The footballer who took a pay cut: why Whitlow opted for a long-term vision

Notts County's player-coach tells Phil Shaw about the deal that let the club recruit while he got on the coaching ladder
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The Independent Football

Now pushing 38 and concentrating on the back-room part of his role as player-coach with Notts County, the unbeaten League Two leaders, Whitlow is either proof of the shallowness of stereotypes or the exception that proves the rule. Either way, the rugged defender did something extraordinary during the summer. He volunteered to take a pay cut.

Despite his self-deprecating manner - he recalls how one manager, Sam Allardyce, ordered him to "Head it, kick it and give it to the ones who can play" - his career includes a championship medal with Leeds United, Wembley visits with Leicester City and Bolton Wanderers plus a treasured goal at Old Trafford. But when he discussed his future with County's new Icelandic manager, Gudjon Thordarson, Whitlow put long-term aspirations before short-term gain and made his unique offer.

The upshot was a two-year deal on reduced terms, enabling the hard-up club to use the money saved to bring in two players, Stacy Long and Jake Sheridan. "It sounds silly, but I'd had a knee operation and realised that if I kept playing Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday, I might end up crippled," says Whitlow. "So I spoke to the gaffer and he gave me the opportunity to do what I want to do, which is to coach. It might take me 18 months to figure it all out. I may end up packing boxes. But I'm going to give it a go.

"We talked about the wage bill and I admitted it wasn't justified for me to stay on what I earned. The club couldn't afford the two players. Gudjon said he wanted me here as long as he was here, so we came to an arrangement. Getting your foot on the ladder in football isn't easy. Thousands would want to do what I'm doing and, until I finish my licences, they may be more qualified. But I'm willing to put the hours in and learn. The lads hate me now that I'm armed with a stopwatch!"

Has anybody - maybe one of his supposedly greedy contemporaries - suggested he was mad? "Yeah," grins Whitlow. "Me missus." He may have suspected she had a point after his debut in charge of Notts' reserves brought an 8-1 drubbing by Derby. "My mate from Bolton, Dean Holdsworth, kindly got a hat-trick. But it was a good lesson in finding a balance between encouragement and criticism."

Whitlow makes a habit of resilience in the face of adversity. It may stem from the way he fought back after falling through a glass cabinet at the age of five, a life-threatening accident which required stitches from one side of his stomach to the other and left him with no spleen.

As a teenager on the brink of Bolton's first team he was ditched by Phil Neal and ended up, disillusioned, working 12-hour shifts cleaning tanks at ICI. Coaxed into playing with friends in a Sunday side - "Me at centre-forward, my dad in goal" - his love of the game was rekindled. Soon he was turning out for Witton Albion in the Northern Premier League, where he came to Howard Wilkinson's attention.

"I played left-back, but the one he really fancied was our right-back, Neil Parsley. He invited us to Sheffield Wednesday and we played on trial in their reserves. When he became manager of Leeds, me and Neil were his first signings." Parsley's promise went unfulfilled. Whitlow's first full season brought the old Second Division title and he featured 10 times in the championship-winning campaign of 1991-92.

After five years at Leicester, where he shared in the launch of the Martin O'Neill era, he returned to Bolton. "I went there and took 'em down," he says with trademark self-mockery, "and then helped 'em back up."

As with his first two clubs, he was in on the beginning of something special at the Reebok Stadium. "The club has gone on to another level since Big Sam came: full of fantastic foreign players, yes, but all pulling together. There were players there who were a privilege to watch in training, let alone play alongside.

"Youri Djorkaeff was probably the cleverest and most talented footballer I've ever seen. Jay-Jay Okocha was incredible, too. Give the ball away to them and it could take forever to get it back. It reminded me of Leeds when we had John Sheridan and then, later, Gordon Strachan and Gary McAllister. Or even Leicester with the young Julian Joachim and the very young Emile Heskey. God, I'm really showing my age now."

Two years ago he switched to Sheffield United, whose manager, Neil Warnock, once took County into the top flight. Whitlow stayed one season. "I was travelling a lot but not playing regularly. I filled in occasionally, directing traffic at the back, but there were better players with younger legs. Simple as that."

Moving to Nottingham's lesser lights - a status the League's oldest club may swap with Forest if current trends continue - he confesses he was "garbage" for three months. "It took me that long to adjust to this level. My easiest game was against Middlesbrough in the FA Cup; I knew the runs Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink would make. In our division, forwards are unpredictable. Results were bad. As the elder statesman, and one who's always been a 'we' person, rather than an 'I', I felt responsible."

His form improved and County rose to finish sixth from bottom. Now, the impact made by Thordarson, the former Iceland coach who previously managed Stoke and Barnsley, means they defend one of only two unbeaten records in the Football League at Shrewsbury today. Whitlow jokes that the transformation is due to his semi-retirement, adding, less frivolously, that only a "major emergency" will get him playing again. The real reason, he ventures, can be summed up in one word.

"Confidence. From the top of the league to the bottom, it's crucial in football. Once you're chasing, it becomes 10 times harder to get that self-belief. Every team has terrific athletes now, whatever the division, and judging by the likes of Wrexham, Northampton, Darlington and Chester, there's some good football being played in League Two.

"But the mental side is massive. The gaffer has also worked hard on organisation and fitness, and, of course, we've got some excellent players, from the experienced ones such as the captain, Rob Ullathorne, to the younger guys like Stacy, Jake, Julian Baudet and Kelvin Wilson. The striking thing, though, has been the determination not to get beaten."

Whitlow hopes his know-how can prove a positive influence on County's youthful squad, much as the muscular defender Noel Blake helped the "quiet lad" who left non-League for Leeds. "Football is a roller-coaster," he reflects. "When things are going well, you're right up there. When you lose, or get injured, you're really down. There's no middle way.

"I've been very lucky. Promotion, relegation, cup finals and play-offs - it has never been boring. Let's hope that continues this season."

The County set: Whitlow assesses four managers with Meadow Lane connections

* HOWARD WILKINSON (County manager, 1982-83)

Took me to Leeds so I have a lot to thank him for. A thorough planner, probably 10 years ahead of his time in that respect. Then he got a stern, strange image - our media build you up only to knock you down. He's back here as non-executive director.

* MARTIN O'NEILL (County player, 1983-84)

Kicked every ball, every game from the touchline at Leicester. Everyone wanted to play for him, even though he could flog you in training. Fingers crossed that his wife's health improves and he comes back into a big Premiership job.

* SAM ALLARDYCE (County manager, 1997-99)

Of all my managers, Sam's the one I look up to most. A brilliant man-manager. When you played well for him at Bolton he gave you a pat on the back. If not, you got a kick up the jacksie. I'd love to see him given a go at managing England.

* NEIL WARNOCK (County manager, 1989-93)

Under pressure at the start of the season, but Sheffield United have won seven out of eight. Gets criticised for being abrupt, and there's plenty in the game that think he's horrible. But I judge people as I find them, and he was fantastic with me.

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