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Been there, done that

During the international interlude of the last fortnight, the footballing headlines have been dominated by two names - Wayne Rooney and David Beckham.

Of course, neither are very far from the headlines most of the time. One is his country's youngest-ever international and goalscorer, the other has been flogged by Manchester United to one of their rivals at what many saw a low price after a very public falling out with Sir Alex Ferguson.

Norman Whiteside could probably empathise with both of these modern superstars. An international at 17, he was (and still is) the youngest-ever player in a World Cup Finals when he took the stage for Northern Ireland in 1982.

And in 1989, a generation of United fans were aghast when Whiteside, after a bust-up with Ferguson over an alcohol-fuelled appearance on Granada television and a series of other transgressions of Fergie law, was shipped over to Everton for what looked like a knock-down £600,000.

Another similarity with Beckham is that Whiteside's memoirs of his time at Old Trafford are to be published imminently. Though there the similarities end. Not for Whiteside a series of negative tales about the collapse of his relationship with Ferguson.

'Over the years I've been offered loads of money to dish the dirt but I never wanted to do that. I told the people I'm doing the book for that I didn't want to criticise Sir Alex.

'We had our differences back then but we're friends now - I see him quite a lot now, as I do hospitality work at Old Trafford.'

For Whiteside, forced to retire at the age of barely 26 as long-standing injuries finally caught up with him, work after football was a neccessity. Neither Rooney or Beckham will have to grind out a crust once they have retired but Whiteside, from the era that preceded the Premiership, had to find himself a new career to support himself and his family.

Using his insurance pay-out and money from what is sadly remembered as a sparsely attended testimonial, Whiteside chose to attend Salford University and train to become a podiatrician, a specialist in sports injuries to the foot.

Still only 38, his new career has kept him in football, as he regularly carries out work for the Professional Footballers' Association in assessing any abnormalities league clubs' youth players might have. Choosing this career would seem to be a legacy of some bitter experience from his own youth.

One criticism of Whiteside during his playing days was always that he lacked a yard of pace. This, he believes, was down to bad physiotherapy received as an 11-year-old. Before then he'd been a sprinter of national standard back in Ulster but a hip problem failed to respond to a course of treatment that turned out to be entirely the wrong one.

'After that,' he says, 'my hips always clicked and I never had the speed to be a top forward after that. I moved back into midfield, which suited me as I was more a thinking player anyway.'

That cognitive aspect to his play was combined with power and strength and a total lack of fear when it came to the tackle, a facet which earned him the tabloid nickname of 'The Shankhill Skinhead' and made him an idol to the Stretford End.

Added to that, he usually rose to the big occasion, in 1982-3 scoring in two Wembley finals as United first lost the League Cup to Liverpool and then won the FA Cup Final in a replay against Brighton.

World Cup 1982: Big Norm, barely 17, takes on Yugoslavia.
World Cup 1982: Big Norm, barely 17, takes on Yugoslavia.

And he went down in FA Cup folklore for an amazing swerving, dipping shot to win ten-man United the trophy against Everton two years later. By then, barely out of his teens, he had already served as stand-in United skipper for Bryan Robson.

Such were his aptitude and achievements as a young player that Ferguson himself said of Whiteside: 'If Norman had a yard more pace he would have been one of the greatest players ever produced in British football'.

And there's always been that air of 'what could have been' over Whiteside's career, cut off as it was at a time when most players reach their prime.

Unlike Rooney and other starlets of the recent past, Whiteside was not protected against burn-out by United manager Ron Atkinson, playing 51 games in his first year as a professional. And considering that early curtailment of his own playing career, Norman believes that managers are rightly taking a far more measured approach than in those days.

'Young players need games to gain experience - back in my days at United I remember Manchester City having loads of young players but they never played them and they didn't progress as they should have done.

'But at the same time they have to be protected, like in the way Sir Alex has done with Ryan Giggs and all those other young players that followed. With Rooney, David Moyes is doing the right thing in taking the Fergie route of resting him, and it's also perhaps why he's bought a couple of strikers recently - to take the burden off Rooney.'

United too have a star-in-the-making in young Portugese winger Cristiano Ronaldo. But Whiteside preaches caution about expecting too much too soon: 'He started well and everyone was raving about him but since his debut he's had a couple of in-and-out games. That's to be expected.

'They paid a fair whack for him and that has to bring pressure too.'

Rooney: Protection is better than cure.
Rooney: Protection is better than cure.

When it comes to being a youth prodigy, Whiteside has seen it all, done it all, worn the t-shirt, eaten the pie, having played in two World Cups and scored the winner in an FA Cup Final before the end of his 21st year.

'If you look at Rooney, if he goes to Euro 2004 then he'll be over 18 by then. In Spain in 1982 I was 17 and 42 days and that's quite a difference at that age - I thought the same about Michael Owen when he came through. What was he? Eighteen?'

And what of the current Manchester United team, the side he still calls 'us'? 'Through working at the club on matchdays I watch every home game and you have to say they've not quite fired just yet,' he says allowing himself a laugh at the thought of former team-mate Gordon Strachan enjoying Southampton's recent win over United.

'But United will put one of those runs of wins together, they always do.'

Norman was speaking to Soccernet as part of National Pub Football Week.

His book, My Memories of Man Utd, is due to be published soon.

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