Jim Whitley: Footballer, artist, singer.

Jim Whitley is a gifted individual.

Footballer, artist, singer; a quick glance at his CV paints a picture of man who has sailed through life thanks to an abundance of God given talent.

He is talented.

After all, how many people have artwork commissioned and travel Europe as a performer after clocking up more than 200 games as a professional footballer?

It is therefore surprising to hear the former Manchester City midfielder say he often felt like he was playing catch up in both his sporting and artistic careers.

It started with football.

Born in Zambia, where he spent the first ten years of his life, Whitley was a passionate golfer who had never kicked a ball before he moved to Wrexham in the 1980s, but within five years of his arrival in the UK, he had signed for City.

Whitley was inspired to pursue football by his best friend at school, a certain Robbie Savage, and he might well be the only footballer who can thank the yellow pages for giving him a start in the game.

“When I was 15, I went for trials at Shrewsbury Town and they were about to sign me,” he tells mancity.com 30-years after he joined the Club.

“I was buzzing. We were living with my half-brother in Wrexham, but my half-sister lived in Manchester and her husband was a massive City fan.

“He literally looked in the yellow pages and found the youth development officer, Terry Fowler, rang him and told him I was about to sign for Shrewsbury and asked whether City would have a look at me.

“They invited me over the following week for a two-day trial. I signed the week after. It was as simple as that.

“It was only because I came to England that I started playing football because that’s what everyone else was doing.

“I met Robbie Savage, who was a massive inspiration at that age, and I thought ‘I want to do that’. If he wasn’t there would I have got into football in the same way? Probably not.

“I was a quick learner and in Sav, I had someone with excellent ability playing with me. I always think if you learn off good people, whether that’s football or singing or anything else, it will rub off.

“I was always practicing because I had missed so many years of not playing football. At 11 and 12 there were lads who were far better than me, but I found myself catching up.

“There were times when I’d play against them and think these boys are good but within a year, I’d be better than them. Lads that had signed early doors faded away and I was on the up.”

Joining City no doubt made Whitley the envy of his peers in Wrexham.

Thousands dream of playing professionally, but for him, football was initially just a way to try and fit in, a feeling that proved elusive during his childhood.

Born to a Northern Irish father and a Zambian mother, his dual heritage was a point of difference in the country of his birth and it was the same when he moved to North Wales.

To make the adjustment period more difficult, Whitley arrived in Wrexham without his parents, who had stayed in Zambia due to his dad’s work commitments.

Their eldest son, along with younger brother Jeff, who also played for City and their sister, had been sent to the UK to live with their father’s other son from a previous relationship, in order to get a better education.

“I will never forget when my dad said, ‘do you want to move to England?’ and I thought that will be something new and exciting,” Whitley recalls.

“He said you will be going on your own and you will have to look after your brother and sister and at that point, part of me got ripped out because I was so close to my dad.

“We had to start a new life and because I was the eldest, I always felt I had to be quite strong, but I knew I wasn’t with my mum and dad.

“I was with my half-brother and sister who were both white. Whenever we walked around town, even though we were related, people would look at us like ‘what are they doing with them’.

“I had eyes on me everywhere. It was like I was someone they had never seen before. Obviously at first, I was the new kid, but it was the same when I went to high school.

“Everyone used to look at me and I knew it was because of my colour. I didn’t fit in.

“Incidentally, because I was in a predominantly Black school in Zambia I used to get called white names because I got picked up by dad.

“When I moved to Wrexham, being the only lad of colour in a predominantly white school, I got called Black names, which was a total mess up in my head.

“For a long time, I didn’t feel like I fitted in. I did whatever I needed to. I joined the choir, I joined the band, I did anything I could to fit in.”

Whitley can still remember how uncomfortable he felt when anything went missing or was stolen in school and he realised he was considered the primary suspect.

It was a difficult period, but there was one Wrexham native who embraced the boy from Zambia.

“Sav was the golden child in school,” Whitley says of the former Wales international turned TV pundit.

“After signing for Manchester United so early, all the teachers liked him and having him by my side made it a lot easier for me.

“That he was so good at football, did help. He used to call for me in the mornings. He would walk past the school to my house.

“I was in a council house and he would come and knock on the door. He was from quite a wealthy family and he would turn up in his nice gear.

“He didn’t have to do that, but he did, and he was my best mate through school and it helped massively.”

It created quite the buzz around the school when it became apparent that Whitley and Savage would be joining two rival teams upon completion of their GCSEs.

The latter was something of a prodigy in Wrexham, but he never made a first team appearance for United, whereas late developer Whitley steadily progressed at City.

But despite joining the professional ranks, that feeling of playing catch up never left the midfielder, who didn’t make his debut until the relatively late age of 22, 16 months after brother Jeff, who is four years his junior.

Nonetheless, the older brother was named the Club’s Young Player of the Season at the end of his first campaign.

It was a promising start, but his City career would be hampered by injuries that restricted him to just 46 senior appearances and ensured he suffered the agonising fate of missing the 1999 Division 2 Playoff final.

Two years later, after a succession of loan spells, he departed for Wrexham on a free transfer, but Whitley is not a man who lives with the regret of what might have been.

“To get promoted was magical and I was part of that,” he explains.

“I was part of the process so to not be involved in that final…I didn’t realise how monumental that would be at the time.

“I was happy for my brother though. He was out of favour. He was more or less gone, but through injuries he came back in. He had a new lease of life and clung onto it and was magnificent.

“I was gutted I didn’t play. I was gutted I fell out of the side and I was gutted I ended up leaving City. Having to move on and go to another club is something that happens to every player. It is just the way of life as a footballer.

“I am proud of what I achieved in a short space of time.  I would love to have got rid of the injuries to see what would have happened, but I still enjoyed my career.”

For all his injury woes, Whitley still managed to play international football, winning three caps for Northern Ireland.

He was also eligible for England, Wales and Zambia, but elected to play for the country of his father and for whom brother Jeff became the first Black player in the nation’s history.

Together, they were the first Black brothers to represent the Northern Ireland.

Wales also came calling, but he resisted the temptation to compete alongside Savage in order to play with his brother, whilst he decided against pursuing a career with Zambia due to the impracticality of the travelling.

His background was a talking point at international level and whilst it never manifested into overt racism, Whitley was still questioned on his Northern Irish heritage.

However, racism did cast an ugly shadow over his playing career.

“It was a huge part of it,” he says.

“It was an easy way for a fan to put me off, but to call me names, I don’t think that is an off the cuff remark.

“It is weird because when you are coming through the ranks nobody ever teaches you that you might get a load of abuse. You either handle it or you don’t. It is as simple as that.

“In football you have to have a tough outer skin. You almost have to turn your emotions off when fans are having a go at you because you wouldn’t be able to play.

“Some of the stuff that came out of fans’ mouths would be quite hurtful and players aren’t allowed to have a go back.

“Another player saying stuff didn’t bother me as much because I would have them at some point, even if it wasn’t that game, I would remember them for the next game.

“You could definitely leave one on them. It’s football, bad tackles happen, but when you start name calling, that is poor.

“I always thought I’ll have you for that. Or I would tell a couple of teammates if they were closer and they would look after it.”

It was at City where Whitley first received payment for his art.

The landmark first customer? None other than Tony Book.

Having taken an art A Level at Loreto College in Manchester, the midfielder became interested in Chiaroscuro, a technique which uses strong contrasts between light and darkness.

It is something which influences the portraits he continues to enjoy drawing and painting today, and it was the dramatic lighting on a photo of Book which inspired his first paid work.

That first piece was done for pure enjoyment, but since then art has become much more than a hobby for Whitley, who has been commissioned to do portraits of Princess Diana and David Beckham.

“I was around 18 and I saw a picture of Tony Book in the programme,” he explains.

“His face was unbelievably lit so I drew it and I went and showed him and he said, ‘How much? I’ll buy it off you’.

“I was doing art before I made my debut, in parallel with the football, but when I broke into the first team that was the major focus, though at times when I was injured I would go back to doing art.

“It has always been there and as time has passed, I have got better. I had a lot of contacts so I could go into football grounds. I might not sell the picture I took with me, but I might get a commission off the back of it.

“I know my artwork is decent, but it is not everyone’s cup of tea. They will say that’s decent, but in a footballer’s world they might not be interested in a portrait.

“It is about hitting the right people. If I go into a dressing room, I can often get one or two commissions at least.

“One of the big ones I did was Prince Diana, which her former butler Paul Burrell asked me to do. That was quite a big deal. It was in OK magazine.

“I was still playing football when I did that. We had just got relegated to Division 2. We played Stoke away and I came off at half-time because of my ankle, which had ballooned like hell.

“That evening I had to present the portrait to Paul Burrell at a hotel in Manchester.”

Whilst Whitley was able to pursue has passion for art alongside his football career, it was the end of his playing days which allowed him to return to another early passion.

Having left the school choir when his football commitments became all-encompassing as a teenager, he revived his vocal talent towards the end of his spell at Wrexham, when the squad were asked to sing on a track about the Club.

He proved an instant hit and with his injury curse blighting the twilight of his career, the music industry offered him the chance to embark on a new chapter.

“There was a girl who had written a song about Wrexham and she wanted all the players to sing the chorus line.

“The guy who was recording it pulled me to one side and asked if I wanted to do a guest spot at the theatre where she was singing.

“I went and sang a couple of numbers and there was a bass player who said you need to contact this guy and gave me his card.

“I was still playing but I sent a recording over and then I got injured. He asked me to come and see him and he wanted me to do a Sammy Davis Jr. spot within a Rat Pack.

“He gave me a script, some choreography and harmony lines. This was with two West End singers, so I was straight in at the deep end. It was like with football, I enjoyed the learning part and trying to catch up to everyone else.

“I never actually retired from football. I just slipped out of the game. I left Wrexham in 2005/06 because they didn’t have any money and couldn’t offer me a contract.

“I had a double micro-fracture injury so I couldn’t go on trial at a club. The singing filled a void that football had left, and I found myself getting more and more work to the point where I was travelling across Europe.”

Hard work has taken Whitley a long way in life and in professions where you are constantly being scrutinised.

One person’s opinion can make or break your career and be the difference between success and failure.

Which, then, did this man of many talents find more difficult - stepping out in front of a capacity crowd at Maine Road, or waiting to take to the stage?

“The buzz of walking out onto a football pitch is something else,” he concludes. “You can’t replicate that at all, but walking out on stage on your own is far more nerve wracking.

“When you are on your own, if you forget lyrics, the eyes are on you. Nobody else can bail you out. On a pitch, if you have a bad touch, you can have a go at the player who passed it. There is always someone to blame.

“Singing is far worse!”