In the reception area of the Manchester City Academy at Platt Lane, close to their spiritual home of Maine Road, a board of honour lists 30 players who graduated to first-team football. Glenn Whelan's name is there, but at Wembley tomorrow the one-time apprentice will apply his midfield sorcery against his first club in the cause of Stoke City.
Yes, it's true. Contrary to the prejudices of some in the game, particularly at Arsenal, Stoke do have creative midfield players who could grace the FA Cup final and now, thanks to his former employers reaching the Champions League, next season's Europa League; players who do not simply launch the long ball. The metronomic Whelan is the supply line to the wings and picks out the runs of floating striker Jon Walters.
Yet as Roberto Mancini knows from experience, the player City shaped and spurned before his time has more to his game than a pleasing passing range. Whelan's most recent goal came from a long-range shot in a 1-1 draw between the clubs last season. "Shay Given helped me out," he says, beaming, of his Republic of Ireland colleague. "It was one he'd normally have saved, but it slipped by him." He's combative, too, and on the same night Patrick Vieira planted a boot in a delicate area of his anatomy, costing the Frenchman a three-match suspension.
Whelan, 27, came to Manchester from Dublin nursery club Cherry Orchard 10 years ago with dreams of sky-blue stardom. His City career almost served as a dictionary definition of Warhol's famous-for-15-minutes maxim. In 2003, aged 19, he was given 17 minutes as substitute for Paul Bosvelt in a Uefa Cup game against Welsh makeweights Total Network Solutions at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium. And that was it.
At the end of that season the then City manager, Kevin Keegan, gave Whelan a free transfer and he dropped into the third tier with Sheffield Wednesday. It would be a mistake, however, to assume he is fuelled by a desire to punish them for any perceived injustice. His eagerness to help Stoke lift the Cup for the first time is palpable but he also talks affectionately about the grounding he received from his first club.
"I was at City six years and I loved it," he recalls. "I came over when I was 15 and signed at 16. It was really hard. I was in digs. What helped me was there were three other Irish lads who came over for scholarships – Willo Flood, who's now at Middlesbrough; Paddy McCarthy, who plays for Crystal Palace; and Stephen Elliott, who's with Hearts. I was put in with them.
"Near the end of the [2003-04] season Keegan found out there was interest from Wednesday and told me he didn't think I was going to break in, this year or next, and the best thing would be to 'go out and play games'. It hurt. I was only 20. I thought I was going to be with City, playing for them, but it didn't work out. It's not nice if you know a club don't want to keep you, but I wanted to show people maybe I should've been kept on.
"City were a big club even then, but they were going through some bad times. When I left I always looked out for their results and how they were doing. It's different now – it would be good to get one over them."
Only one player who was involved when Whelan had his City cameo, Shaun Wright-Phillips, is still there (having left for Chelsea and returned), although Micah Richards was also a contemporary. He sees his old club as "massive" since the takeover by Sheikh Mansour, adding: "Just look at the squad they have. If they're missing a few the players who can come in are unbelievable. I'm sure over the next few years they'll be one of the great contenders. They have the money now to push on and win trophies."
But not starting, if Whelan has any say in it, with the FA Cup. His own return to favour with manager Tony Pulis, who paid Wednesday £500,000 for him in 2008 when Stoke were in the Championship, has helped to coax the best from the rejuvenated Jermaine Pennant and Matt Etherington, with no obvious lowering of aggression levels in Stoke's approach. "[Pulis] wanted to improve each year and he's done that. People say we're long-ball, but he has better players now and we're beginning to change some minds."
The 5-0 battering of Bolton in the semi-final, without a single goal from a set-piece, mocked the "new Wimbledon" stereotype and ensured there will be fewer nerves about performing on the Wembley stage. "We turned up, they didn't," he says. "Everything seemed to come at the right time. Now we can't wait to get back there for the final."
Like Sunday's 3-1 win over Arsenal, it was a victory that points to Stoke, like the old Wimbledon against Liverpool in 1988, being dangerous underdogs. "We go into every game believing we can win," adds Whelan, confident he can inscribe his name in Stoke's all-time roll of honour.Reuse content