By Tony Dewhurst
In part two of our feature with Jeff Whitley, the union’s Player Welfare Executive, he tells Tony Dewhurst about the start of his career with Manchester City and how the PFA wellbeing team offers players past and present support on issues ranging from anxiety to depression.
‘I’m just a tiny cog in in what the PFA do - and every day I see my colleagues going beyond the call of duty to help people.”
JEFF Whitley smiles when he recalls an unexpected League debut in the late summer of 1996.
“You usually have an inkling that something is going to happen, but I didn’t have a clue I was going to play,” he said.
“Alan Ball, (then Manchester City manager), came into the dressing room and read my name off the team sheet.
“I was 17 and it was such an unbelievable moment, with players congratulating me.”
He added: “I’d been a ball boy at Maine Road, more used to watching my City heroes Niall Quinn and Paul Walsh, but that day was the start of my career.
“I had dreamt that one day it might happen, playing in front of the Kippax (home end at Maine Road) and suddenly there I was with the roar of the crowd ringing in my ears.”
His task: to keep tabs on Clint Marcelle, the Trinidad and Tobago centre-forward whose legs bulged with power and speed.
“I did a great job, Marcelle scored two goals and Barnsley won 2-1,” joked Jeff.
“But what an experience, playing professional footballer as a teenager.
“I wasn’t the easiest of kids, but football gave me that escapism.”
Whitley is great company and unhesitatingly praises the colleagues he works alongside for their dedication and hard work.
Many lives will have been brightened by Whitley.
“I’m just a tiny cog in what the PFA do - and every day I see my colleagues going beyond the call of duty to help people.”
Midfielder Marcus Wood suffered the agony of rejection at Manchester City, signed for Bolton and then drifted into non-league with Southport.
There he battled injury and illness, leaving his career in jeopardy, before Whitley ensured he got extra help from the union’s welfare department.
Southport manager Liam Watson: “It took a year for Marcus to get back again and Jeff Whitley played a huge role in his recovery, ensuring that he received the best advice possible.
“That’s the good work that the PFA do, looking after their members who have endured problems, and hopefully Marcus, who is now fit and ready to go again, can get on with his life.”
Twenty-odd years Whitley uses his own bareknuckle scrap with addiction to support players past and present.
“When I went into rehab with Sporting Chance, I wanted some happiness and peace in my soul, and I didn’t know how to get it,” said Whitley.
“Managers said, ‘Jeff, the drinking and chaos has to stop.
“I’d look at them and go, ‘Yeah, but tell me how.
“My support network was drug users, gamblers and big drinkers.
“I thought, ‘I can’t be as bad as them, can I?
That was his justification because Whitley admits he was in denial and that lasted throughout his career.
“When football didn’t give me that escapism, I knew that I had a very serious problem.
“The joy of football had gone because I was hating myself.”
Footballers are not immune from low moods or the perils of addiction, but Whitley has courageously re-built his life thanks to the union and Sporting Chance.
“I feel so privileged working for the PFA in this role, knowing how much they helped me and my family.
“The PFA gave me a second chance when I had reached rock bottom.”
When Whitley offers advice, he always tell them about his struggle and how alcohol and drugs poisoned his life.
“As soon as you share a few of those experiences, the barriers begin to come down.
“Some say they feel shame and weakness, but they shouldn’t feel scared to say they’re upset or they’re feeling afraid.
“I understand that because that’s what I felt.”
Whitley recalls a recent cry for help from a player in distress.
“He told me that he was ashamed of some of the stuff he’d done.
“However, when my ‘phone goes I know that it has taken a massive amount of courage by that individual to make that call.
“I was so happy for him because I knew that we could put something in place, to begin his recovery.
“I’m in touch with many of them, guys who’ve got their lives back on track.
“And when you see the change, it is wonderful to see.”
He adds: “It is about giving that person a bit of hope and that it is going to be okay because there’s usually a solution.”
Whitley says there are often numerous reasons a player can be reluctant to seek help.
“They might not want the manager to find out or they could have contract talks coming up and they don’t want to jeopardize them.
“But there’s so much support the PFA and Sporting Chance can offer, with more and more positives messages out there now.
“When I came out of treatment, I felt amazing.
“It’s common though for people to stop doing what they’ve learned in there because they feel like they’re cured.
“It’s really important to remember that’s it’s only a foundation of recovery – you have to maintain the progress that you’ve made and that’s when the real work begins.”