Tony Whelan: Custodian of the culture at Manchester United Academy
Written by Simon Austin — December 19, 2022
WHEN Manchester United hosted an event to celebrate the 70th birthday of Tony Whelan a fortnight ago, a tribute video was played.
It featured Sir Alex Ferguson and a host of current and former first-team players and ran to more than 90 minutes.
That tells you a lot about the impact Whelan has had on people during his 32 years working for Manchester United. His official title is Academy Programme Adviser, but this doesn’t fully convey how important he is in developing young players at the club.
In a special interview for MUTV to mark Whelan’s 70th birthday, Danny Webber - himself an Academy graduate who went on to play for United's first team - describes him as “player, coach, mentor, figurehead… someone who has meant a lot to a lot of people.”
He adds: “There is a humility about how you go about your business.”
This is very true, because you will struggle to find many interviews with Whelan from the course of his three decades at United, which makes it difficult to put your finger on exactly what makes him so special. That's unless you’ve worked with him, like Webber, which is what makes the MUTV interview so enlightening.
'THE MANCHESTER UNITED WAY'
Whelan grew up in Stretford, close to United’s OId Trafford stadium, and signed for the club as an associate schoolboy in 1968 at the age of 16.
This was, of course, a pretty significant year for United, because it was when they became European champions for the first time.
“Sir Matt (Busby) was my first manager - a very dignified person who had a particular bearing about him,” Whelan remembers.
Although he played for the reserves and for the first team during a tour of the United States in 1970, Whelan did not make a senior appearance for the club and instead played for Manchester City, for a couple of seasons, for Rochdale and then, for seven years, for Fort Lauderdale, Atlanta and Los Angeles in the US.
He began his coaching badges in Tampa and returned to England in 1982 to complete them with the Football Association at Lilleshall. He was a social worker before being invited back to coach at United in 1990 by Nobby Stiles and Brian Kidd, the Busby Babes who were by now heading up the club’s Academy.
“I just used all the knowledge and experience about working with young people and interacting with them that I’d picked up from social work,” Whelan remembers in the MUTV interview.
However, he learnt most from the feedback of the young players in his charge. “They will soon tell you if your sessions aren’t very good!”
Whelan also coached at the Bobby Charlton Soccer Schools for several years and gained valuable lessons from the United and England legend.
“I remember Sir Bobby saying, ‘I want every day to be like Christmas Day for them.’ What good advice! That’s what I have tried to do in my coaching. It’s got to be fun and joyous.
"It’s tough, but the journey should still be a good one, a happy one, a childhood one. So we are not getting carried away about being professional too soon.”
WHAT MAKES A TOP PLAYER?
During his three decades at the club, Whelan has gained invaluable insights into what makes a top player.
He tells Webber: “There are very few that go route one. That’s a Ryan Giggs, a Wayne Rooney, a Darren Fletcher. Most of them are under the radar, they are not stars all the way through. Many of them have got very strong characters and they are the ones I look for.
“Some players have really high emotional intelligence at a young age and others don’t have that. I think that’s a really good quality in a young player.
“Some are coachable and others aren’t. Or they might not need me, but they need someone else. Find out what the gift is and then it’s for the player to decide where they go for advice and who that is. It might not be me and I am not arrogant enough to think that.”
Whelan has completed a Doctorate in 'Pastoral Care of Premier League Academy Schoolboy Footballers' at the University of Chester and also has a Bachelor's degree in humanities from the Open University and a Masters in sociology from Manchester Met.
STANDING ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS
When asked about what his current role entails, Whelan explains: “I am more of a mentor now, I am not hands-on on the grass any more. I do a lot of coach education, project work at the club, more of an advisor now than anything.
“Mentoring I think is key as well, some players and staff as well. It is a very special club and I’ve been here a long time and had a lot of experience. I think my role is trying to hand down the traditions and values that were bequeathed to me all those years ago.
“I would like to think I embody some of the spirit of the club and some of my colleagues do and we are trying to hand that down. We have a baton that was handed down to us and a way of playing and a tradition and to be ambitious for the club.
"I think it was Sir Isaac Newton who said, ‘If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’ I think that is a great quote and it is true for me. Sir Alex gave us a confidence that we were doing the right thing by the club and by him.
“Sir Matt wanted you to play football and Sir Alex was the same. It was expressed in a different way, but the message was the same - ‘You are playing for Manchester United, the greatest football club in the world. Go out and play, don’t be frightened.’”
Many would say that the man himself is a giant. However, in true Tony Whelan style, he rounds off the interview with Webber by paying tribute to two of the Academy’s administrative staff, whom most fans will not have heard of.
“There are two people I would like to mention,” he says, “Clare Nicholas and Marie Beckley. They have been of immense support to me over the years, organising tournaments, going abroad.
“They are not coaches but they are developers in the way I would like to think I am. They have been here over 25 years and I doff my cap to them both.”