Wednesday 23 October 2019

'I will never turn my back on my country' - Evergreen Whelan wants to set the record straight

The Big Interview

Vintage class: Glenn Whelan's revival under new boss Mick McCarthy was key to his career choice in joining Hearts. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Vintage class: Glenn Whelan's revival under new boss Mick McCarthy was key to his career choice in joining Hearts. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Aidan Fitzmaurice

Standing to attention for Amhrán na bhFiann is something Glenn Whelan has done 88 times.

Standing up for himself, when it came to football, is something he was more than willing to do... in private.

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He admits he had "run-ins" with Martin O'Neill and "rows" with Roy Keane in their time in charge of the national team but insists it was based on football, not personalities.

"Anything I said to Roy was never personal. Because he was such a good midfielder in his day, midfield was so important to him and he rattled our cages a few times," Whelan says.

"I think what Roy liked about me was, if he was coming for me and he had an opinion and I felt another way, if I felt I was right and he was wrong, I'd tell him.

"I wouldn't hold it in and then tell all the other lads behind his back. I would say what I felt and he did the same with me, we never got personal. Yes, he rattled me a few times for not playing so well but I had to take it."

Yet standing up in public to defend himself and, in particular, his record with Ireland, is something he was unwilling to do, as Whelan was not known for holding back when he felt action was needed on the field.

His media appearances are very rare, though he did agree to sit down this week. "I might do a bit more now but I have a face for radio more than TV," he joked.

He admits it's odd that it was left to his wife to bat for him in public, in the online world to which Whelan is a stranger.

"I never look at Twitter, I wouldn't know how, but I am told she is always defending me on Twitter," Whelan shrugs. "She saw when I was getting battered, when I couldn't do anything right and she got annoyed with me because I wasn't doing any press, I never got my side across and she felt she had to, to stick the two fingers up to a few people.

"When I am finished playing I will look back on my record with Ireland as something I am immensely proud of, 88 games and 72 results in there, I only lost 16 of the games I played with Ireland."

Matt Doherty was unsure when asked this week how many caps he had, but Whelan knows his tally.

"I had 85 and I thought I was done then so it's easy to count up three more from 85. It's nice to know that I am the central midfielder with the most caps, I don't look at the list every day and think about chasing people down, I am just desperate for one more."

Whelan feels he was left exposed to those harsh critics by the way Ireland played. "We did have a few run-ins when I was involved," he says of O'Neill.

"I don't think it was ever personal, for me anyway, I just felt we could do certain things better, certain things had to be said and I am not one for holding back.

"We had games where we went in with a 4-4-2, the opposition had three in the middle and I felt we were being over-run in the middle and things were not changing.

"I will always, always, do what a manager tells me. But there were certain times under both Martin and 'Trap' (Giovanni Trapattoni) where we were playing the old-fashioned 4-4-2 against an opposition who had a different style, and we didn't change.

"If it was me and Keith (Andrews) or James (McCarthy) or Darron (Gibson), it didn't change and I felt at times we were getting battered, told we couldn't keep possession or make a pass.

"I felt we needed help in the middle before we could get control, but that was the manager's way of playing and that was it, he picks the team and if you wanted to stay in the team, you did what the manager told you."

He bore the brunt under Trapattoni. "We had 12 games unbeaten under Trap, conceded two in 12, everyone is happy with the 'keeper and the back four... and yet we were told the midfield weren't creating," he says.

"Then we lose a few games and it's 'oh, we are too open in midfield'. Hang on, are the midfielders not part of it when we win or are we only part of it when we lose?

"Certain times with Ireland I was getting beaten up from the outside, it became personal more than my performances on the pitch. It was personal and no matter what I did, I was put down."

There did come a time when Whelan, or at least his international career, was put down, told by O'Neill that he wasn't wanted any more.

"I had 12 months of that with the old manager, when he stopped picking me," he says. "After the Denmark play-off game the provisional squads were going up but then I was getting chopped, I knew where I was in my career and I just got on with it. I didn't speak to anyone in the FAI.

"Around summer-time last year, Martin rang me, he said 'I won't keep you involved in the games coming up but we have a match against Northern Ireland, I want you to come in and captain the side for me'.

"I said OK, I could never turn my back on my country and not turn up. So I told family and friends I was coming back but it was last-chance-saloon, so I took the chance.

"Martin didn't speak to me about the exact scenario, how long I would play, and when I saw the number going up after half an hour there was a lump in my throat.

"I don't think that was harsh as such, I think that was Martin's way of making sure I got cheered off, it was 0-0 at the time, if you go off when the team is 2-0 down you might get a few boos. We shook hands after it, wished each other the best and that was that.

"Martin said he was making me captain for the game against Northern Ireland, on condition that I did the press. I said I hadn't done media here for six or seven years, I had my reasons, he just said, 'do you want to be captain?'.

"I don't think I am bad at doing the media, I think when I speak, I speak well, but for me it got personal, I felt I couldn't speak and make these lads (media) change their minds about me, so I took a step back and didn't do it.

"It was taken away from me, I was gone, I was in the shadows, and now I will tell people my side instead of bottling it all up."

Revival

His revival under new boss Mick McCarthy was even key to his career choice in joining Hearts.

"That was the first time I was ever out of contract so it was the first time I didn't know where I was going at the end of the summer," says Whelan, released by Aston Villa in June.

"And it got me thinking: being selfish I could have gone and had some sun on my back and enjoyed my football, the training not as hard.

"The most exotic offers were from Thailand, Singapore, stuff like that, but for me it was never about chasing the money or the lifestyle, it was about competing in football, I still have that winner's edge.

"I am still here. I will never retire. There will be a stage where I stop getting picked by the Ireland manager but I will never turn my back on my country and I'd like to think I am there on merit and not just experience. The games I have played in, I thought I did OK I hope people remember that."

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