Brought to Elland Road by Howard Wilkinson, ex-labourer Mike Whitlow had the time of his life at Leeds United and is now coaching the talent of the future, Leon Wobschall reports.
AS someone who worked in a builder’s yard before landing his big footballing break at Leeds United, graft was always second nature to Mike Whitlow.
A strenuous day’s work as a labourer ahead of training with non-league outfit Witton Albion in the evening was par for the course for the defender around a quarter of a century ago – and in terms of character, he fitted the brief sought by his future gaffer to the absolute letter.
That man was Howard Wilkinson, charged with the not inconsiderable task of revitalising United in the late 1980s with work ethic high on the list of requirements from any player he signed.
Make that the top, with “Sgt Wilko” one of those who simply wouldn’t tolerate slackers.
Howard’s way took Leeds United back to the top of English football and Whitlow, for one, will forever be grateful to the ex-Whites chief for making his footballing dreams happen, second time around.
Whitlow never looked back after making the move from then HFS Loans Northern Premier League side Witton along with team-mate Neil Parsley for a combined £30,000 fee in November 1988, making his first appearance against Shrewsbury Town in the Simod Cup just days later.
And the 44-year-old – currently head of youth at Burton Albion after retiring as a player following a long career in 2007 – is quick to pay credit where it’s due, many years on.
Whitlow, released by Bolton Wanderers as a youngster – ironically going on to join the Trotters many years later – said: “It’s been a journey and it wouldn’t have happened without Howard’s help.
“I was very, very lucky....Neil (Parsley) was probably the better of the two of us, to be totally honest.
“I remember Howard was taking us to Sheffield Wednesday for a week. But as we were about to go there, he left to go to Leeds on the Monday. He had a little chat and said: ‘Enjoy the week and I’ll keep in touch’. Lo and behold, he did and it helped to give me 16 fantastic years.
“Sometimes, it’s about the right place at the right time. I was lucky enough that someone got hurt – I think it might have been Glynn (Snodin) – and I just got thrown in at the deep end in the Simod Cup and was then making my (league) debut against Stoke.
“I was thinking: ‘Wow, where’s this come from; I was playing Sunday League last week!’
“It was a real opportunity as when a youngster, I got told I wasn’t good enough. Then someone came along and no disrespect to others, but it was Leeds United and in my second year, I’m there training alongside Gordon Strachan, thinking: ‘He’s a legend!’”
On life under Wilko, he added: “It was bloody hard work! Howard was so organised and one of the reasons we were successful is that everybody grafted.
“I remember Chris Kamara, who was the fittest man I’ve ever seen! He’d run through brick walls and more. Then there were the gifted ones like Gary (Speed) and David Batty, two emerging young players.
“We had some great characters as well. I’ll never forget the likes of Mervyn Day and Noel Blake, who were fantastic with me – just a kid from non-league. They were like dads to me and looked after me. Without the likes of them, you sink or swim. I flourished through help from the likes of them.
“Leeds was a club that wanted success and all of a sudden after winning the second division, we were on a roll.”
Whitlow proved one of the unsung heroes of the 1989-90 Division Two title-winning campaign, the sort of roll-up-your-sleeves ‘player’s player’ that every successful side needs.
Spurred on by the bitter pill of rejection at Bolton first time around, Whitlow grasped his second chance with insatiable relish and soon endeared himself to the discerning Leeds pundits, carving out a reputation as a workaholic ‘100 per center’.
The bouquets generally went to others, although the full-back does remember one goal-den moment with particular affection for United back on Boxing Day 1990, when some unwelcome visitors from London received little Christmas cheer in a 4-1 drubbing with Whitlow netting a screamer.
He said: “It would be nice to have read in a programme once that I was silky-skilled. But it was never going to happen, was it? It was always ‘honest and hard-working.’
“I think after being released as a youngster, I didn’t want that to happen again. I always remember Big Sam at Bolton banning me from going in the gym at 30 as I still always wanted to do more and be fitter and stronger.
“The lads knew what they were getting from me and it never changed throughout my career. If I messed up, it was an honest mistake.
“In terms of highlights, I’ll always remember Chelsea at home. I’ll never forget it as I didn’t know what the hell to do! I just hit the ball and it went straight in and I was stood there like a plank at Elland Road thinking: ‘I’ve scored’ before running around like a nutter. That goal has always stuck.”
After two accomplished seasons at United, the beginning of the end for Whitlow arrived in the summer of 1991 when a classy, fleet-footed Aussie called Tony Dorigo was signed by Wilkinson.
Given the outlay forked out on Dorigo, Northwich-born Whitlow accepted he was likely to play second fiddle, with appearances in the Division One championship winning side sporadic, although he did net a rare goal in United’s memorable 6-1 Hillsborough destruction of Sheffield Wednesday.
Shortly before United lifted the big prize, Whitlow was transfered to Leicester City in March 1992 and after two play-off failures, he became a Wembley winner against East Midlands rivals Derby County in 1994.
As at Leeds, Whitlow proved a popular figure in the Foxes’ rise under Martin O’Neill – and was part of the side along with Simon Grayson who lifted the Coca Cola Cup in the spring of 1997 – before switching to Bolton that autumn.
A spell under Neil Warnock at Sheffield United followed before winding down his playing career at Notts County, ahead of starting out in the coaching realm.
Whitlow said: “I knew my time was up when Tony came in at Leeds. He was the best left-back in the country at the time and when he signed I thought: ‘Oh, I don’t think I’ll be playing many games now!’
“It was the next level with the quality of player coming in. No disrespect to me, but it meant I’d be moving on. It happened at every club I’ve been at, to be honest. I remember at Leicester when Martin wanted me to stay as a centre-half and at the time, I wanted to play full-back and run up and down.
“Bolton came in and offered me first-team football and Martin was brilliant with me. He never wanted me to leave, but understood my situation and I went and signed for Bolton and the week after was marking David Beckham!”
Whitlow’s first coaching experiences at Notts County were something he admits he never enjoyed, but that changed when he found his vocation working with youth players – subsequently heading to the youth academy at Derby and then being named head of youth development at Mansfield Town before being asked to set up Burton’s academy back in 2010 – with the fruits of his labours just starting to surface.
He said: “I’m mentally cut out to work with kids and I’m still probably 10 in my head! You never grow old and the development side and seeing the kids progress every day is what it’s all about for me.
“I actually was on my way to another football club when Burton rang and said: ‘Would you like to establish our youth set-up from scratch’ as they hadn’t got one. They had a college-based scheme but not a centre of excellence. We set off in early June and had it up and running in early July.
“Since we’ve started, we’ve managed to get three young lads fixed up with professional contracts, which is always pleasing as that’s what we’re here to do.
“Burton play Leeds in a pre-season friendly and it will be nice to see my old chief (Warnock) ranting and raving on the sidelines! I worked under Neil for Sheffield United for a year and I’m sure he abused me many years before he took me there!
“He’s such a passionate bloke and any players who played under him will tell you he wears his heart on his sleeve and you know where you stand.”