Updated: Dec 31, 2020
The date was May 11, 2013. A man named David Whelan stood in the owner’s box of Wembley Stadium. He attempted to hold back tears of joy as he looked down and watched the celebrations on the field. This was his dream. This was his vision. This was the culmination of 18 years of hard work as an owner. Wigan Athletic F.C., his Wigan had just won the FA Cup.
Words simply do not do justice to the magnitude and emotion of this moment. When Whelan first bought Wigan in 1995, they were playing in the fourth division of English football. One relegation away from no longer being considered a professional team. And in that moment, where there appeared to be no hope, Whelan promised to bring silverware to this team at the very bottom of professional football. On that day in May, he made good on that promise with his Premier League team.
Seven years later the team is on the brink of bankruptcy and headed back to the third division of English football.
So what went wrong?
It all started in December 2018. After a twenty-three year reign at the helm of the club, Whelan decided to sell his shares in the team, along with the stadium and player facilities in a £22m deal. The buyer in this deal was a corporation called IEC (International Entertainment Corporation) whose leader was a man named Stanley Choi. Choi was a professional gambler based in Hong Kong who accrued his wealth in high stakes poker games.
All was well and good with the club until June 4th, 2020 when Choi decided he no longer wanted IEC to own Wigan. And so IEC sold the club to a second company named NLF (Next Leader Fund) in a £40m deal. No problems here, right?
Well, the issue is that Choi never actually sold the company. Because he owned both IEC and NLF. So, he was essentially selling the club to himself.
This becomes even more suspicious when you take a closer look at NLF. The company was only founded earlier that year at an offshore site in the Cayman Islands. But perhaps the most suspicious part of this deal is how NLF was able to afford it.
The funding to purchase Wigan came from a loan from IEC to NLF.
But despite all the shadiness surrounding the sale, the deal ultimately went through.
Then June 24th comes.
A man named Au Yeung Wai Kai took control of NLF and thus became the owner of Wigan. It wasn’t even a week he was in charge before the club went into administration, meaning that the owner was unable to financially support the club and league administrators had to step in.
This is truly mind-boggling, as Kai passed the test all owners are required to take to make sure they truly have the assets to support a professional team. And yet, somehow, in the span of a week, his situation changed so drastically that he no longer had the funds to do so.
The punishment for a club going into administration is a 12 point deduction on the league table which brought Wigan from 13th place to 23rd; right in the relegation zone.
So why is this happening? Well, one possible answer to that question came from English Football League Championship chairman Rick Parry. In leaked audio, Parry says, “There’s rumours that there is a bet in the Philippines on them being relegated because the previous owner has got gambling interest in the Philippines.”
And this theory isn’t particularly far-fetched. Choi owned several casinos in the Philippines that could’ve been responsible for the aforementioned bet. Kai did hire two new board members with no qualifications besides a relationship with the owner, and they ultimately voted to go into administration. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s no evidence to support the fact that Kai’s finances changed during his first week of ownership to a degree that would make him go into administration.
Their history would also suggest that they could be the orchestrators of a nefarious plan like this. Choi had already been investigated for crooked business deals in 2010 and Kai was declared bankrupt in 2004.
On top of all that, both IEC and NLF have essentially shut down since the club went into administration.
Despite the overwhelming amount of evidence, Wigan is still technically just a victim of poor ownership rather than one of the most intricate con jobs in recent history. That being said, their fall from grace is tragic no matter what the ongoing investigation concludes. By no fault of their own, the club has been dragged right back to the place they fought so hard to leave. The players and its supporters left with only the memory of the great Wigan Athletic F.C.