Tony Whelan.

Whelan thanks United Academy colleagues

Manchester United Academy programme adviser Tony Whelan has paid tribute to his colleagues, past and present, after being recognised by the Premier League this week.

The 67-year-old picked up the Eamonn Dolan award for his outstanding contribution to youth coaching on Thursday evening but he was quick to insist it should be regarded as a team effort.

He thanked 1968 European Cup-winners Brian Kidd and Nobby Stiles for bringing him to the club back in 1990, at our Centre of Excellence, and admits his is a job that he absolutely loves. Things may have changed a lot since he was a young player in the 1960s but Whelan thinks the fundamental core values remain the same in the 2020s.

“I've been privileged to work with some wonderful people over the years,” he told us.  “People like Brian Kidd and Nobby Stiles, who brought me to the club many, many years ago - 1990, I think it was.

“Right at the beginning, all those years ago, they had the belief and trust in me. I just hope I justified that and maybe I have.

“There is Les Kershaw, the Academy manager when I went from part-time to a full-time coach in 1998, when the Academy started. Paul McGuinness, who I worked with for many years and is now working with the FA, and colleagues like Dave Bushell, who is still working for the club in education. Geoff Watson, one of our scouts, who recently deceased, was a wonderful man. Brian McClair, the Academy manager who succeeded Les Kershaw, and a lot of people who aren't well known but do some tremendous work behind the scenes.

“One particular person is Graham Buckingham, who has been kit-manager and a number of different jobs at the club, helping with the coaches and being the first-aid man. Eamon Mulvey, from the foundation phase, who works with very young players in a demanding job and goes really under the radar. Wonderful people like the admin staff in the office over the years, such as Clare Nicholas and Marie Beckley. I couldn't do the job without them. In my case, I'm not good with IT and writing letters, and all these things they do in making a wonderful contribution.

“Nick Cox, the Head of the Academy, has been so supportive since coming to the club. Last but not least, Sir Alex Ferguson. It was a privilege to work under him for a number of years and I learned so much from him in terms of leadership and how to deal with people. 

“When you get awards, you think about the club itself and we're honoured to be the guardians of youth development here as it goes back a long way - to Sir Matt Busby and Jimmy Murphy. We're following in their footsteps and are hopefully carrying the traditions forward.

“The young players still coming through are testament to this and a lot of people behind the scenes have made a contribution to that. I dedicate the award to them - the wonderful people who I work with at the club.”

The job has changed for Tony since the 1990s but he holds the same traditions that he learned from being an apprentice at United and playing in the FA Youth Cup for the Reds.

“I think things have changed in the sense that there are more people now,” he suggested. “When I first came, it was mainly Paul McGuinness, Brian Kidd and Nobby Stiles - just three full-time staff with the youth team and schoolboy section anyway. When the Academy started, we had about a dozen people who were full-time in 1998, including coaching, scouting, physiotherapy and admin. That's more than tripled since then.

“Social media has made a big impact in the way that people communicate now. I still don't think the coaching has changed that much because the basic principles still apply today, as much as ever. I don't think that has changed, just the way it is applied now has changed. At one time, I was juggling 10 different balls, being the coach, doing the warm-up, the cool-down, taking the kit, picking the kit up, dealing with all the admin. You do all of that on your own and, in that sense, it's great development as a coach.

“I always felt that helped, juggling all those different balls, as I learned so much. You can also learn so much from the players. I learned a lot about childhood and what childhood is and what it means. It's a special time and it's important to protect it. Although the players are striving to be footballers, they're ambitious and want to be footballers, but we also want to develop good human-beings and citizens of the future.

“If it doesn't happen for them in football, what else have they got? They must have another identity and another avenue to go down and not just be footballers. It's part of the challenge really - holistic development as people and not just footballers.”

Things are different for the players these days, as they have to compete with the cream of talent from around the world, rather than locally, in order to make the breakthrough at top clubs.

Whelan feels he has to adapt with the times to understand the youngsters and what makes them tick, and this is another key aspect of his role that he has been missing since being unable to attend the Aon Training Complex due to the coronavirus restrictions in place.

“I think the players are working the same but so much is different in some ways, particularly with the environment they are working in,” he explained. “It's a lot harder for them. It was simple in the old days - you turned up for training and didn't have the media or agents. With the young players now, there are a lot of agents around and there are far more distractions in society.

“So, in that way, it's much more difficult than it used to be because young players have to deal with a lot more than I had to deal with. They have a lot more going on in their lives than I had playing in the 1960s, when I was growing up. But I've always tried to keep relevant and stay in tune. I might not understand some of the technology they use but the old values still hold firm. You've got to talk to people and expect the same standards from them. Yet you've also got to understand the world is different and they want to be on their phones.

“We've got make sure they do that in the right time and in the right place but they've also got to love football. I always think, when youngsters come to us, they've got to love the game and it's part of our job and responsibility that the light which was ignited all those years ago in them, that made them fall in love with the game, must be kept burning. Wherever the game takes them, and it's so difficult to get through the system as the competition is so intense.

“So that's another thing that has changed as we can get players from all over the world at a young age. Certainly, when I was playing, it was about Greater Manchester and the UK but now it's about Europe and the world for a player to get through the youth system. For a local, homegrown player, it's so much more difficult and it's wonderful inspirational to have boys in the first team now who are mainly local players from within 25 miles of Manchester.

“I think the satisfaction comes when players break through,” he added. “You have to be patient, that's another thing I've learned. It's a slow process and long-term development, not just physical but emotional, psychological and a lot of other factors. There is a lot that goes into it and, when you see the boys flourish and get into the first team, maintain a place in the side, it is wonderful. You know how much work has gone into it, and not just the coaching, but from everyone else, that makes it so special.

“I think, during lockdown, you realise how much you love it. When you're not going to training, you miss the players the staff and being in and around the club. It's the banter as well. 

“It's great helping young players develop and it's what I've always tried to do since I came back. It's how I was brought up and I think we're following in the tradition set by many people who came before me. Sir Matt, Sir Alex, Eric Harrison and all the other people I have mentioned. I'm proud because it's a privilege to be the guardians of it. What an honour that is. I hope the boys will come back to continue their journey with us to become young professional players and fulfil all their dreams and ambitions.

We are all United as the Reds go marching on! On sale now, get your new 2020/21 adidas training kit.

Recommended: