After battling problems with alcohol and bankruptcy, former Premier League star Noel Whelan tells Rob Preece why he feels ready to work in football again.
NOEL WHELAN talks openly about the time when, on his way to see friends and family in Yorkshire, he cried at the wheel as the imposing outline of Leeds United's Elland Road football ground came into view from the motorway.
He was an established Premier League footballer, playing the sport he loved for a living, and had just signed for Coventry City for 2m, almost quadrupling his salary at a stroke.
He was only in his early twenties but was earning thousands of pounds a week, had represented his country and had been crowned man of the match for his performance in a televised game against Manchester United.
But all that meant little to Whelan as he drove past the hometown club he supported as a boy – the club which sold him before his peak and sent him to Coventry, a city where he knew hardly anyone.
That this memory should be so vivid more than a decade on reveals two things about Whelan which are as relevant now as they were then.
First, his love for Leeds remains as strong as ever. When the club told him he would be joining Coventry, he was hugged by one of Leeds' greatest players, Billy Bremner, who assured him he would return one day – a sentiment which has inspired Whelan to apply for a coaching job with the club's academy, to help youngsters flourish as he did after he joined as a schoolboy.
Second, Whelan thinks constantly about his family and friends, for he knows only too well how they have helped him during a career which included more than 200 Premier League appearances but brought the pain of a failed marriage, a spell in rehab and, most recently, bankruptcy.
"Life's about learning and if you don't make mistakes in life, you never learn," he says.
"Unfortunately, I've learned the hard way – and sometimes that's the best way because you learn the most."
Whelan's learning began on the school pitches of Leeds, where his displays for the city's representative teams alerted scouts from clubs including Manchester United and Arsenal.
He was offered trials and nearly joined Everton, but there was no contest after Leeds eventually made their interest known.
Whelan's first task was to keep the first-team players' boots clean, a discipline he believes should be compulsory for all trainees.
Other responsibilities – playing well and getting goals – came easily. He scored six in one youth-team game – "Howard Wilkinson said I should have scored eight" – and was only 18 when he made his first-team debut.
He earned 36 a month as a YTS player, but his first professional contract brought him 250 a week, a wage which rose as he secured a regular place in the Leeds team and represented England Under-21s.
Everything changed in December 1995, however, when Coventry's bid was accepted. Whelan, then 20, signed a four-year deal which instantly made him a rich man, but he wasn't even given time to return home to collect his belongings before he was thrust into his first training session.
"All of a sudden, you don't have your family or friends around. It's an exciting time but a lonely time for a young man as well.
"I was on about 1,500 a week at Leeds, but moving to Coventry tripled or quadrupled that.
"I was able to buy a barn conversion and a new car and still have money to spend each week on going out to nice places.
"But I was trained to play football, not to deal with the disposable money I had access to.
"I would train from 10am until 12.30pm maybe, but my friends would have 9-5 jobs or even night shifts, so I wouldn't see them much.
"I would go to the pub. You can do without money, but you can't do without friends and family."
Whelan ran into trouble on nights out, mostly incidents in which he or his team-mates were provoked by revellers who took issue with their celebrity, and Coventry manager Gordon Strachan took the unusual step of asking his young player to move in with him.
For three months, Strachan had Whelan living under his roof, accompanying him to training and adhering to a strict curfew – a regime Whelan now considers invaluable.
"I found it very hard to adjust and I got myself into a bit of bother, but in the main the only person I was hurting was myself.
"These incidents only happened in Coventry. When I came back to Leeds to see family and friends, nothing happened."
Whelan's performances on the pitch earned him another lucrative move, to Middlesbrough, but problems in his personal life continued to affect him as he was later transferred to lower-league
He was married, but the relationship was in trouble and he was seeing his two sons less and less, so he decided to "leave the money behind" and take a break from football.
"Families are more important than football so I decided to cut short my Millwall contract and said goodbye to 200,000, maybe 300,000, in the process.
"I told (Millwall manager) Dennis Wise to use the money to buy another player because I knew that, if I didn't try to keep my family together, I would regret it."
But Whelan's marriage failed and he was drinking too much. He asked the Football Association for help, and a place was found for him at an alcohol treatment clinic.
"I was sat in the car for about an hour-and-a-half outside the gates, deciding whether to drive through. In the end, I was in there for a month.
"There were people in the clinic who were alcoholics. They would drink themselves to blackouts, which I couldn't understand. What I had was different.
"I was unable to talk about my problems. When I drank alcohol, I was in a mental state that meant it put me on a downer rather than making me feel good."
Whelan, 35, has since remarried and even allows himself a glass of wine now and then, but injuries have ended his playing career and money troubles from his previous relationship have followed him.
He was declared bankrupt in February after failing to pay a tax bill, but he insists he is looking ahead with optimism.
He holds a coaching licence, has worked with young players at Derby County, and says he is ready to pass on his experience by returning to the club he left 15 years ago.
"Players should be going into college once a week, learning how to be accountants or electricians or whatever, a trade in the real world, because if things don't work out they've got nothing to fall back on.
"They are thrown into situations where there are lots of people advising them on how to get the best deal, but these advisers aren't always doing it in the players' best interests – they're doing it because they want something out of it.
"I don't think kids aged 16 to 18 are given enough support. I want to see the kids flourish, to help them become good-quality players at Leeds United, to become legends at Leeds United, to leave a legacy at Leeds United.
"I'm passionate about football, I've always been confident and I know I have a lot to offer as a coach."
Rise and fall of a true talent
NOEL WHELAN was one of English football's brightest talents when the Premier League's inception brought unprecedented amounts of money into the sport.
He joined Leeds United at the age of 16 and helped the club win its first FA Youth Cup in 1993 before becoming a regular first-team player who represented his country at Under-18 and Under-21 level.
He joined Coventry City for 2m in December 1995 and made more than 150 appearances in all competitions before signing for Middlesbrough in a 2.2m deal in August 2000.
He later played for Crystal Palace, Millwall, Derby County, Aberdeen, Boston, Livingston, Dunfermline and Darlington.