There are some players – and Roy Keane is one that immediately comes to mind – whose ‘hard man’ image actually detracts from how good of a footballer they were and the regard they ought to be held in. That probably isn’t the case with Billy Whitehurst, who really was a battering ram of a centre-forward. Often described as the hardest man in football, Whitehurst left defenders from Hansen to Keown with some form of PTSD after facing his unique approach to the ‘beautiful’ game.
Oddly, Whitehurst joined Newcastle United in 1985 thanks to cash freed up by the sale of Chris Waddle. Agile and intelligent with masterful technique, I ought to point out that I am describing Chris Waddle and not Billy Whitehurst here, the England international would be a tough act to follow. Whitehurst was the antithesis if Waddle. A brickie who had been plucked from the semi-pro ranks by Hull City aged 21, ‘cultured’ would not be the first word that came to mind when watching the six foot front man.
Nevertheless, Newccastle made him the most expensive signing in the club’s history at the time for £232,000, a tidy profit for Hull, who had signed him for just £2,000. In his first season at Boothferry Park, Whitehurst’s performances resembled that of a fan who had won a competition to turn out for their local side in a charity match. He scored just one goal in twenty-six appearances as the Tigers were relegated from the Third Division.
Luckily for Big Billy, he found a mentor in East Yorkshire who took him under his wing. Chris Chilton is Hull City’s all-time leading scorer. In many respects, Chilton’s journey as a player had been a similar one to Whitehurst’s. He had joined Hull City from non-league ranks, as a big centre-forward with a rawness to his game, before going on to score 222 goals in 477 games in black and amber. The hours that the two players spent on the training ground together gradually saw Whitehurst look more at home on a football pitch.
It was just that, a very gradual process though, and for the most part, Whitehurst was used as a foil for a strike partner. He partnered Keith Edwards in his debut campaign, then it was the prolific Les Mutrie, and even after that Brian Marwood was a more regular goal scorer from the wing that Whitehurst. After Marwood left the Tigers to join Sheffield Wednesday, Whitehurst stepped up, scoring 24 goals in all competitions as the club won promotion to the Second Division, their second promotion in three seasons.
He started the following season in the second tier in a similar vein, bagging 7 goals in 18 league games prior to his big-money move. At St. James’ Park though, Whitehurst found himself in a similar position as when he first joined Hull City. In a team containing the likes of Paul Gascoigne and Peter Beardsley, Whitehurst was well-aware that his technical ability wasn’t quite up to scratch once more. He failed to score in his first eleven games, which is some achievement with those two behind you. He scored in his twelfth outings, before going on a seven-game scoring run: but that, as they say, was that.
The robust centre-forward scored no more goals that season, and failed to score in ten in the season that followed before a transfer to Oxford United. His tally of seven goals in thirty-eight games certainly wasn’t great, and Whitehurst more recently reflected that he, ‘probably wasn’t good enough’. That seems to be the consensus among most Newcastle fans, with the hard man centre-forward even being named in a worst Newcastle team of the last 25 years not so long ago.
He is a player better known for his actions without the ball and with it, and that seems to be a reputation that delights and disappoints him in equal measure. Between joking of how he only ever threatened to break Gazza’s jaw after he nutmegged him in training, rather than actually doing it, and boasting of how he convinced World Cup winner Alan Ball that it would be a good idea for him to take out the goalkeeper in Stoke’s first corner of the game, Whitehurst is always keen to bring up an old quote by Bobby Charlton. After a game between Manchester United and Newcastle United at St. James’ Park, Bobby Charlton wrote in his column, ‘I came to see Gascoigne and Beardsley, but the best player on the pitch was Whitehurst.’
It is as a hard man that Whitehurst will always be remembered though. Harry Redknapp once called him a ‘maniac’, whilst advising his 16-year-old son to go nowhere near him at Bournemouth. The former West Ham man was quoted as saying, ‘Mike Tyson wouldn’t have lasted 10 minutes on that pitch with Whitehurst,’ after the big man had knocked out three of his players in one game.
After leaving Newcastle, Whitehurst had three further seasons in the First Division, two with Oxford and one with Sheffield United, as well as turning out for Reading, Sunderland and a much-anticipated return to Hull City.