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'Now, I look back on my time at Man United as a success. When I came home, I felt like a failure'

Anthony Whelan looks back on his career as a footballer.

Anthony Whelan pictured during his time as a footballer.
Anthony Whelan pictured during his time as a footballer.

Updated at 09.08

REGARDLESS OF who you are or what level you play at, a career in football is bound to be full of setbacks.

Often, it is the players who respond positively to the disappointments that have the most successful careers.

It is a recurring theme in the story of Anthony Whelan, or ‘Anto’ as he is better known, a player who grew up steeped in the sport.

From the age of eight to 18, he played with the renowned Dublin schoolboys club St Joseph’s Boys in Sallynoggin, alongside others who would go on to have good careers in the game including Mick Shelley, Alan Campbell and Aidan McCluskey.

As he would himself in later years, Whelan’s father managed Joeys for a period, having been a junior footballer around Dún Laoghaire as a younger man.

“Back in the day, he got a job on the strength of him being a decent footballer,” Whelan tells The42. “He tells the story of getting a job in British Rail. It meant he had to go to Holyhead every so often and play a game, but it also meant he got a job so he was delighted.” 

Whelan got his first taste of senior football under Billy Young at Bohs, usually covering a variety of positions for players who were out injured.

Highlights during his two years with the Dalymount Park outfit included two matches against Sporting Lisbon in Europe before Whelan earned a high-profile move to English giants Manchester United.

“As far as I was concerned, it sort of came out of the blue,” he recalls. “Billy Behan, the scout who had sent a good few players away [from Ireland to United], had been watching me playing, going back even to the B team at Bohs.

“And even going back to playing with St Joseph’s, he had been watching me and he let it be known to Billy that he wanted me to go over.

“After the end of the second season [at Bohs], I went over to Old Trafford and in the course of the two weeks, Dave Sexton who was the then-manager made an offer and then he called me in on a Wednesday afternoon to say that Bohs had accepted and if I was interested, he wanted me to sign.

“So it was a dream come true to go and play for Manchester United. And the way it happened, I was never under the impression that there was somebody watching me so I never felt under pressure to play well only for wanting to play well.

“I think my father might have been privy to a bit of information, Billy Young might have spoken to him. But Billy was good too. I think it was good for me that he didn’t put me under that pressure [to say] that clubs were watching.”

soccer-football-league-division-one-manchester-united-photocall Dave Sexton gave Whelan his Manchester United debut. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Similar to now, Manchester United at the time were a once-great side struggling to get back to their best. The Matt Busby era was long gone and subsequent managers had failed to emulate his success.

That said, the Red Devils still had a strong team at the time. In 1980, the year Whelan joined, they finished runners-up in the league, while they were FA Cup winners the year he left in 1983.

The Alex Ferguson era, and the remarkable success that followed, remained a couple of years away, but Whelan was signing for a team that was unquestionably one of the top sides in English football.

“You walk into the training ground and dressing room, and you’ve got Lou Macari, Sammy McIlroy, Gordon McQueen and Jimmy Nichol, lads that you’ve seen on television.

“You’re doing pre-season training with Bohs and then all of a sudden, you’re walking into this dressing room, so it was surreal. Maybe that was one of my failings. I never got over the fact that it was my job.

“I just loved playing and the fact that I might be playing for Manchester United. But it went really well [initially]. Dave Sexton took a shine to me. For the first season, I was involved with the first team quite a bit. You’re training with them every Thursday and Friday, I traveled with them sometimes. I was 12th man on a good few occasions, and I got to play — I signed in August and I came on as a sub in a game in November, a week after my 21st birthday. So it was all very quick. And I loved it. I missed home alright. But when you’re training with that calibre of player, the homesickness fades a bit.”

He continues: “For about six months, I was in digs with Kevin Moran and Ashley Grimes, who was an Irish international as well.

“My mother had a cousin who lived in Manchester, an Irish lady who married a Manchester man and they had no family. So I used to visit them and then they asked me: Would I like to move in with them? And I did. And it was home from home. They were great. Sadly, they’ve passed away recently, but they were really good to me.”

Whereas now, an Irish player featuring regularly for Manchester United’s first team is certainly uncommon, to say the least, back then, it was not so unusual. The likes of Moran, Paul McGrath and Frank Stapleton all had good careers with the Old Trafford outfit around that period. For Whelan to do the same would have been a realistic prospect, but it never materialised.

On 29 November 1980, he came on for Moran in front of 47,783 fans, as a Joe Jordan goal earned the Red Devils a point when they drew 1-1 with Southampton.

It proved to be Whelan’s only first-team appearance for the club.

“Sometimes even now, you think: ‘Did that really happen?’ But it did, and it was great. And I felt I did okay in the game as well. Of course, I was hoping at the time there would be a few more, but it wasn’t to be. But that jumps out — to go on at Old Trafford in front of [nearly] 50,000, there are no words to describe that.”

soccer-canon-league-division-one-manchester-united-photocall Whelan and Ron Atkinson did not always see eye to eye. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

An underwhelming eighth-place finish saw Sexton sacked at the end of the 1980-81 season as his trophyless four-year spell came to an end.

That is when it started to really go awry for Whelan — his first-team opportunities diminished under Sexton’s successor, Ron Atkinson.

“I missed home more when I fell out of the first-team scene. And I suppose that’s natural, you feel sorry for yourself a bit. Dave Sexton got sacked at the end of the year, Ron Atkinson came in, and I never really got back into the picture.”

He admits that his relationship with the new manager was relatively strained at the time, though his antagonism has lessened over the years.

“When I came back from Manchester, I didn’t like him, because he had released me. But the truth of the matter is, if I had played and he had felt me being in Manchester United’s first team was good for Manchester United’s first team, I would have been in it.

“There was a spell I didn’t play well and there was a spell in the second season where I was playing left-back. But I thought: ‘I might have a chance here.’ But it is what it is, it’s water on the bridge now.

“I didn’t like it when he called me in to say he was going to release me, but I was sort of expecting it too. I was 23 then, and I hadn’t made a big breakthrough into the first team.

“But he loved his football, he loved to join in the five-a-sides. He loved his cars and all those things, but that was football in the ’80s, a lot of them were like that.”

Perhaps Whelan’s biggest regret during his time in England was turning down a move to Preston, who were playing their football in the third tier back then.

“Halfway through the season, I got an opportunity to go to Preston on loan. Tommy Docherty, the ex-Man United manager, had taken over and wanted me to go. And I didn’t go because I felt I was playing well. I was playing left-back in reserves at the time.

“If I put my old head on young shoulders, I certainly would have gone because as it transpired, when the contract was up at United, after the third season, I had one appearance under my belt. Whereas if I’d gone to Preston and played 15 or 20 times, you would have 21 first-team appearances. So hindsight is a wonderful thing.”

soccer-football-league-division-one-manchester-united Whelan lived in the same digs as Kevin Moran for part of his Man United stint. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

The blow of leaving a club as big as Manchester United prematurely was tough to take, but Whelan has come to view the three years he spent there in a more positive light with the passing of time.

“Now, as an older chap, I look back on my time at Man United as a huge success. When I came home, I felt a bit of a failure if I’m being honest with you.

“I signed for Rovers when I came back. And I didn’t really play well, my confidence was shattered to a great degree. I felt the failure, you know?

“But as I’ve gotten older and I’ve looked at it really with a bit more experience — to be three years at Manchester United, to play in the first team and to mix with so many good players, I look at it now as a success. 

“But I was delighted I stuck at it and played because over the years, lads have come back and a lot of them have fallen out of football.

“Football was so important to me, I loved it and I suppose feeling like that, I’m glad I stuck at it and then ended up playing in the league here for the guts of 20 years.”

Overcoming this feeling of rejection was a challenge for Whelan, and partially explains why the subsequent short stint at Shamrock Rovers did not work out.

The Dubliner still managed to help the Hoops win the league during his season there in what was a great team on the cusp of their famous four titles in a row.

“You have to be very strong-willed to get over that,” he says of the Man United departure. “And I suppose, it took me 18 months. I signed for Rovers, the four-in-a-row team. Unbelievable players and characters and I loved being part of that dressing room.

“But on the pitch, I didn’t play well. I ended up losing my place. I then got a bit of an injury and at the end of the second year, I was released by [then-manager] Jim McLaughlin. It wasn’t a shock if I’m being honest, because I hadn’t been playing well.

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“I went to Cork. In 1984, they were starting and [the coach Tony Allen] rang me and asked would I be interested in going down and playing for a year.

“So I went down, had a chat with him and played for Cork City for that first year and it was great for me. Tony Allen and a man called Donal Leahy [were key].

“They were fantastic for me, every game, every training session, they just told me how good I was. It built my confidence up and I really enjoyed that year.

“We got to the semi-finals of the cup, even though we struggled in the league and just avoided relegation. And luckily for us, we drew Rovers in a two-legged semi-final. Whatever about having a chance in one game, you were never going to beat that Rovers team over two legs and they beat us in Milltown and Flower Lodge, but we had some great games.”

pat-byrne-leads-his-team-out Former Shamrock Rovers player Pat Byrne helped revitalise Whelan's career. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Whelan says the confidence and support of managers were key to revitalising his career ultimately.

“The time I was at Shels and Pat Byrne was the manager, Pat had great time for me as a player and a fella. And so I blossomed with that sort of scenario, as opposed to someone telling me: ‘You’re not up to scratch or you’re not good enough.’

“When I took over Drogheda, all those years later, I tried to bring that into [my coaching]. It’s one thing talking to a fella who’s a bad player. But it’s different talking to a good player who’s having a bad time.

“I think they’re two different conversations — someone who was not doing what he should be doing or not training properly or acting the maggot in some respect. But then you might get a good player who does all the right things, but it’s just not happening for him on the pitch.

“And they’re two really big, different conversations to have. And I was more of an arm-around-the-shoulder fella to say: ‘Come on.’ Because it helped me greatly in Cork and for the rest of my career.”

After this period of rejuvenation with the Leesiders, Whelan had a second and similarly brief injury-hit spell at Rovers, before enjoying further success playing for Pat Devlin’s Bray Wanderers.

He would go on to win a league (ending the club’s 30-year wait) and FAI Cup during a six-year spell with Shelbourne, in addition to another title during a two-year stint at Dundalk in the 1994-95 campaign.

“I was determined, and I have to say the year in Cork made me believe I was a good player again. Even with the setback at Rovers the second time, I knew I’d be a player. I knew I was a player.

“I went to Shelbourne and I was there for seven seasons. And I had a big impact. I was captain of the team for a long time. We ended up winning the league, and we won the cup and we played in Europe.

“After the Cork thing, I spoke to myself and said: ‘Don’t ever let yourself believe you’re not a good player anymore.’ It’s easy to say now as a 60-year-old man, but the truth of the matter is I was a decent player. I just didn’t believe in myself for a couple of seasons.

“Confidence is everything in football. If you have the ability, and you have confidence, you’ve every chance.”

inpho_00007156 Whelan won a league title with Dundalk in the twilight of his career.

Right up until the final part of his career, Whelan was getting written off prematurely. After falling out of favour at Shelbourne and being told he would no longer be first-choice, the experienced defender joined a Dundalk team dismissed by some primarily due to their high average age.

“There were lads in that team that just knew how to win,” he remembers. “I think I was 35 but then you had John Coady who had won leagues with Rovers and Derry, James Coll who had won the league with Dundalk himself and Martin Lawlor had won loads of leagues, Mick Byrne had won loads of stuff, Tom McNulty, Jody Byrne was there – even after winning the league, I don’t think that team was given the credit it deserves. 

“I remember meeting a friend of mine who worked in the Mater hospital one evening after training with Dundalk in the preseason. We were sitting in a pub in Dorset Street, and we were in a little cubicle and there was a bunch of lads in the next cubicle, so they couldn’t see us. But they were chatting away and gladly, they were talking about League of Ireland football. And it came around to Dundalk. And all you could hear was: ‘They have John Coady, they’re after signing Anto Whelan, sure he must be 37.’ My pal says: ‘Stand up and say something to them.’ And I said: ‘No, let them have their debate.’ But it just goes to show that was the view of that team that it was full of has-beens. So there was no real pressure on the team. But when it came to the crunch, we won seven of our last 10 games to win the league.

“And we only won the league on the last day [by beating Galway]. Shels were playing Pat’s [and could only draw], and Derry were in Athlone and Derry needed a win [and were a point ahead of their title rivals]. I think there was a clearance off the line, a penalty save and [the match ended 1-1]. But we won most of our last 10 games and that takes him some doing in the league.

“But I thought the story about the lads writing us off because we were all in our mid-30s was a good one.”

In many ways, that anecdote is the story of his career — Whelan had overcome a setback and proven the detractors wrong once more.

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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