How bizarre, and yet how typical of this ugly duckling of a Leeds United season, that one of the main cult Whites heroes of the moment should be an employee of Derby County FC. Not that it hasn’t happened before, one way or another. Season 1991/92 threw up a couple of candidates, with Brian Gayle ex-Man City but on the books of Sheffield United, taking the honours as he scored the own-goal that finally turned the race for the last ever Football League Championship firmly Leeds’ way. No such rich prizes are at stake this season, and we have to look off the field of play for the hero I’m talking about. Take a bow Noel David Whelan, Academy Coach at Derby County, lifelong Leeds fan and the best thing to hit the airwaves in these parts for a long, long time.
When you listen to national radio, you want impartiality (not that you get it, not as a Leeds fan). It’s annoying if such an allegedly disinterested broadcaster shows bias, they get phone calls and irate letters. But local radio is a horse of a different colour. What you want then is a bit of parochial loyalty, a touch of blinkered self-righteousness. If the ref’s having a ‘mare – or even if, in truth, he’s just not giving the lads quite as much as he might – you want the regional radio guys to get hot under the collar about it, to have a bit of a rant or moan. It saves you the trouble and it also gives you that warm feeling that maybe you’re not just paranoid, that those buggers really are out to get us. Listen, you splutter to your significant other, I said to you that the ref was bent and the lino was blind or bent or stupid. Thom/Adam thinks so too. Bloody told you, didn’t I?
Sometimes though, the local guys can be a grievous disappointment in this regard. Forgetting that they’re not national commentators with all those boring rules and restrictions, some of our home-based broadcasters and summarisers can make the mistake of being so determined to be fair, that they lean over too far the other way, ending up calling every decision against Leeds, excusing the incompetent git of a ref, justifying the actions of those cheats and animals in the opposition ranks. This is extremely bad news for the fan glued to a crackly radio at home. That, by the way, is perilous stuff at the best of times. Radio commentary is just plain scary. Every shot is arrowing straight for the far top corner of your keeper’s net, every Whites passing move breaks down, we never get the bounce of the ball. It’s horrible and not good for the hypertension at all. And then, on top of all that, you get some ever so reasonable guy who, when the commentator screams, Penalty for Leeds! Surely that was a penalty!! – this laid-back, too-fair ex-pro will simply drawl, nah, never in a million years, he went down too easy, never a pen. Forbye, it wisnae in the area. Thwarted, you grind your teeth anew and feel the blood pounding insistently in your ears. It’s so bad for the health.
I’m not naming any names in that respect (but Eddie, for Christ’s sake get your act together and remember who you’re supposed to be supporting) – what I will say is that Norman Hunter, always reliable in terms of seeing the world through Leeds-tinted specs, is sadly missed from our local airwaves. But happily, the Advent of Noel has brought us a new hero, and he makes even Norman seem like a model of bland neutrality. When play is ongoing, there’s always a bit of Whelan wit and wisdom interspersing the description of the commentator. His Leeds-ness oozes from every pore and permeates everything he says. It’s simply wonderful.
Any Leeds fans will always look forward to any Leeds goal – it’s the longed-for climax to any foray forward and confirmed atheists have been know to offer up sincere prayers for that – ahem – moment of fulfilment. But in these days of Whelan, long may they last, there’s a little extra bonus to any Leeds score. Get IIIINNNNNNN!!!! you hear this demented, exultant voice thundering, rattling the commentary gantry and the windows of nearby houses, and doubtless attracting sidelong looks of disapproval from more ordinary, everyday mortals. Noel Whelan is not here simply to provide the professional’s point of view on the intricacies of play and team-shape. He’s here to see Leeds United win, and he wants it with his very guts. You can hear this in his voice, you can tell he’s kicking every ball and a good few of the opposition. It’s a tremendous feeling; like having your own personal, Leeds-centric representative up there in the commentary box where you’d secretly long to be yourself, instead of being surgically attached to this bloody radio.
Noel Whelan is the fan who really did live the dream, graduating from the terraces to don the Shirt and score goals for the club he loves. As a professional, when his career took him in a different direction, he made the best of it – not without the odd mishap, particularly at Coventry – and carried on scoring goals. Memorably, he scored for Boro against Man U in the Cup, and gave the old Leeds salute to the bitter cockneys who sat in the stand, hating him for his Leeds-ness and for scoring against their favourites. And all the time, he’s been Leeds, down to the very bone – and we’ve loved him for it, largely from afar.
Now his playing days are over, and – ever the pro – he’s earning his living still as part of the game, passing on his knowledge and experience to the Academy of a club other than Leeds. How odd that must feel to a man who so clearly has United in his DNA. But it doesn’t affect his deep and abiding partiality for the Whites; give him a mic, put him up there to watch the lads play – and he’s still passionately Leeds, desperate to see them win, straining every sinew as the Shirts toil away for the cause.
And then – we score. Get IIIINNNNNNN!!!! GET in! If things are going particularly well, a chorus of Marching On Together is not unheard of; though his singing would win few awards, the sentiment is pure gold. A model of impartiality Noel is definitely not – and that has endeared him to thousands of people for whom radio coverage is the only viable option. For those people, Noel is just like being there, or at least the very next best thing – he wants to win as much as you do and he celebrates like the fellow fan he is – as well as feeling the pain just as acutely as we all do when things are bad.
Life, Leeds United, the Universe & Everything cannot help but feel that such passion, such absolute devotion to our one and only, beloved football club, is wasted whenever it’s not being employed in the United cause. Noel is not the first Leeds fanatic to pursue a career elsewhere. It was a standing joke at Newcastle that David Batty just couldn’t wait to be back at Elland Road. Whenever their team coach passed within sight of the stadium, his team mates would be at it, they’d rib Batts, telling him he’d be back there before long. And of course, he was. But when he wore another shirt, Batty fought and battled for that shirt, as a pro always will. I’ve seen Noel Whelan score against Leeds – it was in George Graham’s first game in charge, down at Coventry – and he looked utterly gutted and apologetic. And, naturally, he still got an ovation from the White Army that day.
Maybe Noel Whelan will one day be a part of Leeds United Football Club once more. Surely, he would grab the chance, should it ever arise – even in the sure knowledge that most such returns end in tears. But in the meantime – it’s wonderful to listen to him in his matchday stints on t’wireless, shamelessly biased, proudly Leeds, giving it the full throttle when we score, damning the officials who conspire against us. It’s simply just what is required, just what those fans out here in Radioland need.
Noel Whelan is a tonic. Every club should have one but, happily – and despite what the Derby County payroll people might imagine – he’s ours. And he’s the very Acme of one-eyed, tunnel-visioned, brilliantly biased, raucously supportive presence that any Leeds fan simply loves to hear as part of their commentary experience.
Other, more pallid broadcasters – please take note.