Premier League Career: Leeds United (1993-1995), Coventry City (1995-2000), Middlesbrough (2000-2003)
Noel Whelan began his career at Leeds United and went on to play for no fewer than 12 different clubs. With Leeds flying in the SkyBet EFL Championship, Whelan must be enjoying his role in media nowadays as the Matchday co-commentator for all of the club’s matches on BBC Radio Leeds.
Although it was at Leeds where he started out, Whelan’s most productive Premier League period was a five-year spell at Coventry City, where he scored 31 times in 133 matches. He was often the creator who would pop up with vital goals and play a significant part in the development of the excellent partnership between Darren Huckerby and Dion Dublin.
Born in Leeds, he started his professional career with the men from Elland Road and other scouts had been impressed. He had trials as a youngster at Arsenal, Everton and Manchester United. However, his desire was to make the breakthrough at his boyhood club. Turning professional in March 1993, Whelan made his debut towards the end of the inaugural Premier League campaign, featuring in a 1-1 draw with Sheffield Wednesday in May.
His major breakthrough came in his second full season in the first-team – 1994-1995. Whelan made a brilliant start to the season, scoring a late winner in the club’s first home match of the season against Arsenal. He also found the target against Chelsea and his two goals beat Manchester City 2-0 in October 1994. Whelan ended with seven goals in 23 appearances but in January 1995, Howard Wilkinson felt that he wasn’t the answer to Leeds’s striking prowess. He ventured into the Bundesliga to sign Ghanaian hotshot Tony Yeboah from Eintracht Frankfurt. He immediately took Whelan’s place in the team and with Yeboah’s sharp eye for a deadly strike; Whelan’s days at Leeds were numbered.
After making eight appearances without scoring in 1995-1996, Whelan was sold for £2 million to Coventry City nine days before Christmas in 1995. Ron Atkinson believed he had a bargain and he’d been helped in the signing by a strong recommendation from his assistant, Gordon Strachan, who’d played alongside Whelan at Leeds. He scored the winner on his home debut against Everton and produced a wonderful solo strike at home to Southampton on New Years’ Day that was a contender for the BBC’s Goal of the Month. He finished with eight goals for the Sky Blues in 21 appearances as they avoided relegation on the final day of the season.
Another six strikes followed in 1996-1997 from 35 games but Huckerby’s arrival from Newcastle United meant he became the focal point of the attack and Strachan preferred to play him upfront alongside Dublin with Whelan often dropping in behind the forward pairing. His development saw him move more into a midfield role as his career at Coventry progressed and in 1997-1998, he came up with the opening goals in a shock win at home to Manchester United and in an impressive 2-2 draw with champions Arsenal.
Dublin’s departure for Aston Villa in November 1998 saw Whelan move back into a forward position midway through the 1998-1999 campaign and it was of a benefit to him as he produced his best Premier League goalscoring return of 10 goals in 31 matches. Coventry fans were excited by the potential partnership that was forming between Whelan and Huckerby but those hopes were to be dashed in August 1999 when Huckerby was sold to Leeds United and Whelan sustained a nasty injury in pre-season which meant he missed the bulk of the first half of the 1999-2000 campaign. With Robbie Keane now the main man in-attack and the exciting Moroccan duo of Youssef Chippo and Mustapha Hadji around, Whelan was no longer a first-choice player when he returned from injury and he left the club in August 2000.
Middlesbrough was his next destination for £2.2 million and ironically, he made his Boro bow as a substitute on the opening day of the 2000-2001 season in a 3-1 win away at Coventry. He spent three years on Teeside but struggled to recapture the form he’d shown at Coventry. The highest moment was a goal to knock Manchester United out of the FA Cup in 2002 at the fourth round stage.
That was the end of his Premier League time. He went on to play outside the top-flight in England with Crystal Palace, Millwall, Derby County, Boston United, Harrogate Town and Darlington. He also had unhappy spells in Scottish football with Aberdeen, Livingston and Dunfermline Athletic. He retired from playing in 2010 due to injury and other issues away from the football field.
In early January 2006, Whelan admitted to an addiction with alcohol and he was admitted to the Sporting Chance alcoholism treatment clinic that had been set-up by former England skipper, Tony Adams. Financial issues played a role in a troubled end to his playing days and Whelan was actually declared bankrupt in 2010.
After the end of his playing days, he had a brief time in coaching, having a spell as a youth team coach at Derby County before moving into the media industry at the start of 2013-2014. Alongside his Leeds commitments, Whelan also does some sporadic work for Sky Sports News as an in-studio match summariser.