Whiteside! How Norman took football by storm

Saturday 29 May 2021 10:22

The Manchester United Museum is set to mark 40 years since Norman Whiteside signed his apprentice contract at the club with a brand new display, featuring some recently acquired memorabilia from the Northern Irish legend's incredible career.

Of all the many successful United Academy graduates, nobody has risen through the ranks in the same record-breaking manner as Whiteside,

In nine years as a professional, he became the youngest man to play in a World Cup and the youngest to score in both the League Cup and FA Cup finals. Despite his playing career ending prematurely at the age of 26 due to injury, he managed to pack more action into his short time on the pitch than many other players accomplish during much longer periods.


Whiteside's football story started at the age of seven when he joined the 72nd Battalion of the Boys’ Brigade. Outshining his contemporaries on a regular basis with his remarkable goalscoring prowess, young Norman was often moved back into defence by his coaches in an attempt to give both the opposition and his fellow strikers a chance to play. Growing up in Belfast during 1970s was not easy, and Whiteside used the beautiful game as a means of escaping the grim reality of everyday life during one of the most turbulent eras in his country’s history. “Ignoring outbreaks of violence and the sounds of distant explosions was difficult, but football helped to take my mind off things,” recalled Whiteside.


The news of Norman’s extraordinary talent soon spread among local scouts including the legendary Bob Bishop. Credited with bringing George Best to Old Trafford in the early 1960s, Bishop alerted Old Trafford’s management, who quickly handed schoolboy forms to the 13-year-old.

Whiteside's winners medal from the FC Blue Stars tournament - now known as the FIFA Youth Cup - in 1981.

Following a period of weekly commutes between Belfast and Manchester, young Norman moved near Old Trafford and began regularly playing for United’s A and B teams. “Often I found myself not only playing against boys who were older than myself, but also up against seasoned professionals with Football League experience. Fortunately, I have never felt out of depth and playing against those older and more experienced opponents helped me prepare for the years ahead,” remembered Whiteside later.


Having signed his apprentice contract on 25 May 1981, young Norman rapidly progressed through the ranks and was handed his first-team debut in April 1982, coming on as a second-half substitute for Mike Duxbury against Brighton & Hove Albion. As a 16-year-old apprentice, he became the youngest player since Duncan Edwards to pull on a United shirt. Surpassing a record held for decades by the legendary Busby Babe helped to turn Whiteside into a cult hero among the Reds faithful.

Less than a month later, he was given a place in a starting line-up against Stoke City in which he scored his first professional goal. “Right away you could see the lad was something special. They talk about his aggression. But the only way he could ever hurt anyone was with his ability,” said manager Ron Atkinson.


Soon after making his first appearance for United, Whiteside was named in the Northern Ireland squad for the 1982 World Cup. Making his full international debut at the age of 17 years and 41 days in the 0-0 draw against Yugoslavia, he became the youngest player to compete in the tournament, breaking a record previously set by Pele. Norman still holds that distinction today.

Norman's international shirt.


Following his World Cup adventure in Spain, Whiteside continued to break records on the domestic stage. By the end of his first full campaign in the first team, 1982/83, he had become the youngest scorer in the League Cup final (aged 17 years and 323 days) and the FA Cup final (18 years and 18 days). He also went down in history as the first player of any age to grab goals in both finals in the same season.

Whiteside’s 1983 League Cup final shirt.
In May 1985, he was back at Wembley, scoring an extra-time winner for United's ten men against Everton to claim his second FA Cup victory with the Reds. The curling left-foot shot he put past Neville Southall is still regarded by many fans over the age of 40 as one of their all-time favourite memories.
1985 FA Cup winners’ medal awarded to Norman.

Following one of his career-defining moments at Wembley in 1985, Whiteside continued to smash further records and a year later he became the youngest player to reach 200 games for United, aged 21 years and four months; another record he also still holds.


At a time when he should have been approaching the peak of his powers as a footballer, injuries began to mount, including knee, Achilles and hamstring problems. Having made only six appearances in the 1988/89 season, Whiteside joined Everton for £750,000 in 1989. Unfortunately, after only 29 appearances for the Toffees, he announced his retirement in 1991.


Aged only 26 at the time of his retirement, he briefly took up the assistant manager's position at Northwich Victoria, working alongside another ex-Red and Northern Ireland legend Sammy McIlroy. Having gained an interest in the medical side of the game while undergoing numerous treatments himself, Whiteside resigned from his management role, and decided to pursue a new career as a podiatrist. For a player whose career was cut short due to injury, this new path seemed like a natural progression. He graduated from Salford University and began working for the PFA, screening 16-year-olds for underlying injuries, before setting up a podiatry clinic in Manchester. Norman's courage to start afresh after having his dream career curtailed is an inspiration to us all.