When Peter Taylor finally managed to ship out Justin Whittle, succeeding where Brian Little and Jan Molby had failed, amid all the supporter eulogising, one nay-sayer posted a single-line e-mail on the Tiger-chat mailing list: “In the kingdom of the blind man, the one-eyed man is king”.
The angry responses to this posting were predictable, brutal and warranted. But on further reflection, perhaps said poster was making some sort of misguided, legitimate point, while being very, very wrong, obviously.
Hull City fans don’t have a great history to fall back on. No tales of Wembley, no succession of near misses in getting into the top tier of English football, no international superstars slumming it with us at the peak of their powers, not even a national folk hero, a Ronnie Radford, who Football Focus can drag out for the obligatory interview on the weekend of the FA Cup’s third round. Beyond Raich, Waggy and Chillo, we haven’t had much, and fans who can remember the holy trinity in their prime tend to need their food mashing to a pulp before they can eat it.
‘The Kingdom of the Blind Man’ should be written on the side of the KC in massive neon letters. Bona fide football heroes tend not to bother with Hull City. We have to make do with what we get.
Justin Whittle arrived from Stoke City for £50,000 in November 1998. His career had seen him join Celtic after a spell in the army. He never got as far as the Bhoys’ first team, but had established himself at Stoke and was a firm favourite with the fans. A falling out with Brian Little alerted Warren Joyce to his availability, and Whittle became the first of our new manager’s signings. Angry Stoke fans made their feelings known with various messages to City’s fanzines and message boards.
When Whittle joined the Tigers, we were six points adrift of what is now known as League Two. You all know what happened next, and you should all know that our dramatic and unlikely avoidance of what would have been a catastrophic relegation was largely thanks to the spine of the team being Whittle and Gary Brabin. But while Brabin struggled to maintain his popularity in a post-Great Escape environment – his ego grew and he seemed to be blind to his limitations, something you could never accuse Justin of – Justin Whittle’s standing among City fans went from strength to strength. Some of his performances in the Great Escape had set the bar at a seemingly unrealistic level – his repelling of everything top-of-the-league Brentford threw at him in a 2-0 away win being Maldiniesque – but the Sarge very rarely disappointed throughout the remainder of his Hull City career.
Other than his first and his last, every season Whittle spent with City started with great expectations and ended with huge disappointment. City looked nailed on for promotion in the 1999/2000 season, but never really got out of second gear, all of which culminated in the sacking of Warren Joyce as the season petered out. Justin was one of the few to have carried on where he’d left off in the Great Escape season, but saved his worst game of the season, and possibly his whole City career, for a 3-0 home defeat by Hartlepool in the final game of the season, a game which just happened to be Brian Little’s first in charge of the Tigers.
Thankfully, Justin managed to stay on the right side of his former nemesis for the 2000/2001 season, and after the club’s pretty horrible start, and a too-close-for-comfort flirt with extinction, Adam Pearson’s heroic arrival after the Buchliffe regime had stripped us of all they could saw a late charge to the play-offs. Justin was a key figure in this run, as he enjoyed what was probably his best spell for the Tigers. His partnership with Ian Goodison blossomed into City’s best since Jobson and Skipper were in their prime. Despite failure in the play-off semis, things were looking up for City and Justin. We just didn’t need newly cash-rich manager Little to upset the apple cart too much with his summer signings…
Predictably, things didn’t bode well for Justin at the start of the 2001/2002 season. Little moved to bring in centre-back Nicky Mohan during the summer, along with Grimsby’s Matt Bloomer and Stoke’s utility ‘defender’ Ben Petty. The first-choice centre-back partnership that season looked likely to be Goodison and Mohan, leaving Justin to battle with Bloomer and Petty for third-choice status. Fortunately for Justin, an injury to Andy Holt saw Goodison start the season at left-back, and then Mohan’s utter ineptitude meant that the Sarge was an immovable object from the heart of the Tigers’ defence and the Goodison/Whittle partnership was restored, one of the few plus points in another disappointing season which would eventually see Little lose his job.
2002-2003 started with a familiar feel. A new manager (Molby), favourites for promotion, new signings aplenty, a poor start and once again, Justin relegated to third-choice centre-back, this time behind new captain Greg Strong and John Anderson. It was gratifying to see the arrogant Jan Molby eat humble pie (any pun would be too easy there) over Justin after City‘s horrible start to the season. Suspension and injury saw the abysmal Greg Strong have his City career cut mercifully short after three games and Molby was forced to turn to Justin to shore up his leaky, nervy defence. Molby went and Taylor arrived. Sadly, Marc Joseph followed. Whittle played out most of the rest of the season as a first-choice defender, but ultimately Taylor would be one manager too far for Justin to please.
Justin’s final season with City was blighted by injury (and Marc Joseph), but he still played a big part in our promotion. Taylor’s preferred centre-back partnership was Joseph and Damien Delaney, but Taylor’s problem was that when Joseph was injured, Whittle was putting in some of his finest performances. Whittle’s stock grew in his absence, with Joseph putting in a handful of comically bad performances. The early-season 3-1 defeat at Huddersfield, which had seen the in-form Sarge dropped for Joseph, saw the boo-boys come out in force, but also seemed to strengthen the ever-stubborn Taylor’s resolve to stick with Joseph – a player Taylor claimed would one day be good enough to play in the Premiership, who spent last season starring for Blackpool’s reserves. Injuries to both Whittle and Joseph meant that Taylor didn’t have to make the choice between the two very often, but it was a 15-match unbeaten run, during which Whittle was at his brilliant best, that gave City the foundation they needed for promotion.
Taylor’s attitude towards Whittle was a disappointment. No one can deny the excellent job he did with City, and we should always be thankful to him, but at times it would seem that every time we conceded a goal he would replay the game until he could find a slight error by Whittle, and then go to the press moaning about how Justin had cost us the game. Perhaps the most unforgivable example of this was in the Torquay away game in October 2003. City got an absolute pounding, with Kuffour and Graham running us ragged. All that stopped City being on the receiving end of a thrashing were colossal performances from Whittle and Delaney, and in the end we escaped with an ill-deserved point. But who was to blame for Torquay’s solitary goal? That’s right; Whittle didn’t close Graham down quick enough. The dozen or so goal-saving tackles he’d put in counted for nothing, apparently.
Taylor was much easier to love once he didn’t have Whittle to blame for everything. Taylor probably always knew that would be the case. He also will have known that in the popularity stakes, he stood as much chance against Justin as a forward competing for a 50-50 ball. Whittle, for his part, never said a word against any of the managers that had dished out such ill-deserved, shabby treatment.
Another feature of Whittle’s contribution to Hull City’s cause is the way he would bring about an improvement in his defensive partners. When Whittle joined us, Mark Greaves’ career was going nowhere fast and Mike Edwards was a youngster struggling to make his way. Both improved beyond measure under the tutelage of Joyce and Whittle, and played vital roles in the Great Escape. Ian Goodison’s early nervous performances became a thing of the past once he was established next to Sarge’s assuring presence. When Jan Molby was allowed to go on a spending spree, new signing Jon Anderson looked a bag of nerves alongside kamikaze Greg Strong. Once Strong was disposed of and Justin regained his rightful place at the heart of the defence, Anderson became our player of the season. A season later, and boo-boy target Damien Delaney was given a run at centre-back next to Whittle. In the space of a few months, Delaney went from an ill-fitting left-back whose confidence was shot to being our player of the season in the first promotion year.
Justin’s departure from the Tigers was sadly predictable. Taylor had barely thought him to be of League Two standard, so it stood to reason that he wasn’t going to get a chance in League One. Justin’s happiness on ‘Humberside’ saw him join Grimsby, where he established himself as club captain. And even at Grimsby, Justin’s status as a hero became even more firmly cemented. In October 2005, Grimsby played Newcastle in the League Cup. Early on, Justin was on the receiving end of one of the nasty, cowardly elbow attacks that Alan Shearer had made his trademark. Shearer avoided a merited sending off for the umpteenth time in his career, and sure enough found himself on the receiving end of a horses-for-courses Whittle elbow a few minutes later. Instead of taking it like a man, as Justin had done, Shearer whined and bitched about it for the rest of the game. At the end of the game, Shearer refused Justin’s handshake and went on TV to moan to his media chums about the rough treatment he has received, adding that “the temptation is there to stick one on him”. Those that had seen Shearer shit himself when confronted by Roy Keane a year or so earlier would no doubt have liked to see Shearer do something, anything, to justify his hard-man status (that didn’t involve kicking a defenceless Neil Lennon in the face while he was lying on the floor).
Shearer’s cronies in the media flocked around him (Shearer-bummer-in-chief Andy Townsend claimed that Shearer’s assault on Whittle was ‘Shearer letting Whittle know that he’s there’ while branding Justin’s retaliation as ‘a disgrace’). Shearer continued to bleat for a few weeks to anyone that would listen, mainly sycophantic Geordies blind to their over-rated hero’s obvious flaws. Justin’s response to his 15 minutes of fame: keeping his head down and his mouth shut, just as you would expect from the nicest of nice guys and the most model-like of pros, in the most perfect response to the claims from Shearer’s propagandists that Whittle was ‘out to make a name for himself’. Alan Shearer is a twat.
When Amber Nectar’s survey voted Justin Whittle as the best/most popular player the site’s contributors had seen play for City, it was of little surprise. In the 15 or so years up to and including Justin’s tenure at City, the fans had endured various crises and miserable spells, from awful players to inept managers to corrupt/downright evil owners. Seeing a player play for Hull City in the manner every fan likes to think he would himself – give absolutely everything in every game; throw yourself in the way of anything coming at the City goal; put the team’s interests before your own; play on a foggy February night in Rochdale with the same enthusiasm and dedication that you would the first game of the season; acknowledge the fans at the end of every game and make time for them off the pitch – was the perfect antidote to Dolan, Needler, Fish, Hateley, Appleton, Lloyd, Buchanan, Hinchliffe and Molby.
Players like Justin are all too rare in today’s football environment, and we should count our blessings that we had the Sarge at the heart of our defence for so long. Justin’s limitations were obvious: his passing, his close control and his first touch. However, his tackling, his reading of the game, his organisational skills, his heading, his bravery, his likeability and, most importantly, his heart, not only made up for his shortcomings, they made him stand out from any other player to have pulled on the black and amber for many a year. ‘One-eyed’ he may have been, but he’s still our king.