Coaching Mansfield Town’s new U21 side and getting back out on the training field has been a perfectly-timed dream job for Mike Whitlow and a way of keeping a promise to his late father.
The former Leeds United, Leicester City and Bolton defender admits he has been obsessed with football all his life.
But the death of his father and the increasing paperwork and red tape of running the whole academy at Burton Albion combined to persuade him to quit the game – until the new Stags post offered him exactly what he needed.
With the new U21s team created to help youth team players have an extra stepping stone into men’s football and also give released players from elsewhere a second chance, Stags needed an experienced coach to look after it. And Whitlow fitted the bill perfectly.
“To be honest I was working ridiculous hours at Burton and my dad, bless his cotton socks, was in hospital. He wasn’t so good, and he was passing away,” he recalled.
“He said I was a bit obsessed with football and didn’t see my family enough. I promised him I would look after mum.
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“The hours involved being an academy manager, looking after the U8s and all the way up to the U18s was a lot of time which I found meant I hadn’t got time to do what I’d promised my old man, going to see mum and family too.
“So I resigned my post and didn’t have a job to go to.
“Sometimes in life you have to make decisions that family is massively important – more than football, although it might have been like that in my head for all these years.”
Then out of the blue came the Mansfield Town job.
“I saw the advert, sent my CV in, came for an interview and then got offered the post.
“I started the first week in July and it’s now a lot of coaching on the grass, bibs, balls, cones, working with the players day in, day out and not all the paperwork and looking after the nines to 16s and all the late nights and weekends.
“I get time to balance my life now a lot better which for me is fantastic.
“John Dempster, Mark Peters, Mark Phillips, Scott Ricketts and all the physio and sports science department have all welcomed me on board and it’s been fantastic. I’ve loved every minute of it so far.
“Whatever happened I wouldn’t have gone back into football unless it was coaching on the grass.
“I did all the qualifications and awards and things as I wanted to be on the grass developing young players. That’s why I took it all in the first place. I wanted to coach.
“Originally at Burton I spent a lot of time on the grass. Over the years due to the new formats it meant less and less time out there which was frustrating as you can’t develop as much as you’d like to. So what great timing here – sometimes things happens for a reason.”
Now Whitlow and the rest of the staff based at Melton’s picturesque Brooksby College are on the hunt for rough diamonds to turn into stars.
“There are a lot of players I’ve found since I came into the role – my phone has been really busy,” said Whitlow.
“We have 21 players on it now and there are lots of other players out there from U18s to U21s that are in the wilderness. Where are they going and what are they going to do?
“The lads have come on board here and understand it’s a foundation degree and they are going to have to study, they understand the student loan and all of that side of it.
“But they are going to get coached every day. Some are able to go out and play non-League on a non-contract basis.
“So they get Saturday games as well as having the opportunity if they are first enough and prove where their development is to be selected for the reserves. It’s not a given. They come on board knowing they are here for a reason and it might take them 12 months to earn an opportunity in the reserves.
“But we have lots of games as well as the reserve games, so they’ll get plenty of time to learn the game on a football field as well as training and I think that’s a big thing. It’s an opportunity.
“A lot of youngsters have been involved with the first team over the past two seasons and that was a big pull into why I came here and did this.
“You want to be at a club that wants to progress them. There is no point in putting all the hours in and there’s no door for them to go through.
“The club have shown over the last few years that they are keen on developing their own and there are a lot of good U18s who are already getting involved at U21s level.
“You want them to learn the game, you want them to have the right attitude off the ball, you want winners. Are you always going to win? No. Of course you’re going to lose some games. But it’s how.
“How do they go about it? What have they learned in the game? How can they develop as a player. If they keep making the same mistakes all the time, there is something sadly wrong.
“As a coach you try to guide them and help them, but when they cross that white line you want to see a young man show the right attitude in and out of possession. Can I show my team mates that it matters?
“These lads are here for a reason. They are here to work on something they are not quite good at yet and, hopefully, the time they are getting will help them.”
With the U21s playing their games in the full Central Reserves League, it means the young players get to play alongside Stags’ first team players who need games and are sometimes up against name players from other clubs.
“The one great thing here at that Adam (Murray) will have players in that need game time, so you will have first team players that want to keep their fitness up and want to be playing a game,” said Whitlow.
“That gives these lads an opportunity at 18/19 a chance to go and play with players in and around the first team already and to learn from that. To see what it’s about and see as a young man that this is proper men’s football – not 18s to 21s.
“Can they handle that environment? They are going to have some really great games this year against some very strong teams.
“I want to see these young lads develop, I’d like to see them have opportunities, we have three or four up training with the first team now, and that’s the goal – to get as many of these young lads the chance to develop and get into the first team.
“Adam’s got a very good squad, they’ve started the season fantastically well which is great for the club all-round.
“So it make the U21s group strive to be one of that 18-22 players in and around that squad on a regular basis.”
He added: “This is a new venture, it is going to have teething problems and there is a lot of stuff the lads have to take on board with education as well. But I think for myself it’s been a fantastic opportunity to see these lads morning, afternoon on a regular basis and get them near match fitness.
“We just want to develop them on their journey to see how good they can get, to see if they can try to push into the first team squad. If one of them can get in there and play – fantastic.
“As I say, in my original role at Burton it took three or four years to develop something and get it off the ground to a certain standard.
“You’d like to think the youngsters that are coming through there and they are benefiting from now are have set the foundations.
“John and Mark have set great foundations here with the u18s and it’s now giving them another venture to hopefully stay in the building a bit longer and opens up an opportunity for players released from other clubs to come and have a chance to come on board.”
Whitlow has a firm view on what would be success for him in his new role.
“If you can help a youngster on their journey to try to become a professional footballer, what a great joy it is if you ever see them put a football shirt on and get in that first team,” he smiled. “That’s my goal, it will never change.
“It may sound daft but I’ve never been a coach that goes ‘oh we’re top of the league, well done coach’. It’s not about that.
“It’s about who is developing, who is improving, who can get anywhere near making their League debut on a Saturday afternoon. Can they then kick on and maybe you played a part in that journey in helping them?
“It’s fab to come into work with a smile, knowing you are all aiming for the same goal. I’ve been fortunate here that they’ve embraced me.
“Bar Mark Phillips, bless him, I am an old stager here compared with the young uns.
“You come in, the place is bouncing, the youngsters are coming in full of enthusiasm and the first team are doing really well. Long may it continue.
“It makes you feel good. And a feelgood factor is better than being miserable by far.
“This lot will tell you I am as mad as cheese. I come in here every day with a smile on my face. I do love life and I do love football. But thankfully I’ve got a bit of balance in my life now.
“I said to John Dempster I know how he feels when he comes in. He’s going home thinking about 600 million things as that’s what the job entails. What they’ve done has been fantastic since it was up and running.”
Although U21s home games are being played at Rainworth MW’s Kirklington Road ground, Whitlow is hoping he can persuade first team boss Adam Murray to allow the side to play the odd game on the main One Call Stadium pitch.
“I will say this and the gaffer will shoot me, but I will be in his ear to try to get one or two games maybe on the first team pitch as what an incentive for these lads,” he said.
“I do understand they want the best surface they possibly can for them to get results on a Saturday, but I will be a pain. He may tell me ‘sod off’ but if you don’t ask you don’t get. I will ask with a smile so at least I will get ‘sod off’ with a smile.
“It’s a chance for these lads to pit themselves against other professionals, play with other professionals that are within the football club, and see how they can develop.”
UNDER 21s SQUAD
Adam Hassan (31/10/1995 - goalkeeper)
Alex Roughton (13/12/1997 - goalkeeper
Ryan Lewis (26/8/1998 - goalkeeper)
Louis Danquah (28/11/1997 - left back)
Ollie Humphrey (17/9/1997 - left back)
Phil Bilson (25/3/1998 - centre back)
Tom Sloane (4/4/1998 - right back)
Drew Ricketts (27/5/1998 - centre back)
Jordan Hamill (25/2/1997 - midfield/full back)
Joe Fitzpatrick (20/8/1997 - midfield)
Joel Carta (30/6/1998 - midfield)
Benjamin Browne (15/9/1997 - midfield )
Samuel Grouse (14/3/1998 - midfield)
Adriel George (6/12/1996 - midfield)
Lewis Collins (16/10/1996 - midfield)
Thomas King (1/4/1998 - midfield)
Tobi Shoyoye (16/3/1997 - forward)
Tyler Johal (18/11/1997 - midfield/winger)
Nathan Weakes (22/4/1997 - forward/winger)
Elie Junior Akobeto (18/5/1995 -forward/winger)
Tyler Blake (4/12/1997 - forward)
Cameroon Healey (28/10/1998 – U18 midfield)
Charlie Shaw (21/11/1997 – U18 midfield)
CENTRAL LEAGUE FIXTURES
TUE 6th: Rotherham United A W 1-0
WED 14th: CHESTERFIELD H (CL CUP) L 2-4
TUE 20th: Nike Academy A (Friendly) A – noon
WED 28th: GRIMSBY TOWN H – 2pm
WED 12th: Hartlepool United A – 2pm
TUE 25th: Shrewsbury Town A - 2pm
TUE 8th: York City A – 1pm
TUE 15th: Chesterfield A – 1pm
TUE 22nd: Nottingham Forest A (CL CUP) A – 2pm.
WED 30th: Leicester City Thai (Friendly) A – 1pm.
WED 7th: CHESTERFIELD H – 2pm.
TUE 13th: HARTLEPOOL UNITED H (Friendly) – 2pm
WED 18th: NOTTS COUNTY H (CL CUP) 2pm
WED 25th: YORK CITY H – 2pm
TUE 7th: Hartlepool United A - 2pm
TUE 21st: Grimsby Town A – 2pm
WED 8th: ROTHERHAM UNITED H – 2pm.