Cod Almighty | Article
6 August 2007
Having left the Army Pay Corps at 23 to embark upon a professional playing career, the inventively nicknamed 'Sarge' has notched up a nicely rounded 400 first-team appearances in his 13 years as a professional footballer. Following a brief stint at Celtic and the best part of four seasons at Stoke, Justin spent six seasons with our friends across the Humber, where he made 184 appearances and is still held in high regard. After falling out of favour with the then Taaaghers manager, Peter Taylor, Whittle was released and was quickly snapped up by Russell Slade in the summer of 2004.
'Whitts' joined a Grimsby Town that had been decimated following the previous season's relegation. The team that capitulated at Tranmere on 8 May 2004 (thus consigning us to the horrors of basement football and resulting in a particularly rubbish 31st birthday for me) shipped a whopping 81 goals that season, ending up with a goal difference of -26. Despite a disappointing 18th-place finish in the 2004–05 season, those figures were reduced to 42 and -1 respectively. While I won't claim that Whitts managed this all by himself, there can be no doubt that the experience and commitment he displayed in his 39 appearances played a huge part.
It's fair to say that Whitts isn't the most cultured defender that the game has ever seen, and has sufficient grey matter between his ears to realise it (he once joked in an interview that he liked to drive past Boothferry Park, as he could find most of his clearances on the adjacent railway tracks). He relies on his experience and reading of the game to supplement his 'heading and hoofing' approach to defending, and chooses a captaincy style based on encouragement and rallying rather than finger-pointing and bellowing.
It is surely against the law by now to write anything about Justin Whittle without mentioning his memorable encounter with Alan 'Elbows' Shearer. Not content with everlasting popularity in Stoke and Hull, accompanied by a growing fanbase in North East Lincolnshire, Justin endeared himself to the majority of the UK's football-supporting populace by sticking one on the Geordie whinger during Grimsby's tie against Newcastle in the 2004–05 League Cup. While Alan was bleating to all who would listen (which was most of his pals in the media), Justin maintained a dignified silence and got on with the job in hand, which was helping to steer Grimsby to the play-off final in Cardiff.
With an impressive haul of eight awards at the 2006–07 player of the year presentations, there can be no doubt that Whitts has become as firm a fans' favourite here as he was with t' Taaaghers. He's not a flair player, and doesn't score many goals (six in his career), so what is it about Justin that makes him so popular? It could be the never-say-die attitude he displays on the pitch, or the way he always plays the game with a smile on his face. Perhaps it's the way that he connects with the fans, happy to share a laugh and a joke even when things aren't going right, and doesn't appear to take himself too seriously. Or maybe it's a little bit of all of these things, combined with the simple fact that Justin Whittle is a top bloke.
Evidence of this top blokeness was clear at the GTFC open day this summer, where the players held a training session on the pitch, followed by a period of time posing for photos and signing autographs. Three guesses at who was the last player to make it back to the changing room, spending time making sure all the kids went away happy. You got it – Justin Whittle.
So what does the future hold for 'Sarge'? He impressed Alan Buckley sufficiently last season to be denied the chance in January to link up with former KCFC manager Warren Joyce at Royal Antwerp – and ultimately to be offered a further 12-month playing contract with the Mariners. A quick glance at the squad list, however, hints that opportunities may be limited, with the first-choice central defensive partnership looking like Fenton andBennett. At the age of 36, and holding squad number 15, Whitts' appearances may chiefly be as substitute and injury cover.
With Macca having finally retired at the end of last season at the second (or was it third?) attempt, Whitts assumes the 'elder statesman' role within the playing squad. While Macca's boots are going to be nigh-on impossible to fill on the field, off the field, right now I can't think of a better candidate to assume that role than Justin Whittle.