In this week’s Leeds United retro feature, Leon Wobschall spoke to chemistry graduate David Wetherall, who is currently working hard on the controversial Elite Player Performance Plan.
CHAINED to his desk with a mountain of paperwork to complete is nothing new to David Wetherall.
The former Leeds United centre-half might not quite burn the midnight oil like he did a few decades ago when swotting for his final chemistry exams at the University of Sheffield and fitting in his footballing commitments with the Whites.
But the studious defender – who graduated with first-class honours from university – is still putting in the long, painstaking hours, although these days not at his parents’ home in South Yorkshire, but at his office in Preston as part of his considerable role with the Football League, with his title of Head of Youth Development a grand and all-encompassing one.
Although Wetherall’s office brief is probably a surprise to many who thought he was always destined for a long and productive career in the dug-out.
Especially given the modern-day penchant for chairmen to plump for well-schooled and intelligent young coaches and managers more used to PowerPoint, seminars and statistics than those whose traditional methods incorporated old-fashioned man-management with a bit of industrial language thrown in, the ability to spot a player and a big, fat contacts book.
But a career move last July saw Wetherall swap his training togs at Bradford City for a shirt and tie, ending a 12-year association with the Bantams, which saw him play more than 300 senior games before later running the youth team, while also having two spells as caretaker boss.
And it’s hardly been a case of bedding in gently, with Wetherall’s in-tray immediately full from when he started his new post.
Top of the pile is helping to implement the Premier League-driven and somewhat controversial Elite Player Performance Plan for young players, voted for by Football League clubs, but not without plenty of objectors with many fearful that it will spell the end for many smaller club academies.
With more than 8,500 players between the ages of eight and 18 on the books of Football League clubs and the system to be implemented by the start of next season, time is of the essence, but Wetherall is one of those people who you suspect secretly thrives on having plenty on his plate.
Forty-one in March, the Sheffielder, who admits he can’t currently envisage returning to coaching and management, said: “At the present time, there’s a lot of work to be done around the elite players’ performance plan and I’m meeting with the Premier League a lot and trying to iron out the details, which will represent a substantial change in youth development to clubs across the country.
“It’s a challenge, but an enjoyable one in trying to have an influence in shaping things. We all want standards to improve in clubs that are serious about youth development.
“The downside for me is you don’t coach. But when the job settles down, I’ll be out and into clubs a lot and watching the coaching and games. At the minute, getting the plan ready is keeping me busy. It’s about seeing what is working and what isn’t and shaping it along.
“I’ve absolutely no ambitions regarding management again at the minute. It’s not something that appeals to me at all.
“I had a little go at it and while I think I can do it, it’s not something I see myself doing in the future.
“You never say never and who knows, one day I might want to get the tracksuit and boots back on and focus on coaching again, but I’ve no current plans. I look at my present job as long-term and everything regarding youth development is long-term.”
One of a select breed of players to be hugely respected by United and Bradford supporters – with the likes of Trevor Cherry also among that choice number – Wetherall cherished his time at Elland Road and Valley Parade with equal fondness. And he will forever be remembered by those of a claret-and-amber persuasion for his famous winner against Liverpool in May 2000 which preserved Premier League football for City.
That goal, from a cross from another ex-United defender in Gunnar Halle, was not only greeted with euphoria in Bradford but also a short distance away east on the A647 in Leeds, with his winner helping the Whites pip Liverpool for third spot and a place in the Champions League.
Yet when push comes to shove, there’s only ever one – okay two – of Wetherall’s goal-den moments that will be most fondly remembered by misty-eyed United followers, with each coming against the traditional old enemy from across the Pennines – Manchester United.
Each have been re-run probably as many times as his goal against Liverpool, plenty more times if you live in an LS postcode area.
The first arrived on September 11, 1994 when the big defender’s infamous mishit strike opened the scoring for hosts United in a 2-1 Elland Road victory and paved the way for a first league win over the red side of Manchester since the final game of the 1979-80 campaign.
Wetherall shared the headlines with Brian Deane that day, but on another autumnal afternoon just over three years later, the stopper stole the limelight, raising above Gary Pallister in the 34th minute before thumping a header past the hesitant Peter Schmeichel to seal a sweet 1-0 success.
And Wetherall has particular reason to remember September 27, 1997. He said: “I was fortunate enough to score twice against Manchester United and the second time was my son’s first game. He was just a matter of a few days old and to score in those circumstances and keep a clean sheet made sure that day couldn’t get any better.
“The first game was my first experience of Leeds versus Man United and I was told to expect a fantastic atmosphere and it certainly didn’t disappoint. I think I’d been on the bench when we played them away and to play against them was enough really.
“But for the ball to drop to me six yards out and for me to mishit a shot which went into the opposite corner which I planned it to for the opener was something else. I didn’t know where it was going to go, so how could the keeper? It was a good day, you could say!”
Resolute and dependable, Wetherall was a solid presence in United’s back line for large chunks of the nineties and featured over 250 times, not bad for a chemistry student from Sheffield who had to combine football with his studies in the early part of his career.
Wetherall, a former Sheffield Wednesday season-ticket holder who soon switched his allegiance to Leeds when he moved up the M1 from Hillsborough along with Jon Newsome in a bargain-of-the-decade £275,000 deal in 1991, said: “I signed as a part-time player really at Leeds as I was in my last year at uni. I think I played two minutes in the season we won the championship against Arsenal (September 1991).
“It might have only been a brief appearance, but I will always remember it with it being my Leeds debut. I was going to come on with about 20 minutes to go, but then we scored and here was me on the touchline, having never played a second of league football and stripped and ready to come on...
“I remember Howard (Wilkinson) coming to me and saying ‘Son, it might not be your day’. I was devastated, but with two minutes to go, he relented and threw me up front. There was just enough time for Tony Adams to absolutely smash me. It was a case of ‘Welcome to grown-up football’.
“In my first year, my priority was studying and playing when I could and the club were very good in that aspect. We won the league, but struggled the year after, although in a way that gave me the chance to play games. I ended up playing 250 times over eight years and went from a university student to a professional footballer and it was a great time.
“When I first signed, it wasn’t a case of Leeds being my favourite team as such. But over the course of eight years, they became ‘my club’. It’s weird that Bradford and Leeds are such rivals, when I had a great time at both and still have a great affinity with both clubs.
“We moved to Leeds at the time I moved to the club and I still live around the city with no plans to move anywhere else.
“It was a disappointment to leave Leeds United, but that’s professional football and I went on to have many happy years with Bradford. The financial circumstances (at Bradford) went on to be well documented and at times with the team it was a struggle, but for myself I had a great time there as well.”