Northern Ireland v Morocco: Our kids will be alright for us, says Norman Whiteside
He was as tough as Graeme Souness, as determined as Bryan Robson and had a left foot to die for like Liam Brady.
Norman Whiteside really was something else. A player with strength and skill, inspired rather than scared by the biggest of occasions.
A colossus for club and country. It's a crying shame that, due to injury he was forced to call it a day in 1991 when he just 26.
On the flip side, though, marvel at what he achieved in less than 10 years as a professional footballer. Through the 80s Whiteside played for Manchester United and Everton, scored FA Cup final winners and intimidated virtually every opponent unlucky enough to invade his personal space.
For Northern Ireland, he roared like a lion, playing in the finals of two World Cups, eclipsing Pele as the youngest ever to perform on the grandest stage of all in the epic adventure that was Espana ’82.
He's one of Windsor Park's favourite sons and tonight will return to the famous old Belfast venue as part of the Sky Sports team to cover the international friendly between Northern Ireland and Morocco.
Like the rest of us Whiteside will get his first glimpse of rookies like Adam Barton, Josh McQuoid and Lee Hodson.
Although that trio will be excited by the prospect of entering the international arena, the pressure is off — remember there are no points at stake this evening.
Compare that to when big Norman made his debut for Northern Ireland as a gifted, but raw, teenager, who was turning out for Manchester United reserves.
“I remember my first match for Northern Ireland well. I could hardly forget it. I was thrown in at the deep end because my first game was in Spain in the World Cup finals against Yugoslavia. I was 17 years and 41 days,” recalls Whiteside, now 45.
“I pretty much went from the United reserves straight into the Northern Ireland team. I remember our coach at United, Eric Harrison, telling me that Billy Bingham had been watching me in the reserves and that I had a chance of going to the World Cup.
“Of course I didn't believe him, but I got in the original squad before it was trimmed down and we trained at Brighton. I did quite well there, scored a few goals against Pat Jennings and ended up going to the World Cup, where I played in all our games. Hopefully I didn't let anyone down.”
Delivering in crunch games was a speciality for Whiteside, who scored in the 1986 Mexico finals. He was only 21 then, still younger that most of the players in Nigel Worthington's kindergarten squad.
While other former internationals have questioned the merit of the Morocco match, Whiteside believes it could prove to be a useful exercise.
“It gives Nigel a chance to see what these young lads are like and for the players themselves they will get to put on that green shirt and play for their country which will be a big thrill,” he says.
“Let's hope they take their chance and put the other senior players who aren't there under pressure. Just because you are young, it doesn't mean you can't cope.”
Whiteside, whose nephew Finlay is a mascot tonight, believes the Windsor fans can help Worthington's new look side.
“The crowd are unbelievable. The support is second to none, they get behind you and it was always a thrill for me to play in front of them, especially at Windsor Park.
It will be the same for the boys against Morocco,” says Norman, a part-time podiatrist.
The big debate ahead of tonight's game has centred around record goalscorer David Healy's absence from the original squad and then the amended one following all the withdrawals.
Whiteside is typically forthright in his opinion about the subject.
“David Healy will be feeling a bit hurt and rejected. You would have thought he may have got the call when we had all those injuries, so it is a double whammy for him,” says Whiteside, who scored nine goals in 38 appearances for his country.
“Healy has been brilliant for Northern Ireland, but he can't seem to hold his place at any football club in England. I don't know the reason for that. As for him not being picked I think it's all about Nigel sticking to his guns.”
Whiteside, involved in corporate hospitality at Old Trafford these days, played alongside Worthington back in the day and feels that the former defender is doing a decent job as Northern Ireland boss.
“You have to give him a chance. It's a tough job,” he says.
It would be a lot easier if Nigel could call on a player of Whiteside's calibre.
Norman Whiteside is a match expert for Sky Sports live high definition coverage of Northern Ireland v Morocco tonight from 7.30pm on Sky Sports HD 2. To upgrade to HD call 08442410241.