Noel Whelan: The Square Ball Interview Preview

by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman,

As the response to Tom Lees successful loan spell at Bury has shown, Leeds fans are desperate for youth team players like Lees and Aidy White to make it into the first team. It’s been the Leeds way: Don Revie built our greatest side out of players like Bremner, Gray and Lorimer that he nurtured as teenagers; Eddie Gray then went on to manage a popular team in the early eighties that had Sheridan, Sellars, Wright, Linighan, Irwin and Phelan all from the youth ranks. More recently David O’Leary flirted with success by bringing Smith, Woodgate, Harte, McPhail, Robinson and Jones through from Thorp Arch; and as that era fell apart, the darker days of Kevin Blackwell’s attempts to rebuild were brightened by the fleeting glimpses of Richardson, Kilgallon, Walton and Lennon.

The players that O’Leary had inherited had won the FA Youth Cup together in 1997, just after Howard Wilkinson had left, but they were the second group to lift that trophy for Leeds in the nineties. The failure of the 1993 youth side to break through was a source of frustration for the fans as Wilko’s increasingly geriatric side toiled in the mid-nineties – why was Nigel Worthington playing, when in the reserves there was Kevin Sharp? Wilko’s ‘Young Guns’ had beaten the highly-hyped Fergie’s Fledglings to lift the trophy after a two-legged final, and yet while Ferguson reaped the benefits of that troop of losers in his first team, Leeds never saw the same results from that moment of youthful glory.

Sharp had looked to have all the class required: a left wing-back before there really were wing-backs, it was perhaps no surprise that he couldn’t shift Tony Dorigo from the side, but he seemed a more promising understudy than Worthington. By the time his chance arrived – when George Graham was inflicted David Robertson on us – Sharp had been sold for £100,000 to Wigan Athletic, where he played 179 games. The 1993 Youth Cup winning captain, Mark Ford, lasted longer; Graham used him as a sort of Batty-lite in his first season before selling him to Burnley for £275,000 and precipitating a descent through the divisions. Also marked by a swift decline was Andy Couzens, who looked capable for both Carlisle and Blackpool but had retired by the age of 25 to become a fitness instructor. Following Couzens to Carlisle was right-back Rob Bowman, who also dropped out of the game at an early age.

More successful were midfielder-cum-defender Mark Tinkler, who after leaving Leeds had long stints at York, Southend and Hartlepool, where last he made such an impression that this tribute video was produced when he left (‘A Tribute to Hartlepool’s Old Codger’). Also touring the lower leagues – and the Dutch Eredivisie – was striker Jamie Forrester, the schoolgirl’s choice from the 1993 side, and the media’s after his televised overhead kick in the Youth Cup Final. He could only repeat his form in flashes for the Leeds first team, but had successful spells at Scunthorpe, Northampton and Lincoln, and has recorded his experiences on his blog.

The only player from that side to really fulfil his potential, in the end, was Noel Whelan; and for a while in 1994 it looked like he was to become a key part of Leeds’ future. A tall striker, he had enough skill for his debut as a seventeen year old to be on the left wing, before he really seized his chance at the start of the 1994/95 season. Brian Deane’s first year as Lee Chapman’s replacement had been less than successful, returning just 12 goals, and Wilkinson had bought South African Phil Masinga to add to his options up front; but after scoring his first goal in the second game of the season, past England goalkeeper David Seaman from forty yards at Elland Road, Whelan was off – scoring another six and producing a string of eye catching performances, including a man of the match effort in a victory over Manchester United at Elland Road, to firmly establish himself in the Premier League. Injury curtailed Snowy’s form that season, and the next season he found himself down the pecking order at a club with Deane, Masinga, Rod Wallace, Tony Yeboah and before long Tomas Brolin all vying to start up front. Gordon Strachan had moved to Coventry as assistant to Ron Atkinson, and it was he who insisted Coventry pay whatever Leeds wanted – £2m, in the end – to take the young striker to Highfield Road. 31 goals followed, his form taking Whelan to the fringes of the England team and then to a £2.2m move to Middlesbrough.

Out of all the players from the 1993 squad, it hurt the Leeds fans most to lose Whelan; and it hurt Whelan the most to leave. For Noel Whelan was Leeds born, and a Leeds fan to the core. “I got a call from Howard Wilkinson on a Sunday morning to say can you come in,” Noel told TSB, when we asked about the move to Coventry. “Straight away I was sitting in my bed crying because I knew it was happening. I went into his office and he said they’d accepted an offer and I walked out, Billy Bremner hugged me and… you know, it still gets me now.” As Whelan rose to success at Coventry, and then struggled to find a home among a series of clubs after leaving Middlesbrough, there remained a sense that Noel really should still have been playing for us. “You never forget where your heart is,” said Noel. “I only ever scored once against Leeds and I didn’t celebrate, but the Leeds fans did, which says it all really.” When Snowy left the Leeds fans had an uneasy sense that yet again the heart of the club was being sold out; like the clear-out of Gray’s team in the mid-eighties, like David Batty in 1993, and like Alan Smith to come in 2004, the board always seemed ready to sell our own.

Noel spoke a lot to us in the interview about his feeling for Leeds – about always giving the Leeds salute when he scored against Manchester United for Coventry and Middlesbrough (and about the treat he had planned for Leeds fans on two other occasions while playing against Them, which you’ll have to buy the magazine to find out about), about how his ideal result when playing against Leeds was “to score 3 goals and lose 4–3″, about not caring what people at Coventry and Nottingham Forest (where he has started work in the academy )think of his allegiance to Leeds – but he almost didn’t need to. You could just sort of tell. And it’s infuriating in a way, to think of all the mercenaries and generally poor players that have come and gone at Leeds since Whelan left in 1995, that all along we could have had a good, honest, genuine Leeds fan playing for the team.

“As soon as I put my first shirt on when I was still YTS for Leeds United, I’d have finished my career then. I lived my dream. I’d have quit then and been happy. All I ever wanted to do was play for Leeds United ever since I was a kid.” Noel talks about a lot of different things in our interview – the promotion era at Leeds, Paul Hart, Strachan, Wilkinson, Billy Bremner, Carlton Palmer, Darren Huckerby, Eric Cantona, Jermaine Beckford, Chris Fairclough, Masinga and Radebe, Coventry, Millwall, Dennis Wise, Luciano Becchio, Alan Smith (“That’s a disgrace what he did … it riles me when I think about it!”) – it takes up a full eight pages of our new magazine. But the thing Noel always came back to, what was always just under the surface of our conversation – and sometimes right on top of it – was his love of Leeds.

“It was the best moment of my life playing for Leeds. People say you can’t stay at a club forever, it doesn’t happen, but I always felt that it would.”

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Originally on The Square Ball blog