You almost certainly won’t have heard of 69-year-old Mancunian Tony Whelan, but many of the Premier League stars he has helped develop need no introduction.
As Manchester United’s academy programme advisor, Whelan has nurtured the early careers of Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Danny Wellbeck and Paul Pogba as well as hundreds of other young prospects, since first arriving at Carrington in 2005.
Yet it’s Whelan who describes 24-year-old Rashford – 45 years his junior – as a “hero of mine”.
Speaking to BBC Sport for Black History Month, Whelan explains: “Marcus, with his family background, where he lived and the different challenges he’s faced in his life, who would have thought that he was going to be a humanitarian par excellence.”
This week an FA report said the number of black, Asian and minority ethnic managers and ‘non senior’ coaches had gone down since last season – with all 20 Premier League clubs and 32 of 72 English Football League clubs signed up to its diversity code, failing to hit six of the eight targets.
Those statistics, criticised by QPR director of football Les Ferdinand and Crystal Palace boss Patrick Vieira, are despite the fact that 43% of Premier League players and 34% of EFL players are black, a far cry from Whelan’s days as a player.
“I only played with or against about seven black players during my time in the UK, between 1968 when I was an apprentice professional at Manchester United and when I left to go to America in 1977,” says Whelan. “Only seven. You wouldn’t see that now.
“In fact I’ve got photographs of myself in squads, Manchester United squads and at Manchester City, and I’m the only black face.”
‘I had champions, I was never on my own’
Whelan made his Manchester United debut aged 17 against the Bermuda national team on a pre-season tour in 1970.
He “treasures” memories of seeing legends like George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton in training at The Cliff – United’s former training ground – and the “gravitas and dignity” of manager Sir Matt Busby who “was so highly respected he was like the Pope”.
Whelan later spent two season at Manchester City and played alongside Colin Bell, Franny Lee and Mike Summerbee.
Speaking about the general environment for black players in British football in the 1970s, Whelan says he became “immunised” to racist slurs.
“It was an every day occurrence, getting called names – I don’t need to mention the standard names I used to get called,” he said.
“I had champions. I was never on my own. I had team-mates and people who stood up for me: school teachers, friends, strangers. So I was never on my own, but I often think to myself how did I get through all that? But I loved football too much.”
After his time in England, Whelan’s career took him to the US and the now defunct North American Soccer League where he rubbed shoulders with some of football’s biggest icons.
“I played three years for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. I played with Gordon Banks. I played with Gerd Muller…. It’s hard to believe thinking back,” Whelan said.
“I also played against some wonderful players. I played against Pele, I played against Franz Beckenbauer, people like Carlos Alberto, Johan Cruyff. It was just like, ‘What am I doing? I’m just a lad from Wythenshawe playing against all these superstars!'”
‘Relatable’ Tony and his ‘notorious handshake’
After he finished playing, Whelan had a spell as a social worker in Manchester, before taking his first steps into the world of coaching. It was a new phase of his career but there were clear similarities from his early days as a player.
“I came back from America in 1982 and did my full badge. I didn’t see any people of my colour at all,” Whelan said.
“[There were] very few black faces – so it was similar to when I was playing in terms of the number of [black] coaches that I bumped into. Obviously that’s changed. Now I don’t think you’d go very far without seeing a black coach – which is good.”
Former Rochdale player Joe Thompson, who was with United’s academy, described Whelan as an “unsung hero”.
“He’s almost like our Denzel Washington,” said Thompson. “There’s a handshake that he’s notorious for so when I see Tony I’m going to brace myself. When you’ve got people like Tony in and around the community doing what they’re doing, they’re going to thrive.
“Whether Manchester United knew it or not, we could relate to him and he’s a very relatable person.
“He’s always got time for anyone and everyone. But when I look back, he taught me things way beyond the white lines [of the football pitch] that I’ve been able to take with me as a man and that’s why I’ve got the utmost respect for him.”
Whelan describes working under legendary United manager Sir Alex Ferguson as “challenging”, saying: “His support has been inestimable. Always helpful, always supportive. Challenging, but you always wanted to please him and he always had time for you.
“If we had young players we could always go see him. The club has always allowed me to express myself as a coach and as a human being. That’s something that’s really special in my time here.
“Not everyone can be a professional footballer. I don’t think people out there really understand how hard it is. If a young player becomes a professional footballer that’s an achievement at whatever level. You have to teach them to be resilient, to be determined, to be hard working, to be respectful of other people.
“When they do leave us, they’ve got a set of skills that they can transfer, so their experience here has not just been trying to achieve the goal of being a footballer, they’ve also go other things in their locker that are going to help them get jobs and careers in other spheres of life.”
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