Saturday 18 November 2017

Whelan determined to avenge Blues' rejection in Wembley showpiece

Phil Shaw

In the reception area of the Manchester City Academy at Platt Lane, close to their spiritual home of Maine Road, a board of honour lists 30 players who graduated to first-team football.

Glenn Whelan's name is there, but at Wembley tomorrow the one-time apprentice will apply his midfield sorcery against his first club in the cause of Stoke City.

Yes, it's true. Contrary to the prejudices of some in the game, particularly at Arsenal, Stoke do have creative midfield players who could grace the FA Cup final and now, thanks to his former employers reaching the Champions' League, next season's Europa League -- players who do not simply launch the long ball.

The metronomic Whelan is the supply line to the wings and also picks out the runs of floating striker Jon Walters.

Yet, as Roberto Mancini knows from experience, the player City shaped and spurned before his time has more to his game than a pleasing passing range. Whelan's most recent goal came from a long-range shot in a 1-1 draw between the clubs last season.

"Shay Given helped me out," he says, beaming, of his Republic of Ireland team-mate. "It was one he'd normally have saved, but it slipped by him."

Whelan is combative, too, and on the same night, Patrick Vieira planted a boot in a delicate area of his anatomy, costing the Frenchman a three-match suspension.

Dreams

Whelan (27) came to Manchester from Dublin 10 years ago with dreams of sky-blue stardom.

His City career almost served as a dictionary definition of Warhol's famous-for-15-minutes maxim. In 2003, aged 19, he was given 17 minutes as substitute for Paul Bosvelt in a UEFA Cup game against Welsh makeweights Total Network Solutions at the Millennium Stadium. And that was it.

At the end of that season the then City manager, Kevin Keegan, gave Whelan a free transfer and he dropped into the third tier with Sheffield Wednesday.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume he is fuelled by a desire to punish them for any perceived injustice. His eagerness to help Stoke lift the cup for the first time is palpable, but he also talks affectionately about the grounding he received from his first club.

"I was at City six years and I loved it," he recalls. "I came over when I was 15 and signed at 16. It was really hard. I was in digs.

"What helped me was there were three other Irish lads who came over for scholarships -- Willo Flood, who's now at Middlesbrough (he was released this week); Paddy McCarthy, who plays for Crystal Palace; and Stephen Elliott, who's with Hearts. I was put in with them.

"Near the end of the (2003-04) season Keegan found out there was interest from Wednesday and told me he didn't think I was going to break in, this year or next, and the best thing would be to 'go out and play games'.

"It hurt. I was only 20. I thought I was going to be with City, playing for them, but it didn't work out. It's not nice if you know a club don't want to keep you, but I wanted to show people maybe I should've been kept on.

"City were a big club even then, but they were going through some bad times. When I left I always looked out for their results and how they were doing. It's different now -- it would be good to get one over them."

Only one player who was involved when Whelan had his City cameo, Shaun Wright-Phillips, is still there (having left for Chelsea and returned), although Micah Richards was also a contemporary.

The Dubliner sees his old club as "massive" since the takeover by Sheikh Mansour, adding: "Just look at the squad they have. If they're missing a few, the players who can come in are unbelievable.

"I'm sure over the next few years they'll be one of the great contenders. They have the money now to push on and win trophies."

But not starting, if Whelan has any say in it, with the FA Cup. His own return to favour with manager Tony Pulis, who paid Wednesday £500,000 for him in 2008 when Stoke were in the Championship, has helped to coax the best from the rejuvenated Jermaine Pennant and Matt Etherington, with no obvious lowering of aggression levels in Stoke's approach.

"The manager wanted to improve each year and he's done that. People say we're long-ball, but he has better players now and we're beginning to change some minds."

The 5-0 battering of Bolton in the semi-final, without a single goal from a set-piece, mocked the "new Wimbledon" stereotype and ensured there will be fewer nerves about performing on the Wembley stage. "We turned up, they didn't," says Whelan. "Everything seemed to come at the right time. Now we can't wait to get back there for the final."

Like last Sunday's 3-1 win over Arsenal, it was a victory that points to Stoke, like the old Wimbledon against Liverpool in 1988, being dangerous underdogs. "We go into every game believing we can win," adds Whelan, confident he can inscribe his name in Stoke's all-time roll of honour.

Pulis believes that the chasm in resources and expectations means victory for his Stoke side at Wembley would represent the biggest FA Cup final upset since Wimbledon shocked Liverpool in 1988.

The Stoke manager argued that the gulf between the Potteries club, who are backed by chairman Peter Coates' locally based online betting firm, and City, funded by Abu Dhabi billionaire Sheikh Mansour, means there is no question who the underdogs are.

"If you compare the size of the clubs and what they've spent, it's as big a void as you'll get," said Pulis, who hopes to become the first Welsh manager ever to lift the trophy.

"They've spent £380m. Look at their wage bill, the infrastructure and the players they've got. We're in a Cinderella situation in some respects, but as always we'll give it our best."

Pulis clutched the original Decca single of Tom Jones' 'Delilah' as he spoke, presented by a radio reporter after his assistant, Dave Kemp, had joked about wanting a vinyl copy of Stoke's anthem.

The club's only major national trophy, the League Cup, was won in 1972 when the 45rpm single was king, and their model for progress also has an old-fashioned ring, even though the club are guaranteed Europa League football next season by virtue of City qualifying for the Champions League on Tuesday night.

"We've built the club in a controlled way over the past five years," said Pulis. "It has been small steps. We've not gone stupid with wages.

"We've built a community football club, an idea our supporters have really grasped and driven forward. The people who watch us are the chosen 28,000. There's another 250,000 who'd love to go to the games."

Sheikh Mansour is not a regular visitor to matches at Eastlands, whereas the 73-year-old Coates is steeped in the city of his birth and the club he has followed since childhood.

"It's two ends of the spectrum," Pulis continued. "Peter wouldn't do what they've done, even if he had the money. I think he'd want to do it the way he's done it."

While his opposite number Roberto Mancini has been beset by constant speculation about his job prospects, Pulis' rapport with Coates has ensured the stability that has enabled Stoke to prosper among the elite.

"I've never worked for anyone I respected as much as Peter. We talk twice a day, but he lets me get on with things. I don't think people recognise the foresight, the willingness to back me and give me the opportunity to build the club," said Pulis.

It was a very different Manchester City, managed by Joe Royle and struggling to escape English football's third tier, that Pulis encountered as Gillingham manager in a 1999 promotion play-off final. Leading 2-0 in the 89th minute, his team were dragged into extra-time by an incredible late revival before losing on penalties.

"I didn't watch the game afterwards, on TV or video. I just wanted to wash it away. That was a massive disappointment because we'd played so well," he said.

"I took over at Gillingham when they had just come out of administration and we beat Halifax on the last day to stay in the league. Four years later we're at Wembley playing City, a proper Premier League club."

Pulis decided he would not return to Wembley unless he was leading out a team. Stoke's 5-0 rout of Bolton was a sweet way to purge a bad memory, and the future holds much to relish.

"Stoke in a cup final, perhaps finishing in the top 10 and reaching the Europa League: who'd have dreamed it a few years ago? It's a bit special. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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