FROM Celebrity MasterChef to a League Two survival fight, Noel Whelan has skipped out of the frying pan and into the fire in an audacious bid to relaunch his football career after a near three-year hiatus.
Whelan’s remarkable return to professional sport after a brief spell trying to crack the fame game is another episode in a League Two soap opera that has already seen cameos from Sol Campbell, Sven-Göran Eriksson and Chris Sutton.
But the 34-year-old is determined to make sure his compelling story ends on a high after old friend Steve Staunton handed him an unexpected second chance in football.
Staunton had promised to shake things up at Neasham Road and agreeing to take on a man who last kicked a ball in anger in July 2006 shows a recognition that extraordinary measures are required to stave off relegation.
It also marks a return to the public eye for a man last seen by millions on a celebrity version of MasterChef slicing into his finger while trying to cut Chorizo.
An engaging and easy-going character, Whelan has no regrets about his time in the kitchen – even if it saw him come a distant third behind Coronation Street’s Cilla Battersby – actress Wendi Peters – and DJ Spoony in his heat.
“I was doing my coaching badges and looking to do a bit of TV work and the chance came up. I thought ‘Why not?’ because I’ve always thought I could do a decent salad,” he said.
“It was an experience, let’s put it that way. My finger still bears the scars from where I tried to cut that Chorizo! In my defence, Wendi has been cooking her whole life but I had one lesson in Glasgow before having my go and I think Spoony was the same.
“I thought I did all right apart from the Chorizo incident. They were a bit harsh on me and the judges are tough but my stilton and spinach soup tasted nice.
“When the show went out my mobile phone was red hot with all my old team-mates sending me messages about it. It’s safe to say I got slaughtered!”
So far, so amusing. But Whelan is deadly serious about his return to professional football and prolonging a career that began in 1993.
Following his brief cameo on Masterchef he quickly decided that the world of celebrity wasn’t for him and settled on a career in management, joining the coaching staff at Blue Square North side Harrogate Town before a stint at Derby County’s Academy.
But the nagging suspicion that he had quit playing too early continued to eat away at him and with support from his wife he started training again in case an opportunity came up.
The return of Steve Staunton to management this week opened a window of opportunity that Whelan was only too happy to clamber through. “You’re a long time retired and I always felt I’d been a bit hasty calling it a day,” he admitted.
“It was an upsetting time for me with the injuries and I felt I didn’t really have a choice. I did the TV thing and then tried to get into coaching but there was always something in the back of my mind saying I could still play.
“I missed the game – everything about it. The wife was pestering me, saying I should come back and I thought ‘Why not?’ I’d been training hard again for a while and not had any injuries so I was confident I’d be able to make an impact in the Football League.
“I’d not had any offers or really put my name about but when I saw Steve was appointed I thought ‘this is the right time’.
“I’ve known Steve since I was at Coventry and I picked up the phone to offer my services. I think he could tell I was dying to get back in the thick of things again. It’s non-contract so it’s not really a gamble as such but I believe I can bring bags of experience and when you’re in the situation we’re in, that is often what you need.
“I won’t be taking anything for granted, lets put it that way. When you’ve been out of the game, every day back in it is a blessing.”
At his peak, Whelan was a more than useful Premier League performer who flitted between attack and midfield with an ease that spoke volumes for his ability.
Successive managers spent more than £4million acquiring his services at the turn of the millennium and he was mentioned as a potential England player at the height of his powers – but those days are long gone. Whelan has played just nine times in three years and was not considered in the right shape to play for Harrogate last year. “I’m definitely ready. I think that I am probably a month away from being fully fit but I’m sure I can contribute,” he said.
“People might look at the fact I didn’t play for Harrogate but I was never meant to play there, it was always about coaching. I’m in better shape now.
“I’ll only get sharper and fitter for more games but I feel strong, I trained on Thursday and didn’t feel out of place. Plus I’ve been down there before and I know what it is all about. I don’t think there’ll be many more motivated than me. I ended my career on a bit of a low and this is a chance for me to go out on a high.”