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 program adviser, Whelan has nurtured the early careers of Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Danny Welbeck and Paul Pogba, as well as hundreds of other young prospects, since arriving at Carrington in 2005.
However, it is Whelan who describes 24-year-old Rashford – 45 years his junior – as “my hero”.
Speaking to BBC Sport about Black History Month, Whelan explained: “Marcus, with his family background, where he lived and the different challenges he faced in his life, who would have thought he would be a humanitarian par excellence.”
This week one the FA report said The number of black, Asian and minority managers and ‘non-senior’ managers had fallen since last season – with 20 Premier League clubs and 32 of the 72 English Football League clubs signing up to its diversity code, failing to hit six out of eight targets.
These statistics, criticized 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, something which is 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 pro at Manchester United and when I left for America in 1977,” says Whelan. “Only seven. You wouldn’t see that now.
“Actually, I have pictures of myself in teams, Manchester United teams and Manchester City teams, and I’m the only black face.”
“I had champions, I was never alone”
Whelan made his Manchester United debut at the age of 17 against the Bermuda national team on a pre-season tour in 1970.
He “treasures” the memories of watching legends such as George Best, Dennis Law and Bobby Charlton train at The Cliff – United’s former training ground – and the “gravity and dignity” of manager Sir Matt Busby, the who “had so much respect that he resembled the Popes”.
Whelan later spent two seasons 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 was “immunized” to racist abuse.
“It was a daily occurrence, being called names – I don’t have to mention the typical names I used to be called,” he said.
“I had champions. I was never alone. I had teammates and people who stood up for me: teachers, friends, strangers. So I was never alone, but I often think how did I get through it all? But I loved football so much” .
After his time in England, Whelan’s career took him to the United States and the now-defunct North American Soccer League, where he rubbed shoulders with some of soccer’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 to think back,” Whelan said.
“I also played with some great players. I played against Pele, I played with Franz Beckenbauer, people like Carlos Alberto, Johan Cruyff. It was like, ‘What am I doing?’ I’m just a lad from Wythenshawe playing against all these superstars!”
“Relative” Tony and his “infamous handshake”.
After he finished playing, Whelan spent time as a social worker in Manchester, before taking his first steps into the world of coaching. It was a new phase in 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,” Whelan said.
“[There were] very few black faces – so it was similar to when I played in terms of the number of [black] coaches I fell. Apparently that has changed. Now I don’t think you’d go very far without seeing a black coach – which is a good thing.”
Former Rochdale player Joe Thompson, who was in United’s academy, described Whelan as an “unsung hero”.
“He’s almost like our Denzel Washington,” Thompson said. “There’s a handshake that he’s notorious for, so when I see Tony I’m going to hold back. 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 is a very relatable person.
“He always has time for anyone and everyone. But when I look back, it taught me things far beyond the white lines [of the football pitch] that I was able to take with me as a man and for that I have the utmost respect for him.”
Whelan describes working under legendary United manager Sir Alex Ferguson as “challenging”, saying: “His support was invaluable. 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 and see him. The club has always allowed me to express myself as a coach and as a person. That’s something that’s really special about my time here.
“Not everyone can become a professional footballer. I don’t think people out there really understand how difficult it is. If a young player becomes a professional footballer, that’s an achievement at any level. You have to teach them to be resilient, to be determined , to work hard, to respect other people.
“When they leave us, they have a skill set that they can transfer, so their experience here was not just trying to achieve the goal of being a footballer, but other things in their locker. it will help them find jobs and careers in other areas of life.”