Ronnie whelan remembers…a must-read for liverpool fans

‘When those special matches come round, and there are medals to be won and the pundits are asking whether the match winner will be Rushy or Kenny or Brucie, then I look past them all towards Ronnie Whelan and think to myself, “There’s our man for the big occasion”.’ — Bob Paisley

Whelan chuckles at the notion that the manager who signed him for Liverpool from Home Farm would have made such a lengthy speech, let alone singled him out for greatness. Sami Hyypia, Ronnie Whelan and Maragret Aspinall during the celebration of the 96 Charity Match at Anfield on April 21, 2014 in Liverpool. Pic: Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC – Handout/Liverpool FC via Getty Images

‘Bob was a character,’ recalls Whelan. “I can’t really remember speaking to him too often. Pre-match, he certainly didn’t say much. Once he called me in his office and said, “I hear you think you’re good enough to be in the team?”. When I said yes, he said, “Why didn’t you knock on the door three weeks ago?”.’

Whelan didn’t have to argue his case too often for selection at Liverpool where he made 493 first team appearances between 1979 and 1994 and won a lorry-load of major trophies, including six League titles, two FA Cups, three League Cups and the European Cup.

His time spanned the last ties to Shankly and the first to the Spice Boys; Ray Clemence was in goal for his first Liverpool game and David James for his last. The Ireland midfielder was also captain for two of the most poignant moments in the club’s history, Heysel (1985) and Hillsborough (1989). Liverpool celebrate victory in the European Cup Final over Roma at the Olympic Stadium in Rome on 30th May, 1984. Pic: Bob Thomas/Getty Images

In between, he marshalled one of the Liverpool’s finest teams (‘the team with the greatest flair that I played in’) of all the time — that of 1987-88. At 56, Whelan’s in fine fettle. He still enjoys lacing his boots when he can, is a perceptive analyst for RTÉ and plays golf regularly at Southport and Ainsdale on the Lancashire coast. For a while after he retired, he dabbled in management and fared half-decently, too.

In 1994-95, he steered Southend to the top six of what is now the Championship only to lose two centre-backs to injury with ‘no money to bring in replacements’. He also led Greek minnows Panionis to the quarter-finals of the Cup Winners Cup in 1999 and had Olympiakos Nicosia in second place in the Cypriot League with two games to go when dismissed.

‘That was all a bit sinister. Someone was following me in a car from the ground to where I was living. When people are following you home, you start thinking, “I’m losing it here”,’ said Whelan who joined Apollon after his two-year stint at Olympiacos. ‘We were second in the League with three games to go and I got sacked. There was a change of chairman and that was it.

Surprisingly, Whelan used to get quite uptight before playing. Once at Anfield he even threw up on the pitch during a game and got a laugh out of it when Glen Hysen slithered in it. Hysen was part of the last Liverpool team to win the English League in 1990, a time lapse Whelan finds hard to reconcile.

‘People always ask me why it’s been so long; there’s only one reason – the players have not been good enough. I was delighted when Souey (Graeme Souness) came in as manager, but the level of players seemed to drop from the quality of [John] Barnes and [Peter] Beardsley. Republic of Ireland team 1981. Pic: Bob Thomas/Getty Images

There was little reason to reflect on defeat in 1987-88, though, as Liverpool only lost twice in 40 games and went (then a record) unbeaten 29 games from the start of the season. From the moment new signings Barnes and Beardsley landed running at Highbury in the opening game of the season, Whelan knew the Reds were on to something. Soon after, Ray Houghton arrived from Oxford and the flow of goals became a torrent.

‘Kenny [Dalglish] was clever. He was building a new team,’ said Whelan. ‘Up to then, an old Kenny was playing at 36, Craig Johnson was on the right, me on the left, with Jan [Molby] and Kevin MacDonald in the middle, but it changed that season. Ronnie Whelan in action for the Republic of Ireland, circa 1993. (Photo by Professional Sport/Popperfoto/Getty Images)

‘You had Ray [Houghton] on the right, Barnes on the left, who was more attacking than I was. Then, you had me and Macca [Steve McMahon] which was more dynamic than Jan and Kevin. No one knew really knew about Aldo [John Aldridge], who had come to the club having stood on the Kop. “But Kenny knew he had a centre-forward who would be great in the box. When Rushy [Ian Rush] was sold to Juventus, he had people like [Peter] Beardsley, Barnes and Ray to give Aldo the ball in the box.

‘We noticed the difference early on. We beat Arsenal in the first game. There was a problem with the Kop and we had to play a couple of games away from home early on. We went to Highbury on the opening day, and we won, and we realised Barnes and Beardsley were good. Steve Nicol scored with a header from the edge of box. And it all kicked on from there.’

On a personal level, there was a shift in responsibility. Under Paisley and Joe Fagan, he’d played on the left of midfield from where he scored the majority of his 73 Liverpool goals. But 1987-88 was different, he was anchoring midfield alongside McMahon and he thrived.

“I’d spent my career playing a number of positions and maybe at 26 it was time to go in and have bit more responsibility. If Macca was in the team, he would make the runs forward and I’d sit in midfield and hold, a bit like Fernandinho at Man City now. I’d break up attacks from the opposition and get us going.”

The all-conquering Reds ended up with nine points in hand over Manchester United and were odds on to secure the double — only Wimbledon stood between them and the FA Cup. Having played 28 league games in the league that season, this was a Cup final which rankles.

“Kenny dropped me for the final against Wimbledon. He didn’t think I was fit enough even to go on the bench. I thought it was a load of b******s. I’d come back for a couple of league games, came on as sub in one and started another. I was fit. Manchester United captain Steve Bruce (left) and Liverpool captain Ronnie Whelan, 1990. Pic: Bob Thomas/Getty Images

“We played them (Wimbledon) later that summer in the Charity Shield, and we won 2-1,” said Whelan by way of explanation. LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND – MAY 1: (THE SUN OUT) (from left to right) Liverpool players Ronnie Rosenthal, Ian Rush, Ronnie Whelan, captain Alan Hansen and John Barnes celebrate winning the league title with the trophy in the dressing room after the Barclays League Division One match between Liverpool and Derby County held on May 1, 1990 at Anfield, in Liverpool, England. Liverpool won the match 1-0. (Photo by Liverpool FC via Getty Images)