Noel Whelan is so loyal to Leeds United that he wore the famous club colours under any match-day shirt, particularly when it came to playing against Man United! Amitai Winehouse reports.
There won’t be many footballers in the world, retired or still playing, who would openly admit they’d have been happy to lose a match. Noel Whelan’s games against Leeds were different: “I didn’t really want to win. I’d have rather scored a hat-trick and lost 4-3.”
Whelan played only 48 league games for Leeds, having begun his career at the club, but since his sale in 1995, his love for the Elland Road side has never dampened.
Staggeringly, the striker used to go above and beyond to demonstrate his affinity, something that came to the fore whenever he faced off against Manchester United.
“People knew when I left Leeds, my love for the club was there and it would never ever die, no matter what shirt I played in,” he said. “When I scored against Manchester United for Middlesbrough, I gave the Leeds salute.
“I played in a Leeds United shirt under my top on the off chance I did score, but when I scored the salute came out first. I think it annoyed the Manchester United fans more than anything else.”
It would have been difficult for Whelan to top his first experience when playing against the Lancashire club though. Representing the team he holds dearest, Whelan was part of the FA Youth Cup win in 1993 – the culmination of what was already a long journey to get to that point.
He revealed: “When I signed for Leeds, they were the last club to come in for me, and I’d been waiting for them to make an approach. I’d been at different clubs, who wanted me to sign schoolboy forms, but I turned them down because I wanted to sign for Leeds.
“When I got to Leeds, it was a dream come true – they’re the only club I ever wanted to play for.
“To win the Youth Cup, the way we did against Manchester United, home and away, you couldn’t imagine a better end to the season for me, just before I signed professional forms with Leeds. It was just the most unbelievable thing to win it in front of the fans for everyone involved.”
When Whelan talks about actually playing for the first team at Leeds, you can hear the enthusiasm that accompanies every single word. His first game was something that he would have fantasised about since childhood.
“When I made my debut, I was still a youth team scholar,” Whelan recalled, “It was at Sheffield Wednesday away. I was playing with all these heroes I’d watched as a kid. I’d cleaned their boots, and suddenly I’m lined up next to them wearing a Leeds United shirt. It couldn’t have been a more proud moment for me or my family. It’s something you dream about.”
It’s clearly hard for Whelan to pick out specific moments that he enjoyed more than others at Leeds. When asked about a particular goal, his spectacular bicycle kick against Chelsea, he almost dismisses the quality of the goal.
“Every single goal was a special goal. It’s surreal sometimes when you’ve got the badge on and you’re playing for the club you love and support. Whether it’s a good goal or a bad goal, it’s an amazing feeling.”
Sadly for Whelan, his time at Leeds was cut short. Coventry manager Ron Atkinson made a bid of £2 million for him, which Leeds accepted. It was a low point in Whelan’s career. “I was in tears in bed when I got the phone call from Howard Wilkinson. It’s just one of those moments that you dread.
“Billy Bremner put his arms around me outside the ground. It wasn’t easy for me, put it that way.”
He always held out hope that he might be able to return to Elland Road, and thought he was close to a transfer at one point in his career.
“I did my best to play as best as I could so they’d come in for me,” he told the YEP. “In the end, they went for Darren Huckerby instead, which was a shame but he was a great player. I was just lucky and fortunate enough to play for the club.”
Whelan has been able to represent Leeds in other ways, not least in a Yorkshire Masters victory in 2011. Playing for Leeds in that context doesn’t seem to be any different to his time at the club as a professional.
He said: “I’ve got my shirt still from the Masters. It was another proud moment for me. We managed to go on and win it. I had a slipped disc at the time, but I managed to manage the team through the rounds.
“Any time that I play any kind of charity match or Masters game that puts me in Leeds United colours, it’s 100 per cent wholehearted.”
The former Middlesbrough man has recently become more involved with the football on a weekly basis, providing commentary for BBC Radio Leeds. Whelan has immediately struck up an affinity with the fans that carries on from the love they shared when he played for Leeds. He feels as though he’s no different to the fans watching, except that he has an opportunity to give voice to how they feel.
“When we’ve played well, we’ve played well, when we’ve played bad we’ve played bad,” Whelan said, “If things are going on in the background that aren’t fair to the players and the manager, it’s not right to skirt around it.
“I can see it, there’s no point lying about it. It is what it is. I’ll always be honest. I played with my heart on my sleeve and I’ll do the same on the radio.
“I’m up there, twitching at every header and tackle. My legs never stop when I’m at Leeds games, I think I must drive Adam Pope nuts.”