Heroes are different things to different people. A high octane, box-to-box midfield terrier is the definition of a hero to some, whereas others deeply admire the nihilistic, almost anti-establishment figure of a lazy but gifted playmaker.
Mulleted penalty box sharpshooters are fondly eulogised in some quarters, in others they worship calm headed defenders who can bring the ball out of defence instead of hopefully punting it upfield.
Rarely though, are heroes described as relics from a by-gone age (unless of course they actually played in a by-gone age, when referees wore top hats and boots were made from iron salvaged from sunken warships) but the player I loved to watch and can most readily term as a hero was described as such by one manager. He didn’t play in an era of black and white tellies and wooden playstations though.
His tenure at City straddled the second Millennium, and I can’t claim to love him for his technical ability, rather for unvarnished, brute thuggery delivered with charisma and a wry smile. That man was Jon Whitney.
Whitney signed on the same day as fellow Lincoln stopper Jason Perry in December 1998 as Warren Joyce looked to transplant a backbone into a City team that had as much spine as your average invertebrate. Whittle had already arrived to great effect – and sowed the seeds of his new held legendary status – while Gary Brabin was soon to follow. This new approach, to kick and fight our way off the bottom of the Football League suited Whitney down to the ground and was quickly appreciated by those on the terraces after months of watching a supine defence led by the narcissistic Matt Hocking who refused to go near opposing forwards for fear of putting a hair out of place.
Born in the Cheshire market town of Nantwich, Whitney started his career as a junior at Wigan although the young left back was quickly cast into the non-league ranks in 1989. He spent four and a half years as a jobbing non-leaguer before catching the eye of then Huddersfield manager, gobby knobhead and Mrs Doubtfire lookalike Neil Warnock.
After a brief trial, Whitney accepted a two year contract and left Winsford to return to the full time ranks. An observer from the time noted that Whitney’s first action in League football was to tackle an opponent’s testicles, a case of start as you mean to go on if there ever was one! Unfortunately, after a successful start, Whitney damaged a cruciate ligament and only made a handful of appearances for The Terriers, also taking on a loan spell back at Wigan.
Whitney didn’t impress Brian Horton after the ex-City boss was appointed as Warnock’s successor, and he joined Dambuster bragging yellowbellies, Lincoln, where he immediately established himself as a regular first teamer and gained promotion with the Gimps from the bottom rung of the Football League in 97/98. This was despite missing much of the previous season with another damaged cruciate ligament.
Recovering and then returning in a higher division proved to be a little too much for him and he could only muster 14 games in Division Two. Prior to signing for City, he hadn’t played first team football for two months although his attempts to get back into the first team were hampered by a suspension from training for a week for injuring two of Lincoln’s better players with ‘over-enthusiastic’ challenges in five-a-side kickabouts.
This lack of match fitness did hamper him and his first few games were indifferent. It didn’t help when he scored an own goal in the home game against Chester, calmly sliding the ball past a bewildered Steve Wilson from six yards. This really was as bad as it got in his first season though and he turned in better, if unspectacular, performances as the season progressed and results improved.
There was the odd spectacular moment, however, and there were several abrasive challenges that folded an opponent in two and even stirred the West Stand regulars from their eternal slumber. The one moment that does stand out from his first season was his goal at Peterborough, a howitzer of a left foot shot that broke the sound barrier and nearly uprooted the goal. It made Hot Shot Hamish’s rocket-propelled shots in the Tiger comic look like some feeble Darryl Duffy effort that barely made its way to the goalmouth, let alone break the net. Sadly, the goal wasn’t the winner as Peterborough equalised in injury time in the game but it was a valuable point nonetheless.
As we know, City scrapped for their lives and escaped what appeared to be non-league oblivion. Everyone played their part. Andy Oakes in goal to David Brown and Colin Alcide up front, everyone did their bit and it was clear that team spirit had a huge part to play. In a piece about ‘The Great Escape’ on a recent City Magazine DVD, one player noted that in pre-match warm-ups, Whitney would regularly pick up and eat worms he’d found on the pitch in front of the team to ‘bond’ the squad. It’s difficult to comprehend how this ‘team building’ exercise would transfer over into a nine to five pen pushing job – gobbling up the weevils found in the stale Skelton’s breadcakes in the canteen perhaps…?
The superhuman efforts of Whittle and the ever-improving Mike Edwards and Mark Greaves, the signings of Steve Morgan and Steve Harper and some niggling injuries meant that Whitney didn’t appear until the October of 99/00 although he was a regular on the left of a centre back trio and then as a left wingback during the second half of the season. He only missed games through suspension after racking up an impressive ten yellow cards and one red in 25 appearances.
The red card came at Peterborough in February after Whitney laid a haymaker on some unsuspecting Posh player and led to City reverting to the Dolan-esque 5-4-0 formation later in the game. Whitney also had an interesting time in the 6-1 defeat to Chelsea in the FA Cup third Round, kicking anything in a blue shirt that came within a five-yard radius of him and ruffling the feathers of Frank Leboeuf.
Harper’s unfortunate injury in the spring led to Whitney switching to left wingback, a position he wasn’t ideally equipped for as his slow turning circle and lack of pace were occasionally found out by those that were fleet of foot but the change of position yielded his first goal of the season and his first at The Ark against Orient in April. An Edwards centre from the right was met by Whitney with a bullet header at the far post and that was that for the season…
Well, actually, it wasn’t. Whitney played on as a painfully disappointing season petered out and he faced the prospect of having to win over a new manager with the sacking of the defensively-minded Joyce the appointment of the technically-demanding Brian Little.
The eventful summer of 2000 followed with Buchanan lies, Lloyd tantrums, ground lockouts and transfer embargos although Little managed to sign Lee Philpott, Phil Brumwell and David Brightwell before the season began. The signing of Brightwell was a threat to Whitney, he came with a similar amount of experience and while he certainly wasn’t quicker than him, he was better with the ball at his feet and that was what the new manager required. With a fit again Harper commanding the left flank, the future looked bleak for Whitney – indeed, he only played in three first team games before the turn of the year – both legs in the 1st round League Cup tie against Notts County in the first month of the campaign and the annual reserve team run out in the LDV Trophy game at Chester in December.
So, the reserve team beckoned and he found himself a regular at left back surrounded by other first team outcasts and young kids. However, his approach to a game never changed – tackle the man first and if you get the ball, happy days. I saw three reserves games that season and Whitney was sent off for scything down a pencil-thin, 16 year old winger in the South-West corner of pitch in every game. It isn’t a word of lie when I say it was exactly the same way in every game as well. Whitney always walked off with a wry smirk on his face although I imagine his manager wasn’t smiling – yet as the season progressed, and the situation off the pitch came to a head as the club lurched toward another financial crisis, the man who you need in a crisis got another break.
The Sheffield Stealers’ antics saw the club served with a winding up order in February 2001. Players hadn’t been paid for months and cut backs to training were made as those travelling from out of town could no longer afford petrol. Brightwell and Harper took advantage of the Football League laws allowing unpaid players to leave their clubs after a period of time and joined Darlington along with Clint Marcelle. Those that remained, bound by an uncertain future, started putting together a run of decent form after a relatively indifferent first half of the season, forcing their way up the table and making themselves play-off contenders.
Whitney was restored to the team in the wingback slot once again as players left the club, and he formed a solid partnership down the left with the fit-again Neil Mann. As with the relegation scrap he found himself in when he joined, he went about his business with minimal fuss and again his contribution went largely unnoticed by those in attendance, apart from the occasional winger who landed on the train lines at the rear of the Kempton. The weeks progressed, Little reverted to a 4-4-2 formation and new loan signing Andy Holt took Whitney’s left back role although his thrusting runs and Mann’s loss of form saw him returning to the team in midfield for the Humber derby against Scunthorpe at Fer Ark.
On 28 minutes, he justified his inclusion. Attacking the North Stand end, a right wing corner found Whitney at the far post, he was marked but he had the run on his marker as he powered a header onto the underside of the bar. Then the net rippled, three quarters of the ground erupted and Whitney was mobbed by his team mates. However, he didn’t move or celebrate, he just glared at the six-fingered types behind the goal with a stare so intense, it probably turned a few of the unwashed fools to stone. Finally, after what seemed like minutes rather than seconds, he turned away, ran back to the centre circle and set about marking highly rated Scunt winger Matt Sparrow out of the game. This he did with gusto, although that was not the end of his involvement. The game entered the last ten minutes with the score at 2-1 (Holt’s awesome freekick had given City a second half lead after future Tiger Andy Dawson had equalised for the Scunts on the stroke of half time) when Mark Clattenburg awarded Scunthorpe a dubious penalty. Shirt-pulling from Whitney was the claim, although it was harsh, incredibly harsh, and the bemused left back was booked for his protestations. Fortunately for City, stumpy goon and former City target Lee Hodges kindly blasted the penalty against the post in front of his own fans and City won. Ha.
City ploughed through the remaining fixtures, peaking with a 3-1 win over cheating Chesterfield and securing a play off place in the following game, drawing at Southend. Unfortunately after leading 1-0 on aggregate, City came unstuck down at Leyton Orient and lost 2-0 and so ended Whitney’s City career. Little was given a large chequebook to rebuild the side and it was clear early on that Whitney wasn’t going to be retained. At the age of 30 and with a long standing knee complaint, Whitney’s days as a pro were over and after another serious knee injury ended a brief spell with Kings Lynn, he decided to retire from playing altogether.
He wasn’t out of the game long, gaining his qualifications as a fully qualified physiotherapist and joining the backroom staff at Walsall in the 04/05 season. It was the game against City at the Bescot Stadium late into that season that provided a bit of closure to Whitney’s City career.
During the first half, Whitney was called to treat a Walsall player in front of the City fans and having done his duties he jogged along the side of the pitch, applauded and cheered on by the travelling contingent.
He didn’t know how to respond at first, although a broad grin quickly appeared and a thumbs-up was given. It probably made his day.
Whitney remains Walsall’s man with the magic freeze spray and occasionally plays in pre-season friendlies and reserve team games. He also rejected the chance to move to Wolves at the beginning of last season so it’s clear he’s highly regarded in his new profession and looks set to progress to a higher level than his playing days.
Brian Little once remarked in a post-match interview that Whitney would have been a top flight player if he’d played in the 70s and he’s probably right – he was a relic from football past, but he was a committed and entertaining relic that I loved to watch play.