Former Leeds centre-back Chris Whyte was one of the heroes of the 1992 champions. He tells Leon Wobschall of his fondness for United and their FA Cup opponents Arsenal.
The affable Londoner bled red and white in his formative years, as a ball-boy, fan and later player with boyhood club Arsenal – the team literally on his doorstep in Highbury – and has lived the vast majority of his life in the capital, where he is currently busy establishing a football agency.
But the golden spell of his professional career and most cherished moments were unquestionably played out right at the opposite end of the M1, with Leeds United.
Whyte is the first to admit his loyalties will be divided when the Gunners do battle with the Whites just as they did in the third round of the cup 12 months ago – and in the centenary FA Cup final of 1972.
He may have realised a dream in playing for Arsenal in the early eighties, making his debut at the age of 20 in 1981 and helping the North Londoners to the FA Cup and League Cup semi-finals in 1982-83, but his sole trophy ‘major’ arrived at Elland Road, when he helped United become the last side to lift the old first division title in 1991-92.
The Islington-born defender forever earned his place in Whites folklore for his role in what was a rock-solid central-defensive wall alongside Chris Fairclough in that blue riband campaign, when Howard Wilkinson’s all-conquering side shipped a mere 37 goals in 42 matches, less than one per game.
An ever-present for the best part of three years after signing from West Brom in the summer of 1990, Whyte – something of a cult hero during his time with United where he was affectionately known as Huggy in deference to Starsky and Hutch icon Huggy Bear – was honoured along with his title-winning team-mates at a special reunion dinner in Leeds in October to celebrate the 20th anniversary of that silverware season.
Two decades may have elapsed since that famous triumph, but it’s a well-known fact that the United faithful never forget their heroes – with legendary players feted by fanatical supporters on a daily basis and not just at one-off gala evenings, as Whyte knows full well, even in his native London 200 miles away from Leeds.
Whyte, now 50, said: “I never actually won anything with Arsenal, although all I learnt in football as a kid was there. But at Leeds, I won the ultimate – the old first division championship. So people can easily see how my loyalties are divided on Monday!
“My mum brought us all up on her own 400 yards from Highbury and I used to be a ball-boy there and stand on the terraces and made friends there. But I’ve a massive place in my heart for Leeds as well.
“Leeds still have a big following in London and I’ve played in the odd charity game and bumped into many Leeds fans on my travels.
“I appreciate the support I had during my time there. The thing about me was that I loved to go out and express myself; I guess all players do. But I genuinely and honestly can say, I looked forward to every game at Leeds.
“With a team like that, you still go places and see all the people who were Leeds fans – in London or wherever – and they really did appreciate what you did for them. It makes you really humble and is lovely.”
Whyte’s career before and after Leeds was somewhat nomadic with the defender leaving Arsenal soon after George Graham took over in 1986, heading across the pond to the States to play in the American Indoor League with New York Express and then Los Angeles Lazers.
When he returned to England, Ron Atkinson signed him for West Brom in August 1988 and the year after being named as Albion’s Player of the Year in 1989, Wilkinson brought him to Elland Road for a bargain £450,000.
Whyte soon become a firm favourite with United punters for his cool defending, and particularly his last-ditch tackling abilities, with one of those telescopic long legs of his foiling countless opponents during the early nineties.
All told, he played over 100 times for United between 1990 and 1993 before being signed by ex-Whites full-back Terry Cooper, then manager at Birmingham and Whyte admits that in an ideal world, he would have stayed in West Yorkshire a bit longer.
On his path to Leeds and recalling his time there, he said: “I came to Leeds after a spell in America and then at West Brom
“I went abroad in the first place as I just felt at the time I lost a bit of confidence at Arsenal and was in and out of the side for the last two seasons. I played in an exhibition game in my last season (at Arsenal) in the States and six-a-side was big at the time. The Americans like their fast sports such as basketball and ice hockey and at the time, indoor football was big.
“I enjoyed it and was at an age where I decided to give it two or three years and then come back and that’s what I did.
“I had a good time at West Brom, but then Leeds came in. I was well aware how big the club was when I signed and the fanbase and when I knew of their interest, of course I was interested. Not many people wouldn’t be and I ended up talking to Howard and I was soon very, very interested and really looking forward to it after that.
“It was a real pleasure to play with wonderful players at a wonderful club – a Premiership club who are currently in the Championship. A lot of credit has to go to Howard for putting such a wonderful side together.
“The midfield got the plaudits, but it was a real team effort that season and we were very solid and a privilege to play in.
“I still talk to Chris Fairclough once in a while and Gary McAllister and John Newsome, although not on a regular basis.
“But what is nice is that you don’t have to talk often or regularly to show what those sort of team-mates meant. We all got on and appreciated each other and it was a special time.
“I certainly loved it up north, the restaurants, bars and nightlife. It was nice you could go out and not end up in the papers for the wrong reasons, don’t get me wrong, nothing went on though! It was just nice when genuine people were so pleased to see you.
“To be honest, I’d have liked to have stayed longer at Leeds. But sometimes in football, things don’t always work that way.”
After his spell at St Andrews, which saw him help Birmingham lift the second division championship in 1994-95, Whyte wound down his career at a variety of destinations, including Charlton Athletic, Oxford United, Rushden & Diamonds, Harlow Town – where he played under ex-Gunners team-mate Ian Allinson – and at Finnish club HyPS.
Since retiring, Whyte has worked in several trades, including the chauffeuring business with his most famous passenger having been no less a figure than current Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger.
But his overwhelming passion has always been football and the one-time centre-back, who played for Highbury Grove, Islington and Inner London Schools before turning professional with Arsenal, is now focusing his energies on helping the current generation of footballing talent in the capital achieve their dreams – just as he did.
Whyte said: “It can be difficult after finishing playing; people think when you have been in the game, you can just walk into a (football) job. But in football, it’s not like that.
“I’d done various things since retiring. I had a friend who was in chauffeuring, so I did that for a bit and after-school coaching.
“Funnily enough, I drove Arsene a couple of times, which was unbelievable. But we hardly got to speak as his phone was going every few seconds!
“My passion has always been football. I have now structured my own football agency. I thought with all the contacts I’ve got.
“I regularly get calls saying: ‘Chris, can you have a look at my son or this other player’ – if I do things properly and put things into place, I could do well. It’s all up and running; obviously now the difficulty is getting players. But things don’t happen overnight.
“I’ve got some youngsters (I look after) and it would be nice to get some existing players as well.”