David Whelan is to reduce his stake in JJB Sports, the retailer he founded, to about 29 per cent by selling 20.5m shares in the group.

JJB said Mr Whelan, executive director and founder of the sports chain, remained committed to the long-term future of JJB Sports and was selling the shares, which are equivalent to about 8.6 per cent of the issued share capital, for “personal financial reasons”.

Shares in JJB were down 10¼p t 247¾p in early London trading, having reached a 20-month high of 264p earlier this week. The stock has been underpinned over the past year by persistent takeover talk. Just a year ago, the shares had dropped to as low as 166½p after the company issued a seventh profit warning on the back of a price war in the sporting goods market.

Richard Ratner analyst with Seymour Pierce said: “We are not surprised that Mr Whelan is taking advantage of the rise in the share price to reduce his holding.” He added that a 29 per cent residual holding was still a “formidable obstacle” to a bid.

However the move might spark speculation over a potential takeover, a scenario which would look increasingly likely if he were to reduce his stake by a similar amount in the future.

JJB said on Friday that Mr Whelan, who owns a controlling stake in Premiership football club Wigan Athletic as well as the club’s stadium, which bears the JJB name, had undertaken to not make further disposals of his shares for at least 12 months.

Sentiment has been helped recently by a trading update earlier in January in which JJB delivered positive sales and margin figures for the second half of the financial year. This prompted one analyst to say that the business looked in better shape than for some time, despite fierce rivalry from SportsWorld, the privately-owned retailer run by entrepreneur Mike Ashley.

SportsWorld is currently conducting a strategic review which could lead to a flotation of the sports retailer.

Mr Whelan’s sale on Friday follows his sale in November of 1.5m shares and the sale of a similar amount by his daughter, Jane Sharpe, in the same month.

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