Whelan wearing heart on his sleeve
Published 01/09/2011 | 05:00
THE date: Saturday, September 1, 2001. The occasion: a crucial World Cup qualifier between Ireland and the Netherlands at Lansdowne Road.
Roy Keane set the tone for the match with a crunching tackle on Marc Overmars after just 35 seconds.
The message was clear: no surrender to the beautiful game, Dutch-style; no inferiority complex.
Result? A famous 1-0 home win. Jason McAteer's superb strike did the job for 10-man Ireland, who had Gary Kelly sent off in the second half for a second yellow card.
A great occasion for the Irish at home and abroad.
And, in Manchester, just as exiles were doing all over the globe, a group of young Irishmen had gathered round a television set to watch this epic encounter.
They had the green jerseys on, they had the Irish scarves, and they rocked and rolled with all the emotions of that tense and drama-filled match which the Dutch could have won, but didn't.
Sometimes, fate is kind. Sometimes, dreams do actually come true.
Not for too many, admittedly, when it comes to wearing the green jersey at top international level, but it can happen.
And that brings us back to that room in Manchester 10 years ago to this day. The names of those teenagers who sat around the TV cheering on the boys in green were: Willo Flood, Stephen Elliott, Stephen Paisley and Glenn Whelan.
All were Manchester City apprentices back in 2001, but that afternoon they put aside their identity as footballers and were fans for 90 minutes.
Whelan smiles at the recollection. "I was in digs and there were four Irish lads all in the one bedroom, watching it, screaming and shouting. There was myself, Willo Flood, Stephen Elliott and Stephen Paisley. We were all in the same digs at the time.
"We had our jerseys on and we had our scarves going, and we were singing and things like that when McAteer put the ball in the net. A great day," he said.
Passion flowed from those lads that day and now passion and pride in the jersey motivates Whelan, who is set to earn his 31st cap against Slovakia at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow night.
It's rare to hear a professional footballer identify himself so readily with the Irish supporters who will live on their nerves in the Aviva Stadium as Giovanni Trapattoni's team chases three precious European Championship qualifying points.
For Whelan, it's a no-brainer. "I'm still a fan myself. I'm a fan of football and obviously I've got great pride in wearing a jersey," he said.
"I know I'm doing it for hopefully everyone in the country and that, if I do well, and the lads do well and we get the right result, then everyone's going to be happy.
"Playing is a different feeling. Unless you've done it, you don't know what it's like. It's massive. It's obviously something I've always dreamed about and want to do for as long as I can.
"There's pressure, but it's a nice pressure because people out there would love to be where I am. So I know how privileged and how really lucky I am to be here.
"I've said this before: I supported Ireland when I was a kid, and when I'm finished and not playing football, I'll still go and support them.
"The more games I play it's great for myself, but it's not just for myself, it's for family and friends who've helped me from when I was a kid and those who look out for me now, so it's for everyone, hopefully."
First capped in June 2008 against Serbia, Whelan has grown into the holding role in midfield that is required of him by the Irish manager.
The 27-year-old Dubliner is well tuned up in terms of match fitness due to Stoke City's involvement in the Europa League qualifying games, and that will be a help for the game against Slovakia.
Stoke came through to the group stages, as did Shamrock Rovers. Whelan would have found it interesting if his club and Rovers had been drawn in the same group, as he is good friends with Stephen Rice of the Hoops.
"I texted Stephen beforehand and wished them all the best. It's great for Shamrock Rovers and the people of Dublin and the League of Ireland. I know it's a big thing for them," he said.
There is talk of a contract extension at Stoke to be discussed, but the only extension the Irish players want over the next week is to remain in contention for European Championship qualification.
Russia away on Tuesday looms as a really difficult task, but Whelan and Co cannot afford to look beyond Slovakia, particularly as Ireland's home form has not been particularly impressive.
"The results aren't really something we have looked at, in terms of home being different to away," said Whelan.
"Maybe there's a bit more pressure at home, but as players we go into every game trying to win and get three points and we will be trying to do that on Friday.
"People probably know a lot more about the Russian players because of the teams they play with, but the Slovakians have some top players from the big clubs in Europe, so we know it's going to be really difficult."