How Ronnie Whelan became the most underrated Liverpool star of all

How Ronnie Whelan became the most underrated Liverpool star of all

Imagine winning six English League titles, a European Cup, three FA Cups and three League Cups. Imagine scoring three goals in two major cup finals for your club, two of them winners, scoring another two in a historic quarter-final on the way to winning football’s biggest prize, the European Cup. And imagine twice scoring stoppage-time equalisers to save your team from FA Cup semi-final defeats.

Now imagine not even being in the conversation as one of your club’s greatest ever players. Imagine being Ronnie Whelan, the most underrated Liverpool player of all time.

Whelan was the unlikeliest of entries into Bob Paisley’s second great Liverpool team – the successors to Kevin Keegan, John Toshack, Emlyn Hughes, Steve Heighway, Tommy Smith and Joey Jones.

The team Whelan came into was stacked with Anfield heroes. There was the king, Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness and Terry McDermott, Ray Clemence and later Bruce Grobellaar, Mark Lawrenson and Alan Hansen, Phil Thompson and Phil Neal, and Alan Kennedy and Ray Kennedy. And, of course, the brilliant Ian Rush.

Yet few could match the impact that Whelan had in his first full season, one that delivered arguably the hardest-earned of the club’s 18 league championships.

Some footballers are often described as playing the game with a smile on their face. In that season, 1981-82, you couldn’t wipe the grin of Whelan’s face. Here was a scrawny 19-year-old kid, who looked even younger, thrown into a team full of multiple league title winners, European Cup holders and World Cup veterans; the greatest – certainly at the time – English club side of all-time, and one of the finest Europe had ever seen.

Yet things were not well at Anfield in the first half of that season. Whelan, alongside Ian Rush, had been one of the few bright spots in a struggling team whose fifth-place finish in the league the previous campaign had been masked by the club’s third European Cup, a 1-0 win in a desperately dull final against Real Madrid.

Paisley was already plotting major changes to his underperforming team. By the halfway stage of the new season, and a full 14 years before Alan Hansen’s infamous “you don’t win anything with kids” quip, he had replaced several of his ageing stalwarts with a group of hungry but very raw youngsters.

Out went Ray Clemence, Ray Kennedy, David Johnson, Jimmy Case, and, within another year, captain Phil Thompson and the popular Terry McDermott. In came Bruce Grobbelaar, Sammy Lee, Craig Johnston, Mark Lawrenson, Ian Rush and, of course, Whelan. The Irishman had joined Liverpool in September 1979 for £35,000 from League of Ireland club Home Farm, for whom he made his debut on his 16th birthday the previous year. Within two years, he would go on to become a Liverpool regular for over a decade, an unthinkable scenario these days.

Read  |  Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush: the greatest partnership in Liverpool history

He first served notice of his talent, and remarkable confidence, by running half the length of Anfield to score on his league debut, a 3-0 win against Stoke in April 1981. It was a teaser of what was to come the following season.

In 1981-82, Whelan enjoyed arguably one of the best seasons by a rookie in English football history. The young Irishman scored his first goal of the season in a 5-0 League Cup win over Exeter City on 8 October, a date notable for also witnessing Ian Rush’s first two goals for Liverpool. The two youngsters and roommates would go on to have a stunning impact in their first full campaign in Liverpool’s colours.

Paisley had earmarked Whelan for the left-sided midfield position occupied for years by Ray Kennedy. Two red cards in quick succession for the veteran midfielder had convinced the avuncular though deceptively ruthless manager that it was time for change. That he trusted Whelan to replace the man he claimed he had received more inquiries about than any other during his time at the club was telling.

Liverpool’s fortunes, and Whelan’s career, would pivot around a dismal home loss to Manchester City. On Boxing Day 1981, in one of few matches that survived a holiday period freeze, Liverpool were humiliated 3-1 in a match that has gone down in Anfield infamy. Whelan’s first league goal of the season barely registered as even a consolation on the night. The result left Bob Paisley’s European champions in 12th place, well off the pace at the top of the table.

The manager was furious. An inquest and clear the air talks were held as Graeme Souness replaced Thompson as captain. The turnaround was astonishing for the club.

From the start of the new year until 6 February, Whelan scored in four of five wins as Liverpool went about banishing their winter of discontent. It was not just the number or quality of the goals that stood out. Whelan’s runs were often referred to as “galloping” by the manager and he quickly displayed maturity beyond his years, making the number five shirt his own in a position that was hardly ideal for a right-footed player at the start of his first team career.

There were some notable highlights. A headed equaliser inspired a storming comeback against Wolves on a shockingly poor Anfield pitch, setting the scene for a glorious late winner by Kenny DalglishIn March he scored Liverpool’s first in a 3-1 win over Everton at Goodison Park, ramping up the fan adulation in the red half of Merseyside.

In April, Liverpool travelled to The Dell to meet a strong Southampton team that included Kevin Keegan, Alan Ball and Mick Channon. The match is remembered for an astonishing 16-pass team goal by the home team, Channon supplying a sublime finish, and his last ever windmill celebration in a Southampton shirt.

Liverpool, however, were practically unstoppable by then, as was their whirlwind number five. A 3-2 win was settled by two Whelan goals,  a brilliant chip of goalkeeper Ivan Katalinić and an 89th-minute winner in the finest traditions of late Liverpool strikes in that era.

Read  |  Kenny Dalglish: a king among men

The next goal he scored was a viciously volleyed final goal in the 3-1 win over Tottenham at a raucous Anfield that confirmed Liverpool’s 13th league title. The first player Souness handed the old trophy to after raising it – in fact, he casually threw it in the air –  was Whelan. At only 20, he was already a league champion.

In between the remarkable sequence of games that secured the league triumph came the match that would in many ways define Whelan’s career: the 1982 League Cup final. Whelan would later admit he barely slept the night before the Wembley showdown with Tottenham Hotspur, though few would have guessed from his fearless, all-action performance.

Liverpool trailed to Steve Archibald’s early goal until Whelan saved the day in the 87th minute by sweeping in substitute David Johnson’s cross past former colleague Ray Clemence. The joyous skip and celebration that followed will live in the memories of all Liverpool fans who witnessed it.

Whelan was far from finished. Having toyed with Glenn Hoddle and the Spurs midfield in extra-time, he went on to score the winner in the 111th minute, from a precise Dalglish pass, before his partner in crime, Rush, sealed the win with a third just before the final whistle.

It was not the last time Whelan’s boyish grin would light up Wembley.

Repeating the heroics of his first season was always going to be a challenge for Whelan. Remarkably, though his goalscoring exploits would never hit the heights of those early months as a first team player, his influence would grow from season to season.

There was another First Division title and League Cup double in 1982/83. Whelan even repeated his Wembley feat from the previous year with a superb curling shot past Gary Bailey as Liverpool beat Manchester United 2-1 after extra-time. 

Strangely, though, his status as a fan favourite, not helped by series of injuries, slowly began to wane despite the seemingly endless success that he helped achieve. The explosive Whelan of the first two seasons was slowly maturing into an understated, intelligent player who was naturally overshadowed by the more glamorous gifts of players like Dalglish, Rush and later, Paul Walsh.

Some fans might have inexplicably cooled on him, but his teammates knew his true worth. Here’s Graeme Souness in his 1984 autobiography No Half Measures“There are key players and they are not always the ones the fans salute. Take Ronnie Whelan for example. While players like Craig [Johnston] are whizzing around and covering every inch of the ground, Ronnie watches and thinks, makes runs and when in possession uses the ball to its most telling effect.”

Setbacks and injuries were handled with dignity and professionalism, two traits hugely appreciated by the senior players and management at Anfield. “There was no talk of transfers or dissent when Ronnie was fighting his way back into the side that season [1983-84] after injury. He just got on with the game until he became a regular part of the team again,” Souness wrote.

Read  |  The divine prophecy of Graeme Souness

“During one game in which he was being barracked by the Kemlin Road End, I turned to him and said that players like us would always get abuse thrown at them because of our style. He uses his head as well as he does the ball and in my opinion he is a great player and likely to become even better. He could become a very famous footballer indeed.”

Souness’s words proved prophetic. Whelan indeed went on to become a great and very famous footballer, outlasting far more high profile players over the next decade.

Captained by Souness in the Scotsman’s final season at Liverpool before joining Sampdoria, Whelan was part of Joe Fagan’s all-conquering team that walked to another league title, retained the League Cup in an all-Merseyside final and gloriously claimed the club’s fourth European Cup by beating Roma at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome.

In one of Liverpool’s most famous European Cup ties, Whelan scored twice in a 4-1 quarter-final win over Benfica in Lisbon. It was the Portuguese giants’ first ever European defeat at their fabled, original Estádio da Luz.

The trophyless 1984-85 season saw Liverpool overtaken at home and abroad by Howard Kendall’s brilliant Everton team. Whelan still found time to score a spectacular last-minute equaliser – “a sensational goal” Paisley called it – against Manchester United in the FA Cup semi-final at a windy Maine Road. Liverpool lost the replay, finished second in the league and reached yet another European Cup final. The Heysel tragedy a few weeks later rendered football inconsequential after the most shameful episode in the club’s history.

A distraught Fagan retired, Dalglish took over as player-manager, and an unexpected league and FA Cup double was completed in 1985-86, Everton the runners-up in both competitions. The red supremacy on Merseyside lasted one season as Everton came storming back to claim the 1986-87 title. A loss to Arsenal in the League Cup final convinced Dalglish that his team needed fresh talent.

Whelan however, was going nowhere. Watching from the stands, Paisley, like Dalglish in the dugout, understood his value to the team: “I have never believed that Ronnie gets anything like the credit that he deserves,” the former manager revealed in Clive Tyldesley’s book Bob Paisley’s personal view of the First Team Squad of 1986-87. “We all showered him with compliments when he first arrived on the scene and put him on a pedestal from which it was easy to fall. But his record in the face of some troublesome injury problems is an outstanding one.”

Whelan’s close friend Rush left for Juventus in the summer of 1987 and Liverpool replaced him with not one but three players. John Aldridge, Peter Beardsley and John Barnes transformed Dalglish’s side into one of the most breathtaking in the sport’s history.

The 1987-88 season saw one stunning performance after another by Liverpool. The team equalled Leeds United’s then-record of 29 unbeaten matches form the start of a season. Everton, as fate would have it, won the 30th at Goodison.

Read  |  Why John Barnes deserves to be celebrated far and wide

The titanic battles between the Merseyside rivals had become a fixture of the mid to late-80s, now with Whelan anchoring a legendary midfield that included Barnes, Ray Houghton and Steve McMahon. Yet the title was never in doubt from the opening weeks of the season, with Barnes in particular devastating defences up and down the country. So complete was Liverpool’s dominance that the goal of the season competition comprised of goals scored only by Dalglish’s men.

After a famous 5-0 win over Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest, the great Tom Finney described Liverpool’s performance as the finest he had seen in all his time in football. The season would, however, end on downbeat note. An injured Whelan sat out the FA Cup final as Liverpool lost to Wimbledon in one of the competition’s biggest ever shocks.

Playing a more withdrawn role, the goals naturally dried up in the second half of Whelan’s career. Having scored 37 league goals in seven seasons, He only registered another nine in his last seven.  Yet his influence never faded, even if the loyalty of some fans towards him did.

When club captain Hansen suffered a long-term injury in the 1988-89 campaign, Dalglish turned to Whelan to lead the team. It proved to be one of the most traumatic seasons in the club’s history. Though the club produced yet another remarkable comeback to overtake Arsenal at the top of the table, the Hillsborough tragedy meant, yet again for Liverpool Football Club, football became a distant afterthought.

The club, impeccably led by manager Dalglish, captain Whelan and every other member of staff, somehow emerged from its darkest hour and into the blinding sunshine of an FA Cup final against Everton. On an emotionally and physically draining day, Liverpool eventually overcame their neighbours to win 3-2, the returning Rush once again Everton’s tormentor.

Eight years after his first triumphant visit to the Twin Towers, Whelan’s smile again beamed across Wembley as he lifted his one and only trophy as Liverpool captain.

In an unforgettable season for many reasons, there was one final sting in the tail. On 26 May, Liverpool fans packed Anfield in the almost certain knowledge their heroes will complete a league and cup double. What followed was one of the clubs most incredible matches in English football history, Michael Thomas scoring a still scarcely believable injury-time goal to grab the title for Arsenal. Liverpool have arguably never been the same since.

The 1989/90 campaign saw Whelan’s and, to date, Liverpool’s last league title. At times Liverpool played champagne football reminiscent of the previous two years. In a 2-1 at Old Trafford in April, Whelan  scored a carbon copy of his 1985 semi-final equaliser against Manchester United, except this time it was past Grobbelaar; even his own goals were spectacular.

With another title in the bag, it looked like normal service had resumed – except it hadn’t. The mental toll of Hillsborough – and in a football sense the defeat by Arsenal the previous season – on many of the players, and particularly the manager, meant this would prove to be the final hurrah for a team that had gorged on success for two decades. Few could have foreseen the famine that was to come.

Read  |  The triumph and tragedy of Ray Kennedy

In the early 1990s, after Dalglish’s departure, injuries began to seriously restrict Whelan’s playing time just as Liverpool themselves lost their aura of invincibility. His finest years, it turned out, had coincided perfectly with the club’s greatest era.

Curiously, Whelan’s international career never hit the heights of his club one, despite being – alongside Mark Lawrenson and later Ray Houghton and John Aldridge – one of the highest profile Irish players of the 1980s thanks to Liverpool’s exploits.

He was, before the emergence of Roy Keane and Denis Irwin at Manchester United, by some distance the Republic of Ireland’s most decorated player. Today, his tally of 19 club trophies is shared by the Old Trafford duo.

When Jack Charlton took over as manager of the Republic of Ireland in 1985, Whelan was expected to be one of the first names on his teamsheet, injuries permitting. He was certainly one of the stars of the 1988 Euros, playing a big part in a famous 1-0 over England and scoring one of Ireland’s most celebrated goals a few days later.

In the second group match against the Soviet Union, Whelan, loitering outside the penalty area, executed a superb left-footed volley from Mick McCarthy’s long throw past the world’s finest goalkeeper at the time, Rinat Dasayev. It briefly raised hopes of a second 1-0 win at the tournament. In the end it was only enough for a 1-1 draw, but more than enough to win him cult status among the celebrating Irish fans.

Sadly, Ireland’s style of play would prove too direct for someone used to possession football at club level. Charlton’s ethos was simple and was followed religiously by his disciples. The defenders would pump the ball up to the targets of Niall Quinn, Tony Cascarino or John Aldridge; the midfielders would overwhelm panicked opposition defenders to claim second phase possession. “Put them under pressure,” went Charlton’s battle cry. Unashamedly route one; undeniably successful.

It meant that ball-playing midfielders were often bypassed by the supply of long passes to the front men. Whelan, the intelligent playmaker, was often reduced to just another workhorse alongside fine but less talented players like John Sheridan and Andy Townsend.

Not that there were no standout matches. Against Northern Ireland in a World Cup qualifier in 1989, Whelan produced a stunning performance, scoring the first in 3-0 win in which he utterly dominated proceedings. “Every loose ball seems to make its way to Ronnie Whelan’s foot,” one television commentator enthused.

By the time the 1990 World Cup came around, Whelan, despite winning yet another league title with Liverpool, was no longer first choice for his country. In Italy, as in West Germany two years earlier, Ireland exceeded expectations. There was a scrappy 1-1 draw with England, a game illuminated only by Kevin Sheedy’s typically well-struck equaliser.

Read  |  Why Joe Fagan deserves to be remembered as one of football’s greatest managers

Two draws against Holland and Egypt saw Charlton’s men progress to the round of 16, where they memorably overcame Romania on penalties. Against Italy in the semi-final, Ireland produced a sensational performance and were extremely unfortunate to lose to a goal by tournament phenomenon Toto Schillaci.

Whelan saw only 28 minutes of action in Italy, replacing his old friend from Liverpool reserves Sheedy in the 1-1 group draw against Holland.

Four years later in the USA, Keane, Houghton, Sheridan and Townsend were established as Charlton’s first choice midfield. Whelan, after several injury-plagued seasons, was once again a bit-part player, contributing a mere 15 minutes in the 0-0 group draw against Norway.

There was a valedictory appearance for his country in 1995, 14 years after making his debut. Then, curtains. Whelan, like so many other Liverpool internationals, from John Barnes to Steven Gerrard, will always be associated with club more than country.

All told, Whelan’s club career spanned 15 years, 73 goals, three great teams and one average one, and Anfield heroes of different eras, from Dalglish to Robbie Fowler.

Liverpool’s starting line-up on the day he made his debut was: Ray Clemence, Phil Neal, Alan Kennedy, Phil Thompson, Whelan, Alan Hansen, Kenny Dalglish, Sammy Lee, Ian Rush, Terry McDermott and Jimmy Case.

When he captained Liverpool in the 1989 FA Cup final win over Everton it was: Bruce Grobellaar, Steve Nichol, Jim Beglin, Alan Hansen, Gary Ablett, John Barnes, Ray Houghton, Whelan, Steve McMahon, John Aldridge and Peter Beardsley (substitute Ian Rush came on to score two decisive goals).

By the time of his 493rd and final appearance for Liverpool, against Aston Villa on the last day of the 1993-94 season, the team was a hotchpotch of rising, fading and never-going-to-be stars. And considerably less formidable: David James, Steve Nicol, Neil Ruddock, Julian Dicks, Rob Jones, Jamie Redknapp, John Barnes, Whelan, Don Hutchison and Robbie Fowler. Ian Rush, his sidekick to the last, was the only other link to Paisley’s great side.

That summer, Whelan, heartbroken that a new contract was not forthcoming, reluctantly moved on to Southend United, a club he would also manage for two years. But in many ways his glorious playing career had come to a typically understated end after the 1994 World Cup in the USA.

The final word on one of Liverpool’s greatest servants goes to Paisley, the man who took one look at a skinny teenager and saw a future Anfield giant: “And 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’.”

By Ali Khaled @AliKhaled_

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