Saluting the Sarge – INTERVIEW

In the run-up to the 2003/4 season, Great Escape hero and iconic defender Justin Whittle invited Amber Nectar into his house to discuss Army life, oversized internal organs and the merits of Japanese football boots…

Amber Nectar: How did you go from being a Royal Engineer to being a professional footballer?

Justin Whittle
: They always say that in the press, former Royal Engineer, but I wasn’t a Royal Engineer! I joined the Royal Army Pay Corps, I dealt with the wages for soldiers, and I was attached to the Royal Engineers.

AN: So you never built any Bailey bridges?

JW: Haha, no, but the press always list me as a Royal Engineer, I always put them right but I guess it sounds better than sat behind a desk paying out wages.

AN: So how did you get spotted?

JW: I was playing for the Army in Germany, and we had a guest of honour, Pat Crerand, and he recommended me and another lad Gary Holt, to Lou Macari, who was manager of Celtic at the time. They took us on trial and took us to Canada with their first team. I trained with them there and they asked me to go to Scotland, and then offered a contract.

Because I was signed up to the Army I was supposed to give a year’s notice to leave, but a Major in the pay corps called John Nixon had some influence, and he arranged for the Army to release me for free.

I joined the army at 21 and left at 23, when I was younger I’d had trials for Chesterfield and Derby, but I didn’t make it so worked on roads as a shutter joiner before going in the Army.

AN: What sort of standard is Army football, Conference standard?

JW: Yeah, easily, a lot of YTS players that don’t make it at clubs join the Army. Certain regiments do certain sports, so I got posted to 28 Engineer Regiment, all the best footballers got sent to that regiment and they had one of the best teams in the British Army.

AN: Macari was sacked at Celtic…

JW: Yeah, and he took Gary Holt and me to Stoke as soon as he got that job, Gary didn’t like it and he moved to Kilmarnock, and I stayed with Stoke. Macari had to quit because of an ongoing case with Celtic and couldn’t stay at Stoke. Macari was big on fitness and a lot of players didn’t like that, but me, that’s my thing.

AN: So your next manager was Chris Kamara…

JW: His coaching is very good to be fair, but he came to a struggling team and brought in a lot of loan players, and if we didn’t win a game he’d change it all and there was too many faces at the club too soon, but overall he was a good manager but he didn’t get long enough to make it work. Brian Little took over and I was in and out of the team, not a first choice. They offered me a new contract that I was more than happy to sign but before I did they said Warren Joyce has rang and said he wanted me at Hull City. I looked at the league table and thought ‘it’ll be a tough one that one’ but I’ve always been a team player, someone who’d help out.

AN: How did Warren sell the move to you?

JW: Lou Macari recommended me to Warren Joyce at a reserve game, Lou helped me again, though I didn’t know that at the time. Warren had just taken over, it was a difficult job for him to get players to go to Hull, everyone knew about the Lloyd and Hateley thing and it wasn’t looking good, but Warren was keen, he wanted to bring in players and build a team good enough to stay up and all credit to him he did it.

AN: Did it occur to you that we might go down and you’d be playing Conference football, after being offered a new deal at Stoke?

JW: To be fair, it never made me bat an eyelid, I like to be positive, and I didn’t think we’d go down and all the new players had a similar mentality and we outfought most teams because we were desperate to stay up.

AN: You didn’t have many poor games, Shrewsbury away is the only one that springs to mind…

JW: I remember that game, we were winning and Andy Oakes was in goal, it was my fault for their first goal, I went to chest it down and gave it straight to their player who banged it in!

Was Joyce dispensed with too quickly?

JW: Yeah, he brought most players in on free transfers and hadn’t spent anything, overall I don’t think he was given enough time. That second season there was a lot of expectation because we’d brought new players in, but we were still around mid-table.

AN: Nick Buchanan said that based on the form for the second half of the Great Escape season that we should have gone up the year after, was that unrealistic?

JW: The atmosphere…they got carried away and put pressure on Warren Joyce to get promoted that season and we never, and decided we needed a more high profile manager which I thought was sad as Warren didn‘t do anything wrong so as to deserve to lose his job, he was a young manager, very keen, and he looked after the players he had.

AN: When Little came in, many thought he’d ship you out as he had at Stoke.

JW: Well, he got criticised in Stoke for letting me go, and I think he knew that he’d made a mistake selling me, so I thought I would stay, people I still knew in Stoke said he wouldn’t want to make that mistake again.

AN: Did you feel you had a point to prove?

JW: No, not really, at Stoke I’d always done well for him, always gave 100%, and it was my choice to leave Stoke, I could have stayed if I wanted to, I just thought I had more chance of regular football at Hull City, I don’t think that it was he wanted rid of me, that he didn’t want me at Stoke.

AN: When the club went into administration, were the players fully aware of what was going on or where they insulated against it?

JW: The players were all fighters and not the sort to moan if they weren’t paid that week, we all just focused on football. It kept us all together all that, even though we weren’t getting paid, there was a lot of jokes and a good spirit and it made us a better team, and we made the play offs, I think it did bond us together.

AN: That season, the news about Chesterfield’s fairly lenient punishment seemed to deflate the team a bit, it showed in the performance at Southend…

JW: Yeah, we thought that if Chesterfield had the kind of point deduction being mentioned then we could catch them, we were on such a good run, and when they only got, 7 points was it, then yeah it affected us, we found out on the way to Southend and it deflated us and really we were lucky to get a point [a point that guaranteed a play off spot]. We really wanted to get promoted without the need for the play offs and we made such an effort in those final games that it told in the play offs, especially away at Orient.

AN: What for you was the more satisfying, the staving off relegation or the run to the play offs?

JW: Err, I don’t know, I enjoyed both, with avoiding relegation in the end we did it with ease, come March and April we were quite comfortable, with the play offs, there was a great buzz to it that carried on to the end of the season so maybe the play offs.

AN: Did Brian Little dismantle that team a bit too quickly?

JW: Yeah, I think, new chairman, new ideas, more money, the manager thought ‘right, I can buy the exact team I want here’ and it was too much, too many players, 13 I think, but having said that we started OK and even when he left we were in the play off positions. Towards the end of the season we went through a sticky patch and we couldn’t win or get that boost we needed to push us upwards. When we needed it most there was a slump in performance.

You couldn’t blame it on injuries, maybe we weren’t focused as a team, as individuals, but not as a team, and when you get in a rut where you’re not getting wins and it affects everyone, and each game it goes on it gets harder and harder, and eventually it’ll cost the manager his job. It was unfortunate, Brian Little had done very well the year before, maybe he should have been given till the end of the year but y’know, football’s different and time is of the essence, many managers don’t have the time needed.

AN: Molby came in, the relationship between him and the players appeared to sour very quickly and he would berate the players publicly…

JW: The players didn’t like it, and it was part of his downfall. To have a go at players in the paper, it doesn’t help, if we didn’t play well he’d have a go at us and the performance was worse the next time, and it ended up being the manager on his own and the players on their own, there were inexperienced players and young players who needed encouragement and help. Some players were mentally strong enough to take the criticism but others hadn’t had many managers before and didn’t know how to react to the criticism, and that’s one of the main reasons he went.

Players generally don’t like to see managers sacked but something needed to be done, we couldn’t go on the way we had been and it was relegation form, we looked like we wouldn’t win another game and the way the manager was with the players, the players reacted to the manager and I think the chairman was definitely right to step in and do something at that time, because everything was pointing towards a big difference between the staff and the players, and though the players want to do their best for whatever manager they’ve got but eventually all the criticism and negativity affected the way they went about being a professional footballer.

AN: We went on a great run when he was sacked, it was as if a weight was lifted from the players shoulders…

JW: It’s ironic that when you change something you get a reaction from the players and fans, positivity creates its own greatness I think, it was a horrible period and the change in manager really lifted things and optimism came back, and as a player you think ‘hold on, we’re not as bad as we have been’ and everyone gets a new belief and some can look like totally new players, so it was a big bonus that season to have a change in manager.

AN: So how does Peter Taylor compare to
Little and Molby?

JW: Brian Little is similar in his coaching, in his ideas and professionalism, Brian Little isn’t as aggressive as Peter Taylor but they are similar in the way they coach and come across. I don’t think the players always gave Brian Little 100%, we had some very good players who tended to underachieve, a lot of people thought he was soft on the players and he is a very nice person but the players were to blame for the failures, Peter Taylor is much more forceful, he’ll shout and bawl and let you know if he’s not happy.

AN: How do you feel if other players aren’t giving 100%?

JW: Everyone is different, not everyone can be the same as me, my emphasis is on giving total effort and working hard, whereas some are more technically gifted but never seem to give 100%.

AN: So, speaking of Stuart Green, how did the squad react when he cleared off to Carlisle?

JW: Footballers just get on with it really, these things happen, if he’s in our team we back, if he’s in another team we kick him. Some people think the grass is greener on the other side and young players think if they just move to another club everything will be nice and work out. It never worked out that way for him and it’s a big learning experience for him. Some players need a kick up the backside, some need a cuddle, he tried his luck at Carlisle and it didn’t work there so he needed to come back and work hard and he’s done that and I think he’s mentally stronger now.

AN: How has the club changed since Adam Pearson took over?

JW: It’s changed tenfold since he came in, from playing at a ground that you couldn’t always get into to playing at a stadium that other clubs in the division are in awe of, and the fans have helped him, he’s come in and invested and seen how committed the fans have been, even when we weren’t doing so well, it’s a massive turnaround, from not getting paid to the facilities we have now, which every professional club would want, and he’s put everything in place off the field, and it’s time to achieve things on the pitch now.

AN: How far is it fair for fans to criticise?

JW: I’d say players don’t mind criticism as long as it’s the right kind of criticism, they know if they’ve had a bad game, players are very critical of themselves. Younger plays especially are very critical of themselves and it can weigh them down if they’re not performing so if fans have a go at younger players it can affect them. More experienced players get used to it, you can win 10-0 and still get criticised, we don’t say it’s fair we don’t say it’s unfair. No one goes out to play badly, sometimes it might not go right, but if you put the effort in the supporters will get behind you.

AN: Several managers have come in, dropped you, and then put you back in the team after a while…

JW: This division isn’t about technical ability, it’s physical, the further up the leagues you get the more technical it is and I think managers come in and think ‘he’s technically as good as others’ and try to get a good technical team, if a player is better than me then fair enough he deserves to get in the team but if I’m doing well then I should stay in the team.

This club has done better when we’ve had 11 grafters and Peter Taylor looks for 100% effort AND technical ability, but some teams, like Lincoln, aren’t technically good but they are good fighters and keep getting in the play offs, hard work and dedication got us out the relegation mire. I want to play football and be part of the team but I always want the team to do well, I’ll bide my time and I’ll get my chance.

AN: How long do you see yourself carrying on for?

JW: I don’t know, I’m 33 now and I can see myself playing till I’m at least 35, and I hope that’ll be with Hull City, but we’ll see what the managers thing. I’ll play until my engine wears out.

AN: Is coaching or management an option you’d consider?

JW: I like coaching the kids, but I don’t think I’d like to go into management, I do get a lot of enjoyment from coaching kids, I’m doing a coaching course now but I’ve not passed it yet.

AN: Who do you think your best defensive partnership has been with?

JW: When I first came and played with a three with Mark Greaves and Mike Edwards, that was the best three in a 3-5-2 formation I’ve played with. In a two, I’ve liked playing with Ian Goodison and with John Anderson, whoever I’ve played with I’ve always enjoyed it. With Ian Goodison, he was very calm and very assured, and he was quick when he wanted to be.

AN: Why, when you’re captain, do you use elastoplasts instead of a captain’s armband?

JW: Hehe, because my arms not big enough and it falls off, hehe, the kit man was so tight he wouldn’t get me a proper one, I had one that was too tight and another that was too big and fell off, so…

AN: The Hull Daily Mail’s John Fieldhouse always refers to you as being ‘big hearted’ and ‘throwing down a gauntlet’, do you have abnormally large internal organs and a large collection of iron gloves?

JW: Hahaha, my wife sometimes thinks it’s not big enough. Maybe John Fieldhouse thinks I play in an iron glove, haha.

AN: You sometimes seem the only player willing to talk to him…

JW: Well, some players take what he says to heart if he’s been critical and they get the hump, but I realise that he’s just doing his job. Everything has to go through the manager with Peter Taylor, he’s been around the press a long time, so it’s always vetted with him.

AN: If you could improve any aspect of your game it would be…

JW: Passing.

We won’t hear it said!

JW: Haha. Defending has always been my main attribute, but my passing…

AN: Why do you wear Mizuno boots?

JW: I have bad feet in that I get blisters with a four studded boot, but Mizuno have six studs at the front and I don’t get blisters in them. A guy came in with loads of different boots and I liked Mizuno boots because of the studs but they stopped making them last year with the six studs so I’ve been wearing Puma lately, but I keep pestering Mizuno to make them again.
Some players have good agents and get free boots so wear whatever their agent tells them to wear. Every player got given four pairs of Adidas boots this year from the PFA deal but I’ve not seen many of the lads wear them.

AN: Under Taylor do you see yourself as a squad player?

JW: No, I always like to be a first team player, but if the team is doing well then I’m happy. We’ve got a lot of players at the minute, and defenders, look at Greg Strong, he can’t even get a reserve game. I’m happy at Hull City but I understand some may want to move on. Everyone knows they have to work hard to get into the team and to get promotion.

AN: How do you see us doing in 2003-04?

JW: Everything is ready, we’ve got an injury to a key player in Andy Dawson, he’s was very good at Scunthorpe, he’s assured and a good passer but we have enough cover. We’ve experimented in pre-season with a few different formations, most players now can play most formations now, though I think Taylor will favour 4-4-2 this year. We’ve not had a great start to a season in a while now so we’ll be looking to start well this year and put some consecutive wins together. There’s some strong teams in this division who should challenge us, Northampton for example, they’ve spent money, but we’ll see.

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