Leeds United: Ex-Whites ace Whelan targets Masters glory INTERVIEW

Noel Whelan.
Noel Whelan.
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A SUNSHINE break in the Canary Islands in sultry September would be most people’s idea of heaven – and most definitely wouldn’t swap it for a night out in Manchester.

But for ex-Leeds United striker Noel Whelan, with his competitive footballing juices still flowing, despite being closer to 40 than 30, plans for sun, sea and sangria are being put on the back burner, while he rolls back the clock and aims for glory with his beloved Whites in the Selco Masters Grand Final, which takes place in Manchester’s MEN Arena on Sunday, September 4.

Team captain for Leeds’ recent Yorkshire Masters success at Sheffield’s Motorpoint Arena, Whelan’s experiences in the steel city were of the bittersweet variety with the frontman watching on in agony from the sidelines after suffering a back injury while his side – inspired by one-time Coventry City team-mate Darren Huckerby – cut a dash to triumph and join Rangers and Liverpool on finals day.

Whelan is confident, after a bit of rest and recuperation that he’ll make the finale, with Aston Villa winning through the Midlands Masters last weekend and Mancunian giants City and United also automatically qualifying with just two more places up for the grabs for the finals.

And such is his commitment, he is set to forsake a holiday in the sun to help United aim for silverware across the Pennines.

Whelan said: “I’ve got a holiday booked for Tenerife for the end of August, so I’m going to have to ring Thomas Cook to see if they can change it for me as I’d really like to play in the finals.

“I’m confident I’ll be fit. I’ve injured my back before so hopefully after it’s settled down, I’ll be okay. It’s a bit sore and inflamed and my movement isn’t the best at the minute. But I’m hoping it will be alright!

“I do have a problem with the lower discs in my back, which is why I retired really. I basically went to stop in the first game (at Sheffield) and because the surface is so hard, I just felt a crack in my back and unfortunately, I slipped a disc. I thought of going back out, but thought better off it and said: ‘right, let’s see a doctor!’

“I was a bit sore and I was better off standing than sitting. If I’d sat down, I’d have never got back up again!

“But the lads were absolutely brilliant. It was so difficult in there with no air-conditioning and it was so warm and it really takes it out of your legs, because you are constantly running for the full eight or 16 minutes.

“I played last year in Manchester and the pace and physical side of it wasn’t as bad.

“I think in the Yorkshire one, against teams like Barnsley and Huddersfield, who have played together for a number of years, it was very intense. Good football is played, but there’s a few good tackles and everyone is really wanting to win.

“Everyone looked pretty fit and when we turned up, we were expecting some overweight people. But there weren’t really any and it made for some good games.

“Obviously, we had Darren, who was just great on the smaller pitches.

“As a striker, on a big pitch, sometimes you have too much time on your hands, but in Masters football, your decision has got to be straightaway and it worked for Darren.

“As soon as you turn 35, the people running the masters get hold of you and I think they had been wanting to freshen it up and get some new young faces in for a couple of years and luckily, we’ve managed to get Darren. With the young ones, the games are a bit quicker and more exciting and Darren was a great signing for us.

“The finals will be tough, but we’re all looking forward to it. Liverpool have got some great players and Chelsea have got a strong squad with the likes of (Roberto) di Matteo and Tore Andre Flo and they have gone out and got some good players.

“I think it’s a knockout as well and will be hard and wouldn’t a Leeds versus Liverpool final be fantastic for the Manchester fans?”

Whelan, whose final professional game was over five years ago and famously appeared on Celebrity Masterchef a few years back, is aiming to cook up a treat on the coaching front, with the Leeds lad – now based in Nottingham – currently involved coaching youngsters at Championship outfit Derby County.

He is hoping it’s the first step on the ladder in the coaching and managerial realm, having previously completed his B licence.

Whelan, who had spells at the likes of Boston United and Aberdeen at the tail end of his career, said: “We start back on July 11 at Derby for pre-season working with the kids, although they are pretty much in shape. I’m looking forward to it and I’m also starting my A licence next May and cracking on with the badges and the coaching and hopefully things will turn into a permanent coaching/manager’s job somewhere along the line.

“Darren Wassell, the academy manager there at Derby, said it would be good to have me down and I also went down for a meeting with (Nottingham) Forest who wanted me for this year. But at the end of the day, Derby gave me my first chance.

“It’s a good club with great facilities and the kids are spoilt for what they have got really.”

Boyhood United fan Whelan still keeps abreast of developments at Elland Road and admits he was impressed by Leeds’ renaissance under Simon Grayson last term, although is conscious that the overwhelming feeling was one of frustration after an ‘if only’ Championship campaign, which saw them finish one place outside of the play-offs in seventh spot.

The appetite of Whites supporters will clearly only be satisfied once they are back in the Premier League with Whelan of the view that Leeds’ task in 2011-12 will be even more arduous than it was last year with the bar having been raised.

Whelan said: “Last season was one of those frustrating ones for Leeds where if you look back at the games they drew or were in front and lost, it made a difference.

“You can sit there and analyse it all day long and go mad, but at the end of the day, it didn’t work out, although Leeds can take a lot of positives from it.

“They did better than what people thought. Most would have been happy with a top-half finish and consolidation, but it makes it worse when you do better and just miss out.

“With the teams coming down, it makes it doubly hard (this year). It’s the worst division to get out of and it’s so competitive with lots of good sides and you play so many games and there’s not much respite for players.”