Meeting a childhood hero

Reading through the Belfast Telegraph today I came across a promotion for an interesting event.

Next month the paper is hosting an evening at Windsor Park with former Manchester United players Norman Whiteside and Paul McGrath.

I don’t follow football very closely these days but something about these names brought me back to my childhood.

A time when football really mattered. When whether Man Utd won or lost could determine the happiness or misery of my day.

The ongoing battle for bragging rights with the Liverpool fans in the playground. In my juvenile mind Liverpool occupied a space alongside Darth Vader and Giant Haystacks.

It was simply inconceivable to me how any right-minded young boy could follow Liverpool over Man U. It was an epic and never-ending struggle for supremacy.

At that time football had not yet been totally immersed in the madness of unbridled commercialism.

It was still a rarity to see a live match on TV. At the World Cup in Spain in ‘82 Whiteside broke the record held by Pele as the youngest player ever to appear in the tournament.

That event was lit up by the exotic brilliance of the Brazilian team featuring Zico, Eder and Socrates.

Much of their appeal lay in the fact that we had never seen them play before and knew we would probably have to wait another four years, until the next World Cup, to see them again.

It’s simply inconceivable today to think of a situation where you can’t see the best players in the world perform on a weekly basis.

Closer to home the figure of Norman Whiteside represented something important to me.

Growing up in shitty Northern Ireland in the late 70s with the daily terrorist outrages, he represented a way out.

A local boy playing for the world’s most glamorous team.

It could happen. It really could.

That was something you could hang on to in the bleakest of times.

Of course I’ve seen scores of better players represent Manchester United since Whiteside was there.

I’ve also witnessed the team go on to enjoy unparalleled success.

But none of them, and none of it, seems to matter as much as when Big Norm was kicking lumps out of the Liverpool midfield.

Last year, when I still worked in the Tele, I got the opportunity to meet Whiteside.

He’s a friend of the paper’s sports editor Jim Gracey. Jim brought him into the newsroom and introduced us.

As often when you meet someone you’ve grown up admiring, I was a little bit tongue-tied at first.

But Whiteside was quite charming and modest and soon we were chatting.

Inevitably I had to ask him about the famous winning goal he scored in the ‘85 FA Cup Final against Everton.

He must have told the story thousands of times in his life but it was quite endearing to see the obvious boyish enthusiasm as he recounted it again.

How he had used the Everton defender van den Hauwe as a human shield so goalkeeper Southall wouldn’t see the vicious swerving left foot shot until it was too late.

I told him it was still the most important sporting memory of my life. Ranking much higher even than when United won the treble in ‘99.

He seemed slightly discomfited by this. A natural shyness railing against the outrageous compliment.

At the time Northern Ireland had qualified for Euro 2016 and Norman had been invited by ITV to do some punditry on the games.

But as well as the NI games he had to provide studio opinions on a couple of the matches featuring other teams.

I was quite startled by his shyness when he said to me. ‘What do I know about them? What will I say?’

I wasn’t sure if it was a rhetorical question but I answered anyway.

‘You’ll always think of something to say Norman’.

And he did. He was funny and engaging on his TV appearances.

Both Whiteside and McGrath have plenty to say. Stories of excess, adversity and injury. Of triumph and survival.

They’re a breed apart from the footballers of today.

It should be a really good night.

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