Jim Whitley made just 46 appearances across eight years for Manchester City – and the fact he is now playing Sammy Davis Jr in a stage production called Crooners tells you everything about the era in which those appearances came.
Champions League quarter-finalists, on the verge of winning the Premier League for the third time in seven seasons, and with Pep Guardiola as manager, Manchester City can legitimately claim to be one of the biggest football clubs in the world right now.
It was a rather different story in Whitley’s day. Making his City debut in January 1998, he was in the starting line-up at Stoke City a few months later on May 3 when the Blues were relegated to the third tier along with their hosts despite a 5-2 victory.
Even now, 20 years on, there’s a huge sigh when Whitley remembers that day.
“We needed to win, but we also needed Port Vale and Portsmouth to lose their games,” he says. “As everyone knows, we won comfortably and still went down because Port Vale and Portsmouth both won. It was horrible.
“People were saying that Manchester City would never go down to the third tier because of the size of the club. I have gone down in history as one of the players who helped take City down, which isn’t nice.”
Life in the third tier
The next season saw City taking on the likes of York City, Macclesfield Town and Wrexham under Joe Royle and his assistant Willie Donachie in what was then known as Division Two.
And as if that wasn’t bad enough for supporters, it was the season in which their Red neighbours won the treble.
“That made it triply hard, United dominating like they were,” Whitley says.
“It did rub salt in the wounds, but we weren’t in the same division and the two clubs had become so separate that any comparisons had slowly slipped away.
“For us, the focus for the new season was trying to get back up again, but we had a really large squad and a big wage bill, so Joe did well to ship out the deadwood.”
Thankfully, Whitley was not among those considered part of the deadwood and was given the chance to show his full potential during a campaign which ended with a dramatic penalty shoot-out win against Gillingham in the play-off final.
“That season was tough, but the fans stuck with us week in, week out,” he says.
“Every time we played away, the opposition had a full house because it was a like a cup final for them, so the pressure was on us every time we lost.
“I was injured for the play-off final, but when Gillingham went two-up, I was just thinking we are going to have to go through another season in the second division. Then we scored twice in the last two minutes and it went to penalties.
“When (Nicky) Weaver saved (Guy) Butters’ penalty, I don’t think I have ever hugged so many strangers in my life. It was an unbelievable moment, totally indescribable.”
Whitley’s City story had begun back in 1990 when he signed for the club’s academy.
Born in Zambia to a Zambian mother and Northern Irish father, Whitley had only been in the UK for four years after he, his brother and sister had been sent to Wrexham when he was 11 to live with his father’s half-brother.
“We were told that we were being sent to Wrexham for ‘educational purposes’, but I never really found out what the reasons were,” Whitley says.
“It was a massive culture shock as in Zambia we’d had servants, guards and a swimming pool. I’d also never seen terraced houses before.”
Coached by club legend Colin Bell, Whitley’s contemporaries at City included Steve Lomas, Rae Ingram, Scott Thomas, John Foster and Garry Flitcroft, who all broke into the first team.
And in January, 1998, in an FA Cup game against Bradford City, Whitley finally made his senior debut for City, five years after signing professional terms.
“I never thought I would make it at one stage, because there was so much talent there,” Whitley says. “I wasn’t one of those players in the youth team that everybody talked about.
“I had suffered a lot of injuries as well, and when a new manager came in – we had a lot of them at City – he would look at the experienced players first and push anyone aside who hadn’t yet been near the first team.
“Then the manager would make signings and I would be knocked further and further back.”
It was Frank Clark who gave Whitley his first start during that disastrous 1997-1998 season, and he went on to make 21 appearances in all competitions, thriving under Royle.
“Joe was an excellent manager, really witty, and he had the balls to drop Kinkladze, who was our best player at the time,” Whitley says.
“I could play in most positions, but when Joe came in, he put me in at full-back or right wing-back because of my fitness.
“After I made my debut and started playing regularly, fans would come up and talk to me which was exhilarating.”
His brother had already racked up a number of appearances for the first team, but there was no envy on Whitley’s part.
He says: “There was no sibling rivalry and I was pleased for Jeff.
“He had started in the game a lot younger than me and it came more natural for him. The younger you take a sport up, the more ingrained in it you become.”
Life after City
Whitley struggled for chances following City’s promotion back to the second tier and was loaned out to Blackburn and Norwich City, both managed by Nigel Worthington, during the 1999-2000 season, as the Blues were promoted back to the Premier League.
He played only once for City that season, against Huddersfield Town in February, and in 2001 was given a free transfer following further loan spells with Swindon Town and Northampton Town, having made just 46 appearances in eight years
“Kevin Keegan had replaced Joe by then and my contract was up,” he says. “I was gutted to leave, but that is football for you.
“Whenever I speak to City fans now, they know I always gave 100 per cent, which they love.”
He returned to North Wales with Wrexham, spending five years there before being forced to retire at 31 due to persistent injuries.
From there his career took a totally different route as he became a full-time singer. He is now playing Sammy Davis Jr in a stage production called Crooners.
Whitley says: “I was in a choir as a kid so I learned harmonies and I also played the flute, so I could read music.
“When I was at Wrexham, a girl who had written a song came in and wanted the lads to join in the chorus.
“We went to the studio and I loved it in there, so the guy running it invited me back and offered me a guest spot at a theatre to sing a few numbers.
“The bass player who was part of the band there asked me to join him in London for a musical about the Rat Pack and it snowballed from there.
Jim Whitley doing a bit of crooning in a ratpack stage show. pic.twitter.com/ymTNYOqur0
— Kool as Kompany (@RobHines6_1) October 17, 2013
“When you play football, you almost have to transform into someone else – you put a mask on. It is the same when you go on stage.”
A talented portrait artist, too, he was commissioned to paint Princess Diana for her former butler, Paul Burrell, and he has painted portraits of numerous former team-mates.
He also works as a pundit for BBC Radio Manchester, and that dark day of 20 years ago seems as far away as ever when he is co-commentating at City’s Etihad Stadium.
“Sitting in the away changing room at Stoke back then, I would never have believed that, in two decades time, City would be where they are now,” Whitley says.
“We have arguably the best manager in the world in Pep Guardiola and the players he has brought are on another level.
“They are now playing the way Pep wants. He’s laid down the gauntlet and said to the other teams, ‘Right, come and find a way to beat us.’
“Funnily enough, I was at City when they lost to Basel and some of the fans were booing because the passing wasn’t great.
“That made me laugh, thinking back to how it was 20 years ago.”
By Simon Yaffe