For years to savour. As substitute Ben Watson’s header snatched the Cup from their vastly richer neighbours, Manchester City, Wigan’s 76-year-old owner punched the air. Surely few would begrudge him his joy.
The victory at Wembley represented the greatest win of Whelan’s life and fulfilled a dream he had carried with him since he was taken off on a stretcher after breaking his leg while playing at the old stadium for Blackburn against Wolves in the 1960 Cup final.
Whelan, a full-back who had fancied his chances of going on to play for England, learned in hospital that Rovers had lost that day, 3-0. He was never the same player again.
Winner: After breaking his leg in the 1960 Cup final with Blackburn, Whelan finally tastes glory
After four seasons with Crewe Alexandra, he was forced by injury to retire early from football, but then made a fortune in the retail business and bought Wigan for £400,000 before building them a new stadium and taking them from the fourth tier into the Premier League.
Their position there is under severe threat — reason enough for Whelan to insist last night that the champagne remained unopened in the victorious dressing room.
Wigan face two matches in six days — at Arsenal on Tuesday and at home to Aston Villa next Sunday — to secure their Premier League status. They need to win at least one of those games, and probably both, to stay up.
No wonder Whelan said: ‘There is no celebration. We have two massive games. We’re going straight back and the players will be in training tomorrow. They are all aware that they are not celebrating until Sunday. No champagne, nothing to drink at all. They can celebrate when they stay in the Premier League.’
Regardless of whether that happens, Whelan admits that being a Wembley winner is the stuff of fantasy. ‘You could see the pride in all of our supporters, and our players were full of it as well,’ he said. ‘Wigan is back on the map. We played so well today. City are a quality side and we were the better team by miles.
‘If we play like that we will be OK. We had players out with injuries and we’re only a small club. What an achievement. Thinking about the Cup final I played in can still make me cry now. It was the dream of any footballer to play at Wembley and for it to end like that for me was heartbreaking.’
Yesterday started with Whelan, in a smart blue jacket, leading his team out with Martinez a few steps behind followed by the players.
‘I’m not normally nervous but when I felt emotional walking out because the spot where I was carried off all those years ago was only 10 yards away,’ said Whelan. ‘I told everyone I had a dream that we’d play City in the final and win 1-0, so I did predict all this — and it’s come true.’
More than a quarter of Wigan’s total population of 80,000 were at Wembley yesterday — a far cry from the average gates of 1,500 when Whelan first bought the club in 1995. Known for his blunt speaking, Whelan once said he would never appoint a foreign manager at the club but he now credits Spaniard Martinez — a former Wigan player — for helping his side win a trophy.
Whelan had taken his losers’ medal to show the Wigan players during this year’s Cup run and they paid tribute to him yesterday having lifted the trophy. Match-winner Watson said: ‘We’ve heard the chairman’s story more than once and everyone at the club knows he deserves this more than anyone. We have won the FA Cup, we are in Europe next season, it doesn’t get any better than that.’
Wigan chief executive Jonathan Jackson added: ‘To win the FA Cup has been a fabulous journey and it’s all down to Dave Whelan. I can’t say enough words about what he has done for this football club.
‘He’s something special and he’ll be a very proud man tonight. This isn’t the end of it, there’s so much more to come from this football club.’
Midfielder James McCarthy acknowledged the task now facing the players when he said: ‘We’ve got to work hard now. We’ve got two games coming up — two massive cup finals.
‘It’s what you dream of as a kid —playing in and winning the FA Cup final. It’s a massive achievement for me, my family and the club. Hopefully now we can stay in the league. That’s the most important thing.
‘We deserved to be winners today. We had a real go at them and we put on a good show. It was a great team performance. It’s a massive day for everyone associated with the club.
‘Shaun Maloney has been different class and I was absolutely bowled over for Ben Watson. He’s come back from breaking his leg and we need to keep hold of him.’