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Canadian owner on the verge of a big win with England’s Derby County

Businessman and philanthropist W. Brett Wilson is shown in a handout photo.

The Canadian Press

W. Brett Wilson is used to big numbers.

He's seen a lot of them over the years — in business deals, philanthropy, even from the entrepreneurs looking for investment when he was a cast member on the "Dragons' Den" television show.

The figure Wilson wasn't prepared for was the prize that one of his other ventures will be playing for this weekend.

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The Canadian owns about 25 per cent of Derby County Football Club, a soccer team that had been plodding along in the second-tier English Championship since 2008. That is until the 2013-14 season, which has seen a remarkable change of fortune and will culminate with Derby County taking on Queens Park Rangers in Saturday's one-game playoff at Wembley Stadium for the right to make the jump to the Premier League.

The game's monetary value, some $200-million, is staggering.

"The biggest prize in the history of sport — any sport, any place, anywhere in the world — is the move up to the Premier League," Wilson said recently from his Calgary office. "My excitement level was high, and then I discovered that this game is the single-highest prize in the history of sport. It's the single-largest prize anywhere.

"It's a $200-million benefit to win this game — $200-million on one game."

Three teams move up to the Premier League from the Championship each season, while three others from the top tier are relegated to the second division. Leicester City and Burnley finished 1-2 in the Championship this season and have already been promoted, while Derby County and QPR are in the final of a four-team playoff for the last spot.

The bonus for the move up to the Premier League is about 60 million pounds per season, but even clubs that get immediately demoted the following campaign are awarded a "parachute fund" of around 20 million pounds per year for three years to help with the financial burden.

That adds up to 120 million pounds, or $220-million.

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"There are some amazing guys behind this. We've spent five years struggling mid-table in the Championship," said Wilson, an entrepreneur who made his fortune in the energy sector. "Then all of a sudden, a new president, a new manager ... and life has changed.

"Now, we're walking into a game that some call a coin flip, for $200-million."

Derby County was founded in 1884 and has had success before, just not recently. The club won England's top division in 1972 and 1975, as well as the FA Cup in 1946.

Derby County was last in the Premier League during the 2007-08 season, but managed a record-low point total of 11. It was around that time that Wilson, who had recently bought a 12.5 per cent stake in the Nashville Predators, was offered an opportunity that struck a chord with his Prairie roots.

"I got pitched on 'Would you be interested in a British soccer team kind of like the Saskatchewan Roughriders?"' said Wilson, a native of North Battleford, Sask. "I asked, 'What do you mean kind of like the Saskatchewan Roughriders?'

"'Well it's been around for 135 years, it's got an amazing fan base, they're just getting relegated, they haven't won in a while, they're having a tough go this year, there's a turnover happening, would you be interested? So I said 'Yes' and I was coming for 10 per cent of the club."

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That stake has grown to 25 per cent in the interim as part of an group that includes Yahoo founder and fellow Canadian Jeff Mallett, who is part owner of baseball's San Francisco Giants, the Vancouver Whitecaps of Major League Soccer and holds about 10 per cent of Derby County.

"It was opportunity driven, and I thought it was something that would be of interest and be fun," added Wilson, who said he has not made any money with Derby County. "The last five or six years haven't been nearly as much fun as I was hoping. This year has made up for all the last five."

Wilson said a lot of that enjoyment can be attributed to club president Sam Rush and manager Steve McClaren.

Known more widely for his failure to qualify England for the 2008 European Championship, McClaren coincidentally left an assistant's role at QPR to join Derby County in October.

"We were down 4-1 to Ipswich the day that Steve McClaren came on and he wasn't allowed to be with the team on the pitch because of some paperwork issues," said Wilson. "We're down 4-1 and he goes in at halftime, has a chat with the guys, and they tie the game. Right away we thought, 'There's something happening here."'

All of a sudden McClaren's Derby County, which sold some of its under-performing players and replaced them with others on loan from Premier League clubs, started to rocket up the standings.

"The goal was we wanted to be a top-half team (in the Championship) this year, next year we'd get into the playoffs and the year after that we'd get through the playoffs (and into the Premier League)," said Wilson. "Did any of us think we'd be where we are today based on bringing in a coach mid-season? Not at all."

Wilson tries to make a trip to see Derby County play at least once a season, but he said Saturday's game will be his fourth of this campaign.

He often spends the first half of matches among supporters in the stands and has been taken aback by their passion for the club.

"The energy has been notching up year over year," said Wilson. "Locals told me they had never seen it like this. It was a notch above anything we've had before. I sat beside a guy last game who was 92 years old. He's been coming to Derby games since he was eight years old — 84 years he's been following the team. It's pretty hard to find that anywhere in the world."

So too is the prize Wilson's team will be going for this weekend.

"It's such an iconic opportunity," he said. "It's incredibly rare to have a game that's got so much at stake.

"I just keep shaking my head."

Notes: Wilson and Mallett aren't Derby County's first connection to Canada. Former Canadian international Paul Peschisolido, who also spent a brief time at QPR, played for Derby County, while current FC Edmonton boss Colin Miller also served as a first team coach with the club. ... Toronto FC head coach Ryan Nelsen is a former player at QPR.

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