The gasp of excitement when Stoke’s first signing of the summer was announced could not have been less audible, had a cotton ball touched felt. Here we were, on the crest of a wave, after comfortably cementing another season with English football’s elite, daring to dream of superstars finally returning to play in the famous red and white stripes of our famous club. A club that has boasted the likes of Jimmy Greenhoff, Sir Stanley Matthews, Terry Conroy and Alan Hudson, were in a position to finally bring in players that only 18 months ago, we could never in a million years dreamed of. If rumours were to be believed, we were being linked with Valencia’s Nikola Zigic and Paul Scholes! The anticipation was at the highest I can remember in my 24 years following Stoke. And finally, ‘beep beep’, hundreds of Stoke fans phones went off, “We’ve signed someone! My God, who could it be?!......... Dean Whitehead?! Oh for the love of God!” It was quite possibly the biggest anti-climax since The Godfather Part 3!
Let’s be honest, Dean had hardly done himself any favours with the Stoke faithful the season before with his comments about our style of play, following Sunderland’s 1-0 defeat to The Mighty Potters. After a game in which Stoke totally dominated, and outfought and outplayed their opponents in every department on an arctic cold night, Dean bitterly retorted “I don’t think they strung two passes together all evening. Every time they got it, all they wanted to do was bang it long...Sometimes; it’s easier to play against a team that wants to play football against you than it is to face a side who are knocking it long at every opportunity.”
Dean hardly set the world alight at the beginning of the season, and most supporters couldn’t see why we had spent a fee that could possibly rise to £5 million on Rory Delap Mark 2, minus the throw. He couldn’t pass, couldn’t tackle, and was the epitome of ‘The Invisible Man’. Against Manchester United, at home I shed genuine amazement when Tuncay replaced him, as I hadn’t even realised he was on the pitch to begin with. At a club that has a certain section of fans that love nothing more than a scapegoat a la Richard Creswell; Dean Whitehead seemed more than happy to claim that mantle. Then on the 24th October, Stoke travelled to White Hart Lane.
Stoke travelled to North London expecting nothing. A draw would have been an incredible result. But Stoke played like Lions that day, and none more so than in the middle of the park where Dean Whitehead and Salif Diao snapped, harried, chased and fought for 95 minutes like their lives depended on it. The result was nothing less than we deserved, and is probably the biggest result I’ve witnessed in my lifetime. More importantly, from that moment on Whitehead never seemed to look back.
Against Blackburn just over a month later, Pulis said that he believed he had finally seen the best of Dean, and his quality was beginning to show. A booking in that game incidentally meant he missed his only Premiership game of the season to date away at Arsenal, which goes to show the belief Pulis has in him.
Yesterday Pulis went as far to say “I would put him up there among the best midfielders on current form” and few could argue with him. His goal against Arsenal last weekend was just reward for a player who has been our most consistent performer for the past two months. It’s no over exaggeration to suggest that he could well be first name Pulis puts onto the team sheet each week. The problem with Dean and the unfair flack he got when he first arrived is that he performs a very thankless task. It’s difficult for a ‘holding midfielder’ to be the hero of the hour. Believe it or not Chelsea fans often questioned Claude Makelele’s role at Chelsea, before he blossomed into the icon of what a holding midfielder should aspire to be. And their importance and worth can not be underestimated. After Makelele’s departure from Madrid, it took them 4 years to reclaim the La Liga title, having won it twice in the three years he was with them. Similarly, Chelsea have failed to reclaim The Premiership title since letting him leave for Paris Saint-Germain, and Arsenal have failed to do the same since letting Patrick Vieira leave for Juventus.
Goal scoring forwards, creative play-makers and exciting wingers may grab all the headlines, but a disciplined ‘holding midfielder’ is worth his weight in gold, and in Dean Whitehead we have such a player.
It may be that Whitehead has been playing this well all season, and that it’s only just been noticed. Who knows? But for any doubter of Dean’s contribution to the team, just spend 5 minutes watching him, and him alone. He covers every blade of grass on that pitch. When we’re caught on the counter attack, having sent Faye and Shawcross forward, who’s always there to mop up? Dean Whitehead. Last ditch tackles, it’s him again. Marking Danny Murphy out of the game? Yep, you guessed it!
My previous columns have been quite scathing towards Tony Pulis and his team selections, but credit where credit is due. Dean Whitehead has been an excellent signing for this club, and with a ball playing midfielder next to him, we will surely push us on to the next level that we all so dearly wish for.
Last year Abdoulaye Faye ran away with every player of the year award at Stoke. If Dean continues the kind of form and work rate that he has shown of late, don’t be surprised if it’s him who cleans up come May. At this moment in time he certainly gets my vote