Not even the gleaming smile of an American President holding court in the Oval Office was enough to stop Norman Whiteside daydreaming about football.
“I couldn’t wait to get out of the West Wing to play keepy-uppy on the White House lawn,” he tells The Football Faithful.
It was the summer of 1978 and the 14-year-old from the Shankhill Road in West Belfast was one of dozens of children from across the religious divide in Northern Ireland who spent a summer with host families on the east coast of America as part of ‘Project Children’.
Established in 1975 by Denis Mulcahy, the former NYPD detective from Co. Cork who had worked for the city’s bomb squad, the purpose of the programme was to show these kids a world beyond their own streets during the height of The Troubles.
But a trip to Washington to meet America’s 39th President, the former peanut farmer Jimmy Carter, was not the highlight of Whiteside’s trip.
That arrived just hours after landing in Boston, when he phoned home to be informed that he was being offered schoolboy terms by Manchester United.
So, as he stood in the Oval Office, football was the only thing on the teenager’s mind.
Some 40 years later, Whiteside, now 55, delivers his line about keepy uppies with the precision of someone well versed on the after dinner circuit. Not to mention the executive lounges of Old Trafford where, up until the outbreak of Covid-19, he remains one of the most popular raconteurs.
That is because Whiteside has plenty to talk about, and he realised quickly that it is worth his while to be able to do so.
United debut at 16, the youngest to score in League and FA Cup Finals, a player for the big occasion. An irresistible force in midfield and attack, will go down in United folklore for “that” goal in the ’85 Cup Final.
Big Norman Whiteside, Scourge of the Scousers… pic.twitter.com/UZkzz7PqaZ
— Red_Devil (@RetroRed2) December 22, 2019
He was the youngest player to make United’s first team since Duncan Edwards, earning his debut two weeks before turning 17 in April 1982.
A couple of months later and he broke Pele’s record as the youngest international to represent his country at the World Cup.
Whiteside captained United by the time he was 20 – again, a record for being the youngest – and scored the famous winner in the ’85 FA Cup final at Wembley, preventing Everton from completing a domestic treble.
“They are well documented so I never have time to forget,” he said of his achievements in a career that was over by the age of 26 following nine knee operations in as many years.
His descent began before he even signed his first professional deal with United when, aged just 16, he underwent surgery on his knee in which the cartilage was removed. It meant he played his entire career bone on bone.
“But I still have some great memories along the way,” he continued.
Just after his exchange with the Football Faithful, it was revealed that Whiteside was now auctioning several items from his career – including his ’85 cup final medal – in a bid to top his pension pot by around £200,000.
How much would you be prepared to pay for ‘Big Norm’s’ 1985 FA Cup Final shirt?
How about a cool £23k ❓?
— BBC SPORT NI (@BBCSPORTNI) July 29, 2020
Having qualified as a podiatrist in the 1990s after calling it quits following a transfer to Everton, his income has been supplemented by the work he does as an ambassador for United as well as on the competitive after dinner beat.
Whiteside never had the chance to make the most of his earning power, even during an era when the sums on offer would not allow for a long and comfortable retirement. His basic wage from 1982-84 was £250 a week, rising to £400 before eventually increasing to £60,000 per year.
A fountain of anecdotes and reflections have already been teased out in his 2007 autobiography, ‘Determined’. And when there are still fans willing and able to shell out for the privilege of an audience with their hero, it doesn’t pay for him to have a loose tongue when those asking have tight purse strings.
Whiteside, though, did not request a fee for this brief interview. “My first wage packet wouldn’t get me a bag of Tayto Cheese & Onion crisps,” he joked, before referencing how he was able to pay off – with interest – a £25 debt to his mother for his first pair of Puma King boots.
“She eventually got a new home with running hot water,” he recalls.
Whiteside, dubbed the Shankill Skinhead by the Stretford End, settled in Altrincham, a suburb in south Manchester which borders the Cheshire belt that is now home to many modern-day stars.
“There are over a hundred Premier League players in the area and a few of my old team mates live around. Robbo (Bryan Robson), Kevin [Moran] and Frank [Stapleton].
“Kevin and I still live very close to each other, a quarter of a mile away. We meet up regularly for a pint of the black stuff but it’s not as good as back home. He only talks about the GAA if something is happening over there like a reunion, but mostly we talk about Man Utd and the Premier League.”
Whiteside will be hoping it’s not long until he can return to Old Trafford to talk about football. And maybe the odd reminder of the time he ended up daydreaming of doing keepy uppies while in the Oval Office.