Whelan leans on his past

A distinguished Liverpool old boy is trying to bring the Anfield touch to Endsleigh League country in deepest Essex. He spoke to Glenn Moore
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The Independent Online
Ronnie Whelan was supposed to be answering the questions, but first he had one to ask: "How long will this take?"

"Twenty minutes?" I ventured and the new manager of Southend United looked pained. "We'll see if we can do it quicker."

It was Friday afternoon, Arsenal, with Dennis Bergkamp and the England captain, were coming to town that evening, and Anfield's latest managerial graduate was realising, for the unmpteenth time, just what he had taken on.

"There is a lot more to management than I thought," he said from behind a large and full desk. "I did not realise there would be so much paperwork and so many people to see and talk to.

"The hours are a bit different too. After training I have to come back here and sort letters out, sign things. But I'll get used to it, I am enjoying it so far."

The task is not made any easier by the fact that Whelan, for so long a key component of the Liverpool midfield, is still playing. Last season, according to regular Roots Hall observers, Southend were a "different class" whenever he was on the field which suggests it would be foolhardy for the club's sixth manager in four seasons to rush into retirement.

"I am looking to play as much as I can, unless someone comes along who can do a better job," he added.

Unlike some young managers Whelan, 35 next month, was not desperate to get onto the merry-go-round at the first opportunity. He came to Essex in October last season simply to play and, when Southend asked him to to manage after Steve Thompson left for Notts County in the summer, he was not sure.

But, with the proviso that Theo Foley, the man who guided George Graham's first steps in management, stayed on as assistant, he agreed.

Foley takes the bulk of training but Whelan is aware the buck stops with him. "One of the things I will find hardest is dealing with players who are out of the team. I have been playing alongside them for seven months, now I am having to step back a bit. I have to drop people, but I can't let that worry me unduly, it has got to be done."

Whelan's outlook has inevitably been shaped by the 15 years he spent at Anfield where he progressed from being a homesick teenager to a player of international repute.

"My biggest influence has to be Bob Paisley, partly as he was my first manager. He just went about his job quietly and very, very effectively, he was never in the limelight.

"If the team did well he did not take any of the glory - Kenny [Dalglish] was like that as well, and that is what will happen here. If the players do well they will take all the praise."

Very Liverpool, just the thing Roy Evans, the current manager, says all the time. Evans was the manager who released him - they disagreed over a new contract, Whelan wanted two years, Evans offered one - but there appears no bitterness. Whelan met Evans and Tom Saunders, an influential Anfield figure, on holiday this summer and both were quick to offer their help.

"I think Liverpool are getting back to what they were. The people there now all know how the club works, they will get it back."

After a decade of almost unbroken glory things began to wrong for Liverpool - and Whelan - under Graeme Souness. Whelan, bedevilled by injury, was even dropped and transfer-listed.

"It is difficult to blame individuals but it did not get any better when Kenny left. They brought in Graeme and things did not go according to plan. He sold players but did not get better players in. I do not think Liverpool dropped much, other teams came up to their level. Liverpool had always paid the best wages and bought the best players, but then the likes of Manchester United did."

Stan Collymore's recent arrival, for pounds 8.5m, at Anfield suggests the tide may be turning back. Collymore is a former Southend player and Whelan thinks he will flourish at Anfield.

"I do not know how they will play him, [Robbie] Fowler and Rushie - but I am sure they will sort something out, he will do well. You see stories in the papers, when he was at Forest, and you wonder 'what's he like?' But I have not heard a bad word about him here. His move shows our players what can happen - we picked him up from Crystal Palace reserves."

But, oh, the fee. "Eight million" says Whelan, almost in awe. "You could build a great team to get out of this division with that - but even then you would have nothing left to survive in the Premier."

The gap between the likes of Liverpool and Southend is getting bigger all the time. For this season Whelan is just seeking consolidation and stability. But, even for a club with limited resources, a 9,000 capacity ground and neglible tradition - his office is filled with dubious looking trophies - there are dreams.

"Reading and Barnsley have shown what is possible. And, though I see kids walking around town with West Ham shirts we have a hard core of four or five thousand fans. They are just as fanatical as Liverpool's. Liverpool may have had more fans but they came from all over, these are Southend people and this is their club."

Keen they may be, but Southend is not a footballing hotbed. Its location makes it difficult to bring players in - Mike Lapper, an American international, is the only likely summer recruit - and the combination of beach, pier and Radio One Roadshow is hardly conducive to getting in the mood for Saturday's First Division kick-off.

With that in mind Whelan and Foley took the team to Dublin last week for matches at Bohemians (his brothers' old club) and St Patrick's Athletic (his father's), and some team-bonding over a drop of the dark stuff.

It was a chance for Whelan to instill a football philosophy which is straight out of the Anfield playbook. "I will try to play football, to do things properly, but if it does not go right you have to try something else. If that means getting a big centre-forward and putting it up to him... but I hope it does not come to that.

"But, if I see someone hitting a 50-60 yard ball over the centre-back's head for our centre-forward running on, that won't be classed long ball by me, that will be a great pass. Liverpool played a lot of long balls, if you play them in the right place they can be very effective. But I don't mean just smashing it in the air and fighting for things, I would not want that - it would mean I would not get a kick myself.

"It is frustrating at times because you expect the players here to do things that you have got used to over the years - but you have to adapt and not get uptight when you can see a pass and they can't. Hopefully you can instill a bit of that.

"They will see that tonight with Arsenal. We will be able to run as fast but they will be able to do things quicker. Liverpool were so quick, especially Kenny. As the ball was coming down he could see what was on before he got it at his feet."

You could talk all day about the likes of Dalglish but Whelan still had much to do. We had had two telephone calls and one interruption and we had gone well past the 20 minutes. Time to let him go.

That night Arsenal were quicker, in thought and deed, and won 3-1. But there were patches of play by Southend that had Arsenal chasing and the crowd purring. Neat one-touch passing, give and go, the Anfield way. At the hub of every decent Southend move was Whelan.

At other times he was cajoling, directing, or smiling. It will be a long season, beginning at Portsmouth on Saturday, but he is up for it.

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