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.