THE ovation from the sell-out crowd was as warm as it was deserved.
Dean Whitehead, after a career spanning almost 20 years and more than 600 senior appearances, was coming off the bench for one last cameo.
Just three minutes remained of Huddersfield Town’s final game at home to Arsenal but being out there one last time meant the world to the 36-year-old. As did being handed the captain’s armband by the team-mate giving way, Jonathan Hogg.
Whitehead subsequently managed a couple of neat touches and a tackle that drew a further cheer. Then, though, it was all over. The blowing of the final whistle by referee Michael Oliver signalled the end of one chapter in Whitehead’s life and the start of another.
A move on to David Wagner’s coaching staff beckons and the former midfielder could not be happier.
“It was nice,” he told The Yorkshire Post when asked about last weekend’s finale. “A nice touch from the manager to bring me on and a great reception from the fans.
“I think I have made around 630 career appearances so there are no regrets. Finishing at Huddersfield has been really special.
“People ask me about a career highlight and expect me to say playing in the FA Cup final (for Stoke in 2011). That was good, excellent in fact.
“But there is no time like the present, is there? So being with this set of lads, plus being part of this club and environment, is tough to beat.”
Whitehead’s debut in senior football came just a couple of weeks before the old Millennium ended. His bow was, fittingly considering how the curtain came down last Sunday, a brief taste from the bench as Oxford United beat Luton Town in the Football League Trophy.
Many, many more victories would follow in a career that brought a couple of promotions to the Premier League with Sunderland, that 2011 Cup final and another appearance at Wembley in the 2015 Championship play-off final when sporting the colours of Middlesbrough.
He was lured to Huddersfield Town just a few weeks after Boro’s loss to Norwich by Chris Powell, meaning he is in an ideal position to assess just what impact head coach Wagner has made in a little over two-and-a-half years at the helm.
“Incredible team spirit and an incredible work rate have been the main reasons behind how far Huddersfield have come,” he added.
“The togetherness, the work the boss does along with that of Christoph (Buhler, assistant head coach), Andrew Hughes (first-team coach), the analyst boys, everyone – it has all come together.
“No, we haven’t any stars as such but we are a team. That is what the boss always says, ‘We are a team’. We like that because we work together and run through brick walls for each other. We also get drunk together!”
Last week’s celebrations in the wake of Premier League survival being sealed by taking a point off Chelsea have been well documented. Suffice to say, no-one in Huddersfield begrudged their team a few days on the booze in the wake of survival being sealed with a game to spare.
Whitehead’s cameo against the Gunners was his fourth appearance from the bench in the Premier League this season.
That the others came against Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium shows Wagner had no hesitation in turning to the veteran against the big boys, even if Whitehead was behind Aaron Mooy, Hogg, Danny Williams and Philip Billing in the season’s pecking order.
An outstanding display in the FA Cup at home to Manchester City the previous season may have been a factor in this. Whitehead admitted after that goalless draw against Pep Guardiola’s men that he was glad his two sons, Harry and Olly, had been there to watch their dad take on Sergio Aguero, Fernandinho et al.
“I had told them about my career,” he said in the wake of that goalless draw. “But, if I am honest, I don’t think they believed me.”
Happily, Whitehead’s two boys were again at the John Smith’s Stadium on Sunday for their father’s swansong as Town celebrated survival.
“The January signings, (Terence) Kongolo and (Alex) Pritchard made a huge difference,” he added. “Kongolo is an outstanding prospect and, hopefully, we can buy him – though I would imagine he will cost a lot of money.”
As for the Terriers going forward, he sees similarities to a team he helped establish as one of the Premier League’s most feared after joining in a £5m transfer deal from Sunderland in 2009.
“The incredible team spirit we had at Stoke has been matched at the John Smith’s Stadium,” he added.
“We had a really, really good set of lads at Stoke in my time there so that is a huge compliment to these boys in the dressing room here.”
Whitehead will start his coaching career later this summer when the Town squad return for pre-season.
As was revealed yesterday, only Rob Green will be absent after the former England goalkeeper was released.
“I have been planning a career in coaching for a few years,” he said. “But I haven’t been ready to stop playing, mainly due to the adrenaline you get. Now, though, it is time.
“Young players come through, better players so you have to realise when it is your time to step aside.
“To end playing in the Premier League is nice and next are my coaching duties. I am going to be shadowing the boss, Christoph, Hughesy, just being a sponge.
“I will be collecting all the information, plus scouting, watching games. I am looking forward to supporting the boys and backing the boys to go on and do even more.”