Monday, June 18, 2007

Big Norman , thank you - byebyebadman

On June 17th it was twenty-five years to the very day. In the Estadio La Romareda in Zaragoza, Spain, Northern Ireland and Yugoslavia kicked off in the opening round of the 1982 World Cup. The game was a desperate nil-nil draw in front of a half-full stadium containing scores of local Spanish soldiers let in for free. It would be one of the best forgotten games in the history of the World Cup, but for one fact. The Northern Ireland number sixteen, at seventeen years and forty-one days old, had become the youngest player ever to play in the World Cup.

Norman Whiteside exploded into the public consciousness that summer with a string of outstanding performances to help propel Northern Ireland to within a game of the semi-finals. When he returned to Manchester United the following season records tumbled at his feet as if the words ‘youngest ever’ were destined to append his name. He became the youngest ever man to play in the League Cup Final, the youngest ever player to score (courtesy of Cruyff-turning one Alan Hansen) in the League Cup Final in a defeat to Liverpool, the youngest player to score in the FA Cup Final as United overcame Brighton and the youngest player to score for Northern Ireland.

Adulation followed along with inevitable George Best comparisons that Whiteside rightly dismissed. Modest to a fault he would not countenance comparison with anyone in the game past or present, as proved by his recent appearance at the parade of legends in he Cup Final at Wembley. In an interview he questioned his right to be on the pitch in such illustrious company, which is utterly ridiculous – asides from his efforts as a precocious teenager, he also scored the winning goal in the 1985 FA Cup Final. No star can continue to ascend at such a trajectory though, and the fall was rapid.

The legendary drinking culture at Old Trafford in which Norman was ensconced was identified by the incoming Alex Ferguson as a major factor in keeping United from the title and he set out to eradicate it. Whiteside began to fall out of favour but ultimately it was a growing list of injuries that prompted his controversial transfer to Everton in 1988. In three years at Goodison Park he managed only twenty-nine appearances and after a thirteenth knee operation in 1991 the surgeons told him his career was over at twenty-six.

Prior to the great influx of money into English football and having jettisoned education for the game this was a nightmare scenario. To his eternal credit he did not wallow in self-pity, trade off his considerable fame or drink himself into oblivion. He went back to school. His lengthy spells in the treatment room had awakened an interest in podiatry, but with no qualifications he had to start on the bottom rung of the ladder – GCSE’s, going back to study with children half his age, raising his hand in class to answer basic questions on physics and biology. He swallowed his pride and worked his way through the system. A levels followed by stints at Salford and Manchester Universities would eventually earn him a BSc Honours in Podiatry at the age of 32. Now working in association with the PFA, he has been a practising podiatrist for longer than he was a professional footballer.

According to the club’s official website, Norman Whiteside is not a Manchester United legend, which is based on either four hundred appearances or more or around one hundred goals plus. Yet there are some of us of a certain vintage for whom Norman means everything – more than the trinity of Best, Law and Charlton, more than even Edwards, Robson, Cantona or Keane. Why? Because he reminds us of a certain point in our lives, of our youth? Because he represents something the game has lost? Partly yes, but for me there is an added frisson. I feel like I owe him.

I can trace a line back through all the experiences I have had with football to a definitive moment on 18th May 1985. Incredible times for English football, just one week after the Bradford Fire and eleven days prior to Heysel. United are down to ten-men in extra-time of the FA Cup Final against a great Everton team. Whiteside picks the ball up on the right wing, cuts infield, jinks, feints and then curls a glorious shot around Van den Hauwe and Southall to secure the unlikeliest victory. Ron Atkinson is jumping around looking like an ecstatic second-hand car salesman who has just sold a troublesome Ford Escort. Big Norman, looking exhausted, is mobbed by his team, unknowingly having hit the peak of his career at barely twenty years old. With that act of simple heroism it is there, right there, that I fell in love with football forever.

The football sociologist John Williams reasons that the game is so popular because its simplicity and natural balance of skill and physical commitment allows a freedom for individual expression and moments of heroic endeavour. Football will endure because there will always be the game, there will always be players and it will always provide heroes. Every impressionable youth will have their Norman Whiteside.


offsideinantibes said...

"with no qualifications he had to start on the bottom rung of the ladder – GCSE’s, going back to study with children half his age, raising his hand in class to answer basic questions on physics and biology"

Whatever his achievements on the pitch, that is really impressive.

From 82, I remember the Spain - Northern Ireland game very clearly. But I don't think I fully understood what a shock it was) And of course, their game against France (4-2, I think), in which Alain Giresse (who is at least 5'6") scored a header...

Nice one, and thanks for the memories, Badman.

andrewm said...

Never really saw him play myself, but I've heard the stories, and as the scoundrel offside says he's done well for himself outside the game.

So - how good was he then?

mimi said...

how's the kitten, andrewm?
Byebye, this outwith my realms of knowledge, but expands my readings of football stuff. Thanks.

andrewm said...

mimi, he scratched my face today. I'm trying to convince myself it was an accident. Like the time I broke offy's knees with an iron bar and kept him imprisoned in my flat for six months. Well, not really like that come to think of it.

mimi said...

Aw look, andrew, my monsters rip shreds of skin off my arms, regularly. They hate if I spend my time writing and not paying them attention. I'v found it handy to get Offside to send some of his fish pictures. It distracts the little fiends. They then sit on lap watching the screen pawing at fish. Rather than rendering me a bleeding wreck.

pipita said...

Nice one byebye. Being an Everton fan I'll never be able to forget Whiteside's cup final goal of 85 whcih prevented the toffees from achieving a much deserved treble. Fantastic goal it was too, have to admit. Actually saw him play for Everton later on. Think this was around 1989-90. His pace was not the same and he seemed a bit overwight as well, but still did a pretty decent job in those few matches he played. Cheers

guitougoal said...

I remember Norman Whiteside,it's a great story.
"Prior to the influx of money in football....".Football once was a sport, players used to play for their clubs now they are playing for their bank account. .Somewhere along the line business got in the act, but it's good to remember the great one like Whiteside.And it's true , the simplicity of the game makes it beautiful.

DoctorShoot said...

talking about the great doctors of the foot:
Stan Collymore's scissor kick goal (circa late 2000?), whilst I was downing a couple of quick pints of guiness in a pub near bristol, was such an eye whacker. the whole pub went up with a roar.
realising I was a stranded aussie the barmen said to me:
"thats what footballs about lad" and he bought me my next pint free.

cheers stan.

file said...

very nice badman, know exactly what you mean even tho I didn't really know the full history of the Norman Conquests

it's true, some folk who reach the top echilons of sport have the characteristics and talent to have acheived in any walk but it's a special man who'll bounce back with such ability, says a lot for him as a bloke

and says a lot for the badman that we should be celebrating this fine and rare story, go bbb

bluedaddy said...

Byebye, thanks for this. I've been on my hols and this is a nice piece to come back to.

I think it is possible to say that the likes of Giggs and Rooney and Becks owe Big Norm a nod of thanks. Whiteside was the proof that the 'old lag' atmosphere is no place for a young starlet. I wonder if Norm may have avoided some of his recurrent injuries in a more physiologically enlightened time in Man U's history?

Big Ron and Robbo and the like may have been happy with the odd FA cup and freedom to drink themselves into a stupor before and after games, but that culture almost cost them Fergie, as it took him a while to take charge at OT and bring in some real professionalism. I wonder if any of these old lags ever reflect on how they let some of their less experienced team mates down.

Whiteside was a fantastic player. He had brilliant balance for a tall, big man and the super confidence of youth (Viduka crossed with Rooney is probably a good description for our younger readers). He was pretty fiery, though not as loose a cannon as Rooney, and never afraid to use his strength in the tackle. It would be interesting to see him in today's football, as his lack of pace would force him to be all guile and power and positioning.

As offside says, you have to remind yourself what an incredible achievement WC 82 was, personally for Norm, and for NI. I always think of all those burnt red Irishmen toiling in the heat.

And his determined history since his retirement is as much of a lesson as his lack of control with the booze.

byebyebadman said...

Thanks all for some very kind comments.

andrewm - bluedaddy has described how good he was pretty well before me. His ability to produce his best when it mattered most, particularly at such a young age, also marks him out.

Whilst not quite as into his drinking as his good friend Paul McGrath there's no doubt his fondness for a drop hindered his recovery from injuries. Ferguson claims in his book that his persistent injury problems forced him to drink out of depression, so it seems like a very viscious cycle to be in. However the way he rebuilt his life after his career was over is inspirational, particularly when it was easier and inviting to go down the path of self destruction.

If he were around today I think he'd survive as he was never reliant on pace anyway, which injuries prior to turning pro stripped him of. To quote Ferguson again he was a yard of pace away from being one of the best players in British history. I would however not like to imagine what kind of media glare and intrusion would befall a player these days who acheived everything Norman had by the age of 20.

MotM said...

Having had little time over the last week, my heart sank a bit when I saw a piece on Norman as he was never one of my favourite players (and, as Pipita points out, he scored that goal that cost Everton a treble). But Badman does such a fine job that I found myself warming to Norman.

I didn't care for him as I felt he was a bit of a product of the Man Utd hype machine and still think he was a bit over-rated: a Lee Sharpe sized talent, not a Ryan Giggs sized talent. At Everton, it was plain that he did not respect his body and that was catching up with him - knowing what I know now about the stress that must have been placed on his teenage frame, I can forgive that.

I knew he had taken up some form of physio, but I'd never put it together in terms of the journey that would entail - as offside says, that's very impressive.

Badman - like the best writing, you've made me change my mind to a more generous setting. I thank you for that.

Tweet it, digg it