Football: Hard man with healing touch

The Brian Viner Interview: `I was always interested in medicine because I was in the medical room so much. I had 12 operations' - Norman Whiteside
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The Independent Online
NORMAN WHITESIDE is still a couple of days away from turning 34, which is incredible when you consider that it is nearly a decade since he last played League football. Indeed, it is so long since he reached the height of his formidable ability that his wondrous extra-time goal for Manchester United in the 1985 FA Cup final denied Everton the League, FA Cup and European Cup-Winners' Cup treble - that's the Everton now known for annually clinging to the precipice leading to the Nationwide First Division.

Ironically, he later played for them, and as an Evertonian I tell him I am not sure whether I want to kiss him or kick him. In truth, neither would be a good idea. He then recalls that Cup final goal with distressing clarity, how he used Pat Van Den Hauwe to shield the ball from Neville Southall before whipping it in with his left foot. "Big Neville was probably the best goalkeeper in the world at that time, which made it even more special. Basically, I bought an extra yard by using the defender. Bergkamp does the same thing every week now."

We meet at the Griffin, the pub in leafy Altrincham where in the good old, bad old days, Whiteside was known to have a pint or seven with his buddies Paul McGrath and Bryan Robson. "We'd have a fair few pints of Guinness at Paddy Crerand's pub, too," he says. "But to be fair, we did it at the right time. On a Saturday night or Sunday lunch. Sometimes on a Wednesday after the game. Never on a Thursday or Friday." From more or less the time he made his United debut at the tender age of 16 - not that there was ever anything particularly tender about him - Whiteside's reputation was three-pronged. In reverse order, he was known to be a heavy drinker, a heavy tackler, and a footballer of rare ability.

Let's concentrate on the rare ability, which developed in the ultra-loyalist back streets off Belfast's Shankill Road. In fact, the family lived next door to the headquarters of the Ulster Defence Association, and Whiteside credits his parents with the fact that neither he nor his two brothers got involved in paramilitary activities, like many of their contemporaries. Not that their hands stayed exactly spotless. Whiteside now has a kind of footballer emeritus role at Old Trafford, meeting and greeting corporate guests on match days, and recalls introducing himself to a couple of Belfast fellas who looked up with awe and said, "We used to throw stones at each other, big man, remember?"

Most of the time, though, the Whiteside boys played football, grudgingly interrupting kickabouts to go to school. "I had tunnel vision. I didn't do my homework, I didn't go out with girls, I just wanted to be a footballer," says Whiteside. When he was 12, his dedication paid off. He was spotted by an Ipswich Town scout, but the Ipswich manager, Bobby Robson, thought he was too young. By then, Manchester United had already swooped, and at 14 Whiteside signed schoolboy terms, declining offers from Liverpool, Tottenham and Arsenal.

The United manager, Dave Sexton, asked if he would consider finishing his education in Manchester, but Whiteside chose to commute several times a week from Belfast. "And now that I've seen what an English education did for Paul Gascoigne, I'm sure I made the right decision," he says. He has an engaging wit, and wonders what the pin-stripes on the Belfast- Manchester shuttle made of the young lad in a duffel coat and a skinhead haircut. "They must have thought I was selling gear."

Whiteside made his United debut towards the end of the 1981/82 season - at Brighton of all places, another reminder that we've all passed a lot of water since then. He came on as substitute for Mike Duxbury and Ray Wilkins nicked the winner, so the pounds 16-a-week teenager copped a pounds 600 win bonus. Does he remember what he spent it on? "A sheepskin coat, I think." It was a magical time. And when, that summer, he pipped Pele as the youngest player ever to play in the World Cup finals, the comparison with another Belfast prodigy who dazzled the Stretford End became irresistible. Norman Whiteside did not exactly evoke George Best physically, though. He was big, unflinching in the tackle and even at 17, impossible to intimidate.

"Graham Roberts at Spurs was the only guy who gave me stick," he recalls. "He said, `do you want to play next week or do you want your leg broken?' But I tackled him before he finished the sentence, and that was that." Actually, Whiteside - who surprisingly was sent off only once - believes that his reputation as a bruiser is undeserved. "I think the media made too much of the hard man issue, and neglected my passing abilities and my leadership qualities," he says. Certainly, in Alex Ferguson's estimation, "If Norman Whiteside had had one more yard of pace, he would have been one of the greatest players ever produced in British football."

Whiteside admits that had he been quicker, he would also have had fewer bookings. "The report always said `intent to endanger player' but nine times out of 10 it was because I was too slow. Funnily enough, I was a sprint champion at school, but when I was about 15 I had a groin strain and I went to see a physio in Northern Ireland, who played around with my hips and joints. My hips still clunk to this day because of what he did, and I lost all my speed. I could near enough put it down to that but I have never really spoken about it."

With speed, as Ferguson said, he would have been exceptional. Without it, he was merely very, very good - sufficiently good for Milan to offer United pounds 1.5m for him, then considered a staggering sum for an 18-year- old. They offered to stick a further million in his back pocket, and if he knew then what he knows now, he might have taken it. As it was, he thought he had too much yet to prove at Old Trafford. "I wanted to stick around until I was about 26, then go abroad, like McManaman."

Instead, Alex Ferguson sold him to Everton, and at 26, his career was cruelly abbreviated. He was playing five-a-side in training - "I'll never forget the date, it was September 20, 1990" - when his knee buckled in a challenge with an apprentice. The club surgeon told him that he could continue playing for a year or two, but he would be bringing up his kids in a wheelchair if he did. Fortunately, Whiteside's mentor at Old Trafford, Bryan Robson, had persuaded him to insure himself against the possibility of career-wrecking injury. "As a 17-year-old, it was very hard to get that pounds 2,000 out of your pocket every year, but I'm glad I did. I would have been very disappointed with football if I hadn't got anything out of it."

All the same, he hated hanging up his boots. "I loved all the dressing- room banter, and it was pretty upsetting waking up with no dressing-room to go to. I was pretty low." So he formulated a scheme to keep him within the game. "I was always interested in medicine because I was in the medical room so much. I had 12 operations in my career - appendix, feet, ankles, Achilles, knees - and while I was at Everton I did an FA diploma course to be a physiotherapist."

He then went to college to gather some A-levels, and on to Salford University, which he left as a fully qualified podiatrist, specialising in the area between the hip and the big toe. Last year, with the backing of the Professional Footballers' Association, he worked at 10 clubs, screening the youngsters for lower-limb abnormalities. "This year I've travelled to 33 clubs, from Carlisle to Torquay, and I heard last week that I've been given provision to do the whole 92. The PFA fund it, which is magnificent. Some of the lower League clubs are so grateful for the free services of a podiatrist that it's unbelievable." Do the youngsters know that the guy fiddling with their feet has scored the winning goal in a Cup final? "If they don't, I soon tell them."

As for the Premiership clubs, most have their own podiatrists, and even though it would be almost poetically fitting, Whiteside does not want to tread on any toes. "But they mostly look after the first-team players, building insoles for them and so on. I want to concentrate on the kids," he says. Meanwhile, if his podiatry career should run out of puff, he is also a fully qualified FA coach. In several Northern Ireland prisons, he has coached convicted terrorists from both sides of the political divide. Once, Republican inmates threatened his safety, but he won them over on the pitch and then took a question-and-answer session.

"Someone said, `what's it like to score in a Cup final?' Someone else said, `How much money did you make out of football?' And then this fella at the back said, `Do you remember when you and me robbed that post office, Norman?' I couldn't stop laughing. That was my mate, who went to prison aged 17, when I went to the World Cup."

Whiteside's knack with an anecdote serves him well, for he is much in demand as an after-dinner speaker, and also, with fellow ex-United stalwarts Stuart Pearson and Wilf McGuinness, as a meeter-and-greeter at Old Trafford. Sometimes he bumps into Alex Ferguson, who recently told him: "I used to lie awake, son, thinking `what am I going to say to that Whiteside tomorrow?'" Ferguson was referring to his late-night tip-offs that "Stormin" Norman was out on another bender.

"But I was always in first the next morning, and I would always tell him straight what had happened. The media have tried to build up this big thing between me and Fergie, but the truth is we got on well right up to the day he sold me. Right up to this day, in fact. A tabloid offered me pounds 50,000 to slag him off, and others have, but I wouldn't. I have too much respect for the guy." And vice versa, I am sure. For as he limps back to his Jaguar, it strikes me that there is something hugely admirable about the way big Norman Whiteside goes about his business.