Sent to Coventry but Whelan still prospers

Tomorrow Leeds United will be roared on in their attempt to reach the Coca-Cola Cup final by a rival Premiership striker. Glenn Moore found out why
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At some stage during tomorrow's Coca-Cola Cup semi-final, probably as a Leeds United forward shoots for goal, Noel Whelan will leap out of his seat ready to celebrate. Nearby someone will think: 'What's he doing here?' Then he might think, especially if the shot has gone wide: 'Why isn't he out there?' And Whelan just might think the same.

Instead of playing at Elland Road tomorrow for Leeds, his first and home town club, he will be playing today, at Highfield Road, for a Coventry City side eager to maintain Middlesbrough's slide. While Boro have tumbled, Coventry have clawed their way out of the bottom three since Whelan arrived in December. Much of that is due to the 21-year-old's six goals in nine Premiership games.

Those goals have not gone unnoticed in Leeds, especially as Tomas Brolin, whose arrival precipitated Whelan's departure, has hardly been a roaring success. The Swede cannot even gain a place in a team which has managed four goals in six games.

Leaving Leeds hurt Whelan at the time - he was on the brink of tears as he cleared out his locker - but, bolstered by his subsequent success, he can now look back with equanimity.

"It was a wrench to leave. I was leaving mum and dad, friends and family, and the club I had supported as a kid. It took a hard couple of days to get over it but I am settled in now and am enjoying myself. I feel part of the squad for once and I know I will be in the side. It is not a case of having to show what I can do in training all the time to try and get in.

"Big clubs like Leeds are always going to buy players. But it is obviously disappointing when you see they are after another striker. You think: 'That's me down another peg'. It is not very encouraging. I knew when they signed Tomas I would have to get my career on the road with another club. I could not see Tony Yeboah being dropped for me."

So it was off to Coventry, the club that nearly broke Whelan's heart when, as a 12-year-old at Hillsborough, he watched them defeat Leeds in the 1987 FA Cup semi-final.

"Had it been a First Division club I do not think I would have gone. I knew they were down at the bottom but the management here is as good as anywhere."

The "management" is Ron Atkinson and Gordon Strachan. "The first day Gordon walked into this club he told me 'if you ever have the chance to sign Noel Whelan - get him'," Atkinson said after his last goal. "I believe he has as much potential as Alan Shearer at the same age."

Strachan's faith in Whelan is reciprocated by a player who once idolised him, then played alongside. The tutor-pupil relationship is underlined as Strachan comes over to briefly oversee Whelan's interview.

Whelan is personable, lean and tall. For reasons to be explained later, he is wearing a cap as we sit, indoors, in the cafeteria at Coventry's well-appointed training ground. As one of nine new signings, including two this week, he hardly feels a new boy.

"The lads are fantastic and it is great playing in such an attacking team. I have not played in such a side since I was at school. Everyone in front of the back four is an attacking player. You always think you can score a goal."

Given that Coventry's opponents usually feel the same, they need to. When Manchester United rampaged through Highfield Road to win 4-0 in November, one United fan said: "You can tell it is a Ron Atkinson team, the defending's crap."

Liam Daish was signed from Birmingham this week in an attempt to shore up the back four. Had things been different, he and Whelan may have been in opposition tomorrow.

Whelan will still be there, as he was at St Andrew's. "It is a bit strange, being a supporter again. At the Birmingham game I was in the Leeds end and I was chanting and going mad and the fans were like: 'Hang on a minute - what's he doing here?' But they have been brilliant to me, shaking my hand, wishing me all the best."

They may also have reflected that, with Brolin expected to exercise his escape clause at the end of season, Leeds will soon be shopping again. Howard Wilkinson, the manager, has asked Yeboah to name his own partner. The chances are it will be another expensive foreigner. Meanwhile Whelan, arguably Elland Road's best home-produced centre-forward since John Charles, has to settle for watching them.

Whelan is not the only young talent who has struggled to establish himself at Elland Road. Three years ago he was part of the Leeds team which defeated Manchester United home and away to win the FA Youth Cup final.

In the long term it seems the losers were the winners. Eight of the young reds have made it to the first team, five making a real impact in the Premiership - Gary Neville, Nicky Butt, David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Keith Gillespie.

Only Whelan and, recently, Mark Ford have made a similar impression with Leeds. Andy Couzens, Mark Tinkler and Rob Bowman have played first-team football, as did the Auxerre-raised pair, Kevin Sharp and Jamie Forrester, before moving on. Yet in total the winning XI have managed just 76 Premiership starts between them, a third of them by Whelan, plus a host of substitute appearances.

"It is strange when you compare it to Manchester United," Whelan said. "At Leeds a few of the young players have been in for a few games and that is it. I think at Manchester United they gave them a good run. A young player needs 10 or 11 games to get into it. You have to keep confidence in them. If you drop them straight away, their confidence is going to go right down. You have to persist. At Leeds, if you do not do it in a couple of games, that was it, they bring someone else in."

The slow progress of the '93 youth team suggests Wilkinson, who was touted as a potential FA technical director, is poor at developing talent. Yet, to be fair, the Manchester side were exceptional. Few youth teams produce more than one regular senior. The five winners prior to Manchester United's 1992 success produced just three current Premiership regulars: Liverpool's David James (Watford, '89), Ian Walker (Spurs, '90) and Southampton's Neil Heaney (Arsenal '88). Another five are irregular players - Kevin Campbell, Alan Miller, Steve Morrow, David Hillier (all Arsenal '88) and Stuart Nethercott (Spurs '90).

In addition Whelan had not scored for more than a year - 13 full and 15 substitute appearances - when Wilkinson sold him for pounds 2m. He could yet go the way of Aidan Butterworth, Terry Connor and Tommy Wright, all Leeds youth products who began brightly, then faded. Whelan looks like bucking the trend. Perhaps he needed the confidence of a move, and the knowledge that he was wanted. Scoring the winner on his home debut against Everton helped.

Had he not elected, as a youth team player, to represent England, he could now be a full international. His family are Irish and the Republic are scouring the Premiership for young forwards.

"I have Irish blood but I was born in England and see myself as English. End of story." His family did have mixed emotions, though, when he made his full debut for England Under-21s last November. He scored the winner against Ireland.

Whelan regularly returns to Leeds to see family and friends - but he may be more cautious in the future. Taking off his cap, he explains: "We had a game off because of snow and I went out with a few former team-mates. It was quite a merry night and I ended up crashing on the sofa. When I woke up I went to the bathroom, looked in the mirror and thought 'Jeez, I look rough'. Then I thought: 'Where have my eyebrows gone?' They had shaved them all off and cut a big bald patch in my hair. I owe them, big time."

Whelan has a quiet determination which suggests he means it. Coventry play Leeds in the last game of the season. It would be a suitable occasion to extract revenge, especially if a Whelan winner ensures Coventry's safety. Even then, you suspect, there will be a few nervous Leeds players during the post-match celebrations.