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Dublin: 16 °C Saturday 11 July, 2020

Why Glenn Whelan should be a role model to footballers everywhere

The Irish midfielder is set to represent his country for the last time against Northern Ireland tonight.

Glenn Whelan is set to earn his 85th and final Ireland cap against the North tonight.
Glenn Whelan is set to earn his 85th and final Ireland cap against the North tonight.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“TALENT IS LUCK. The important thing in life is courage,” Woody Allen’s character says in the 1979 film, Manhattan.

This quote could easily be associated with Glenn Whelan.

The Irish midfielder was not the most talented player ever to wear the green jersey.

You could probably pick out several footballers from this country over the years that have had significantly more flair and creativity.

Yet what Whelan has managed to do is incredibly rare, and takes considerable courage.

At 15, he left Dublin, joining Manchester City from Cherry Orchard. It has been well documented that the vast majority of footballers who have followed a similar pathway to him in recent years have failed to get a second contact.

A lucky few might carve out a decent career in the lower divisions of England or at League of Ireland level.

But for an Irish player to make 277 appearances in the English top flight and play there regularly for nine seasons is the sporting equivalent of winning the lottery.

Glenn Whelan featured more often in the Premier League than other notable past Irish stars, including Steve Finnan, Niall Quinn, Steve Staunton, Ian Harte and Andy Townsend. Granted, some of those players started out in the pre-Premier League era, though that caveat is offset by Whelan’s emergence at a time when it was harder than ever for an Irish footballer to get game time in the English top flight, given the dramatic increase in competition from foreign players over the last 20 years.

The Clondalkin native’s international record is also impressive. Only nine players — Robbie Keane, Shay Given, John O’Shea, Kevin Kilbane, Steve Staunton, Damien Duff, Aiden McGeady, Niall Quinn and Tony Cascarino — have featured more times in the green jersey than him.

Whelan’s appearance tomorrow will take him two caps ahead of his childhood hero, Paul McGrath. These feats are the type of achievements that millions grow up dreaming of replicating, but almost no one gets to actually experience come true.

Yet for all he did, Whelan was persistently criticised over the course of his career, and he was even frequently doubted and abused by some of those in the game.

“Certain stuff did get a little bit personal,” the departing Irish midfielder said at a press conference on Thursday. “I think my background was brought up and there was a thing written about a car I was driving, which was mentioned. And I definitely didn’t drive that car.

“People that weren’t close to me, they read certain things and then they start believing it.”

As a youngster, having made just a sole Uefa Cup appearance for Manchester City, he was deemed surplus to requirements at the club. He was sent to the relative obscurity of League One. Rebuilding a career from this point requires serious resilience. Far more have failed than succeeded. Countless promising young Irish footballers’ careers have petered out, after they struggled to get over the disappointment of being let go by a top side at an early age.

Whelan was different. He recovered impressively and seamlessly adapted to life at Sheffield Wednesday. In 2007, not long before he left to join Stoke, he was voted the Owls’ Player of the Year.

Soccer - Friendly - Preston North End v Manchester City Whelan pictured as a youngster playing for Manchester City in 2002. Source: EMPICS Sport

The Dubliner signed with Stoke for just £500,000 in January 2008. He would spend the next nine and a half seasons there. He made more than 20 appearance in all nine of his seasons in the Premier League, and passed the 30-mark in all bar three.

Stoke CEO Tony Scholes subsequently suggested Whelan was one of the club’s “best-ever” signings.

The midfielder helped establish the Potters as a solid mid-table side, something that seemed scarcely imaginable just a decade previously when they were labouring in English football’s third tier. 

He was described as “quiet” by Martin O’Neill on Thursday, but on the occasions when Whelan chose to speak, people tended to listen. Like many top players, he truly despised losing. After Stoke were defeated 4-1 by Championship outfit Blackburn in the 2015 FA Cup, the Irishman delivered a furious dressing-room dressing down. 

“I said it and I’m not going to take it back,” Whelan told reporters afterwards.

“When I said it, I was including myself, not pointing the finger at somebody else.

“It wasn’t just about getting a reaction. It was about telling the truth.

“Hopefully, the lads know what I’m like, I don’t like losing in training, never mind games. If they can use that as a motivation to prove me wrong, then great, it’s worked.”

With the Irish international’s criticism still ringing in their ears, Stoke went on to win their next three consecutive Premier League matches.

Regardless of his marked influence for club and country alike, it has been suggested more than once this week that Whelan was “underappreciated” by sections of the Irish support and media at times, and it is true of his career at club level too.

“We always looked for an upgrade on Glenn, someone we thought was more mobile, technically better, quicker, stronger, but every year the bugger would confound you by playing better and better and keeping his place,” Tony Pulis said in an interview with the Irish Mail on Sunday at the weekend.

Despite his signing coinciding with the beginning of the club’s best run of form for decades, some supporters at Stoke doubted him too, just as Keegan and people in Ireland did.

During Whelan’s time at the club, midfielders including Seyi Olofinjana, Amdy Faye, Dean Whitehead, Diego Arismendi, Wilson Palacios, Maurice Edu and Steve Sidwell all tried and failed to displace the Irish international in the starting XI.

Stoke never finished higher than ninth or lower than 14th during Whelan’s time there, but it is telling that once they let him as well as another popular and immensely hard-working Irish player Jon Walters leave, the club promptly finished 19th and were relegated.

It was a much glitzier version of Stoke than the original Pulis incarnation, with the comparatively glamorous likes of Xherdan Shaqiri, Bojan Krkić and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting to choose from in the squad. But without previous parts of the furniture in Whelan and Walters, you got the sense that the soul had been ripped out of the Britannia Stadium.

Ireland, too, have suffered in the Aston Villa man’s absence. Under both Giovanni Trapattoni and Martin O’Neill, the Boys in Green’s greatest strength was their solidity. On the rare occasions when the wheels have come off — the 6-1 loss to Germany and the more recent 5-1 and 4-1 defeats to Denmark and Wales respectively, Whelan’s absence has been more conspicuous than his presence ever was.

Commenting on his own career a few years back, the player’s former Stoke team-mate Danny Higginbotham told The42: “People could probably turn around and say you overachieved, and I would consider that a massive compliment.” 

Those sentiments could be applied to Whelan too. He was never Lionel Messi. He didn’t possess anywhere near technical prowess of players, even in the Irish squad, such as Aiden McGeady or Wes Hoolahan. But there is no doubting he made the best out of the ability he had. And that is all you can ever ask of anyone really.

- Originally published at 08.00 

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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