Whelan plays key role in renaissance

Fri, Jun 5, 2009, 01:00

FOR A symbol of the Republic of Ireland’s renaissance under Giovanni Trapattoni it is tempting to look no further than Glenn Whelan. Industrious, disciplined, unfashionable; such adjectives cling to the Stoke City midfielder, but, rather like his nation, here is a player on the rise.

Just over a year ago the 25-year-old was in the England Championship and considered an international also-ran, with little more than under-age caps to his name.

Yet, he can now reflect upon a defining period, in which he has stepped up to Premier League level and, more startlingly, emerged as the fulcrum of an Ireland team that has realistic designs on the World Cup finals in South Africa.

Until last Friday’s 1-1 friendly draw with Nigeria at Craven Cottage, when he came on as a second-half substitute, Whelan had not missed a minute of Trapattoni’s 11-game tenure and he will return to the starting line-up here for tomorrow night’s World Cup qualifying tie against Bulgaria. “I’ve come in later on in my career, but I never stopped believing that I could do it if I got a chance,” said Whelan, the one-time Manchester City trainee, who went on to play for Bury and Sheffield Wednesday.

“I’ve been lucky and I’m very thankful to the manager for picking me. I’m delighted to be with the squad and, hopefully, I can keep improving.”

For Whelan, international recognition came before his Premier League break-through.

He was an unheralded member of the squad that Trapattoni took to Portugal for a training camp last May, when other, more established players did not make themselves available. He impressed and was promptly given his chance in Trapattoni’s first matches later that month, the friendlies with Serbia and Colombia.

One of Trapattoni’s characteristics is he bases selection on what he sees with his own eyes and not on previously constructed reputations and, when he likened Whelan to Gennaro Gattuso, the Italy defensive midfielder, it made the player blush with pride.

Whelan has not looked back, although it was his continued neatness and tidiness in an Ireland shirt that gave a nudge to Stoke manager Tony Pulis, who oversaw the club’s promotion from the Championship a year ago.

Whelan’s first international goal, a deflected shot from outside the penalty area, proved to be the winner in the away tie with Georgia in September.

“My breakthrough with Ireland helped me at Stoke, because, at the time, I wasn’t playing for my club,” said Whelan. “Hopefully, I’ve given the Stoke manager something to think about with those international games. I got back in (the Stoke team) at Christmas time and I’ve been fortunate to stay in.”

Whelan was seen in some quarters in the early months of the season as too cultured to establish himself as a regular in Pulis’s rough-around-the-edges team. He likes to get the ball down and play, but, although Trapattoni demands his midfielders cherish possession, he prizes more the steely side to Whelan’s game.

One suspects his blood pressure would not cope if Whelan were to get ahead of the ball and he will instruct him to shield the back four at all costs against Bulgaria and to keep an eye on Manchester United’s Dimitar Berbatov, who is likely to drift off and around the lead striker Valeri Bojinov.

“It’s a different manager (at international level) so it’s a different style of football,” said Whelan. “But I’ve got a lot more international experience now. First I just wanted to be around the set-up, then the goal was to get some games and, now that I’m here, I don’t want to give it up.”

If Stoke confounded expectations in their first season back in the Premier League, then so has Whelan and he is determined to sign off for the summer on a high.

“I don’t think anyone gave us any hope going out to Italy (in April) but to get the 1-1 draw has given everyone a big boost,” said Whelan. “We’re all excited now about Saturday and more than confident we can get something.”