From teenage rivals to the Shrewsbury Town dream team
Dean Whitehead and Sam Ricketts made almost 1,200 appearances between them, including more than 300 in the Premier League.
They certainly made it a long way from the county pitches of Vale of the White Horse and Mid Oxon, in Oxfordshire, where two emerging footballers – born three months and a day apart – were crafting their skills.
“I was always Vale of the White Horse and he was Mid Oxon. We were (living) pretty close,” says UEFA A Coaching License holder Whitehead, who reveals a passion for coaching and improving players.
“We played against each other in big county matches. I’m not sure what the scores were!
“He sometimes played for Vale when we had tournaments in the Isle of White and then we progressed to YTS at Oxford.
“You recognise good players and you always want good players in your team. He was Mid Ox and I was Vale and we were rivals but he sometimes came and played for us.
“We kind of manipulated that to make sure the team was stronger. We didn’t do badly to be fair.”
‘Didn’t do badly’ is the sort of understated answer Whitehead, now Shrewsbury Town first-team coach under boss and friend Ricketts, might give to describe his 19-year senior career.
Whitehead, 38, like Ricketts, played in each of the top four divisions. He admits, again, like the Shrewsbury boss, to have wrung every last ounce possible out of his career.
It is impossible not to be taken in by the steely focus and drive Whitehead possesses, even in just 20 minutes of his company at Sundorne.
He adds: “Once you get to a certain level you identify your strengths and be really, really, really good at those.
“Mine was box-to-box, running power, winning the ball back and giving it to the technical, better players, which I loved doing. I loved winning it back and giving it them and watching them go up the pitch.
“If they lost it then I won it back for them and gave it to them again. It was something I enjoyed doing, so I really maximised that and got it to the level required for the Premier League.”
After coming through the YTS system at Oxford together as teenagers – a part of football Whitehead says shaped him, while admitting youngsters today are ‘pampered’ – their paths eventually differed, to Sunderland and Telford.
But, remarkably, after Whitehead finished with the Black Cats and Ricketts was ready to leave Hull, they joined Stoke and Bolton, respectively, on the same day in 2009, living together at the Worsley Park Marriott in Manchester for a couple of months.
Perhaps it is no surprise that their paths have crossed again after hanging up their boots. In November Whitehead left Huddersfield’s academy, where he was a highly-rated young coach, to take his chance at first-team level with Ricketts almost a year into his Shrewsbury tenure.
One thing Whitehead knows better than most is how far togetherness can take a squad. At Tony Pulis’s Stoke, the midfielder and his colleagues reached great heights.
“The team spirit and togetherness of the lads was possibly something that we’ll probably never see again,” he added. “In terms of togetherness, the will to fight for each other, lads socialised together, everyone knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses and we brought that all together.
“We had some really, really good times. You can’t do it without good players. Jermaine Pennant had two brilliant years. Matty Etherington, Crouchy obviously, Jonny Walters is an unsung hero. He was an absolutely, menace, a nuisance that you’d always have in your team. Shawcross and Huth at the back were rocks.
“We had good players and a really good, close group.
“To be honest the group in there (Shrewsbury) are really, really good in terms of togetherness, they stick together and everyone talks.
“There’s not one group here, one there, one over there. That’s not what it is. They’re a real hard-working group that really give you everything day-to-day.”
“Yes we might make mistakes like everybody does in any walk of life but they’ll keep getting off the floor and going again which is a real strength of theirs.”
Whitehead, who lives nearby to Ricketts, which allows the pair commute to Shrewsbury together, is fiercely driven and ambitious.
“At the moment I’ve moved quickly up the ladder into first-team coach and I’m enjoying it and learning loads,” he said. “But of course eventually I do want to be a manager, for sure. But there’s lots of work to do before then.”
“Of course (coaching and managing are different). In terms of everything the gaffer has to deal with day-to-day away from the training ground, away from the football side of things, but that comes with the job I suppose doesn’t it.
“No, I don’t think so. Whatever you get thrown at you you have to deal with.
“It’s a long, long way away yet so I’ll just do the best job I can here right now.”