Manchester United: Trailblazer Norman Whiteside on boozy Sundays, eclipsing Pele and a career cut short

Norman Whiteside
Whiteside, who was forced to retire at just 26 due to injury, scored 67 goals for Manchester United

"If you hear any gunshots or bombs, get home as soon as possible."

It's not that Norman Whiteside ignored his mother's request, but it was not quite at the forefront of his mind as he honed his football skills on the streets of the Shankill.

The threats posed by the ongoing Troubles were very real in that area of Belfast in the 1970s, but they would not deter the youngster who would go on to become one of the most iconic UK footballers of the past half-century.

"My early childhood was basically just playing football in the streets until it wasn't safe to do so," Whiteside tells Stephen Watson in This Sporting Life, a new four-part series which starts on BBC One NI on Friday at 19:30 BST.

"There were army and paramilitaries around, but it didn't stop us enjoying ourselves. Every time I scored a goal against our gable wall I was actually thinking 'I'm going to score a winning goal at Wembley'."

Such was the striker-come-midfielder's passion for football, even a trip to meet US President Jimmy Carter with his school football team could not fully take his mind off the game.

"We played a tournament in Washington DC and won it, so we got to go to the White House," Whiteside explained. "We were in the Oval Office and, as captain, I shook hands with the president, but I was more interested in playing 'keepy-uppy' out on the lawn."

Trailblazer making history for club and country

Norman Whiteside
Whiteside played in the Spain 1982 and Mexico 1986 World Cups for Northern Ireland

After being spotted by Bob Bishop, the scout who took George Best to Old Trafford, Whiteside joined Manchester United aged 16. In May 1982, just eight days after his 17th birthday, the then striker became the youngest player ever to score for the English giants.

A few months later in Spain - when NI famously defeated the hosts - Whiteside eclipsed global superstar Pele as the youngest player to appear in a World Cup finals, and a year after that he became the youngest player ever to score in an FA Cup final.

In 1985 the lad from the Shankill got to swap that gable wall for the Wembley goalposts once more, scoring a beautiful curler against Everton to win the FA Cup again for Ron Atkinson's men.

"Beating Spain was one of those historic moments that we will never forget," he remembers. "I was being made honorary president of leisure centres and getting free meals out. We were milking it, but it was all good stuff."

And that winner against Everton was no one-off.

"I used to practise that goal in training and for it to happen on the big day was incredible. We went down to the nightclub afterwards, Bestie [George Best] and Rod Stewart were there as everyone celebrated."

Drinking sessions and curry fights

Norman Whiteside celebrates scoring the extra-time winner against Everton in the 1985 final
Whiteside recently sold his 1985 FA Cup final winning top for £23,000 at auction

As Whiteside's cult status with United and Northern Ireland supporters increased, media speculation grew about his Manchester drinking sessions with captain Bryan Robson and team-mate Paul McGrath, who has subsequently spoken about how his alcoholism led him to attempt to take his own life several times.

Whiteside and McGrath were accused of being drunk in a January 1989 TV interview. It is believed this helped persuade Sir Alex Ferguson, who replaced Atkinson as United boss in November 1986, to release both players.

While adamant he was not drunk on TV, and that he never drank less than 48 hours before a match, Whiteside spoke candidly about the so-called 'drinking culture' at the club - and explained his own unique way of dealing with a potential backlash from the manager.

"There was a hardcore of boys who would go out and socialise," he explained. "On a Sunday we would normally sit all day and drink Guinness, then at the end of the night we would have a curry fight and sing a few Irish songs.

"Sir Alex put down the law, saying he was the boss and was going to change things. If people saw you out in Manchester they'd tell the manager, but I used to go in to him in the morning, knock on his door and say 'before anyone phones you, I was out last night boss'."

'I put the duvet back over me and cried'

Norman Whiteside
Whiteside finished his career at Everton in 1991

As hugely successful as Whiteside's early career was, the sad end to his football story left many wondering what might have been. Having been sold by Ferguson to Everton in 1989, he was forced to retire through injury two years later - aged just 26.

He believes a hip injury as a young teenager was the root cause of the physical problems which ended up riddling his history-making career, before then suffering a serious knee injury soon after moving to Old Trafford.

"I went into a challenge and thought nothing of it, but my knee collapsed the next morning," he continued. "I had the cartilage totally removed, so I played bone-on-bone for 10 years.

"Jim McGregor, the Northern Ireland physio at the World Cup in Spain, told me I'd be lucky to get to 26 or 27 in football with a knee like mine. That always stuck with me."

Unfortunately for Whiteside, the physio's prediction proved unerringly accurate and, when the end came during his second season at Goodison Park, he found it difficult to cope.

"I remember waking up one morning and looking out the window, but then just pulling the duvet back over my head and having a good cry," recalls Whiteside, who went on to become a qualified podiatrist and now hosts corporate guests at Old Trafford on match days.

'This Sporting Life', presented by Stephen Watson, starts on BBC One Northern Ireland on Friday 11 September at 19:30 BST. Future episodes will include Lady Mary Peters, Dennis Taylor and Phillip McCallen.

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