barbados, surveying his multimillion-pound business empire by helicopter and foxhunting with Prince Charles on his horse, Banker.

Whelan’s autobiography, Playing to Win, is a textbook rags-to-riches story. A childhood dream of becoming a professional football player comes true when he signs for Blackburn Rovers and makes it to the FA Cup final in 1960. Urged by his mother to find a real job, he turns a market stall selling toothpaste into a national supermarket chain before eventually founding JJB Sports, the UK retail chain.

After a brief attempt at retirement, the 72-year-old now chairs Wigan Athletic, the football club he owns, watching them play at the stadium he built and named after himself.

But football fans and anyone following the increasingly farcical events unfolding in the UK sportswear retail industry may flick straight to the index to find what he has to say about another UK retail magnate: Mike Ashley. After all, publicity for the book initially promised to “tackle head-on” Whelan’s long rivalry with Ashley, the founder of Sports Direct, JJB’s biggest competitor, and the owner of Newcastle United.

In reality, it is less a full tackle and more of a kick round the ankles. On legal advice, Whelan in print criticises only Ashley’s sloppy dress sense. As a result, the relationship between the two self-made millionaires comes across as one of regret and grudging admiration.

“Looking back, when he grew to about six shops, I really should have crushed him,” Whelan writes, but he later praises Ashley for leading the industry in sourcing materials directly from south-east Asia.

Whelan does not even revel in Newcastle’s recent relegation from the Premier League. Maybe he has the compassion of a man who had to be coaxed into buying a football club in 1995 with the money from JJB’s flotation a year earlier. Whelan describes Wigan Athletic as his final charitable fling – a way of giving something to the town he grew up in.

Although Ashley escapes serious injury, the tales of Whelan’s run-ins with corporate opponents throughout the book go some way to explaining the mindset of the small coterie of men wielding power in UK sportswear retail.

In business as in football, Whelan “plays to win” but seems never to forget to enjoy the game too. He recounts how he single-handedly took on Boots, the retail chain, in court and tossed a coin with Sir Tom Hunter to settle the price of his acquisition of Sports Division in 1998, outwitting competitors and playing mind games with suppliers.

Since JJB started losing money last year though, and narrowly avoided going into administration, the industry has looked more like a pantomime. The main characters have enlisted the media to hurl insults at each other and last month JJB went to the lengths of installing bouncers at its annual meeting after Ashley’s “people” promised an appearance.

Backstage, meanwhile, the “enemies” have been happy to negotiate secret pacts.

The book is not just a victory cry, however. There are also surprisingly intimate anecdotes about his father’s singing career, his own days in the army with Bobby Charlton and the events that led to his son-in-law’s suicide. “How do you tell your daughter that her husband – the father of their four children – has taken his own life?” he asks.

Some readers may flag during the accounts of Whelan’s football triumphs – often replayed in slow motion over several pages. But at least they can take comfort from knowing the book’s proceeds will go towards resurrecting the Wigan youth club that he attended as boy, which put him on the straight and narrow after his turnip-stealing days.

Get alerts on Business books when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Comments have not been enabled for this article.