I don’t know if Zak Whitbread’s Dad, Barry, was at Carrow Road for Norwich City’s goalless draw with Chelsea but if he were he must have been a proud man.
Barry Whitbread was a fine player himself and indeed was something of a legend in non-league football in the North West back in the late seventies and early eighties. Holding down a full-time job as a PE teacher in Liverpool he was a prolific scorer for, amongst others, Runcorn and Altrincham before moving permanently into the coaching and management career which took him across the globe. It was while Barry was coaching in the USA that Zak was born in Houston, Texas. Whitbread senior later enjoyed a spell as the manager of the Singapore national side before returning to England and working in a coaching and scouting capacity for, amongst others, Liverpool, Bolton and Blackburn.
Barry Whitbread was my tutor when I took my first FA Coaching badge during my student days in Liverpool. I remember him as a thoroughly professional operator; all his sessions whether in the lecture theatre or on the pitch were organised with absolute precision and minute attention to detail. At the time this was perhaps somewhat unusual in a football world which still tended towards what might be called a ‘Mike Bassett’ approach. Nowadays, of course, and no more so than at Colney and Carrow Road in the Lambert era, we expect no stone to be left unturned when it comes to preparation, analysis of performance and the appropriate use of sports science.
Funnily enough the topic I was given to coach to local schoolboys for my practical examination was ‘Defensive Heading’; what a fine example Zak Whitbread’s performance against Chelsea would have been to show to those youngsters 32 years ago! Time and again Whitbread won important headers whether faced with long diagonal balls or crosses, and in my opinion he was deservedly named Man Of The Match, although that is not to underestimate the contributions of others. John Ruddy was again on top form, dominating his box, handling with certainty and proving that, when necessary he can be quick and decisive in coming off his line. Daniel Ayala produced another impressive display, winning his own fair share of headers, using the ball well and thankfully resisting the temptation to make any challenges as reckless as the one which cost City a penalty at The Hawthorns last week.
Nor should we underestimate the defensive work of every other player in the side. Defending starts at the front and though fans are often quick to voice their frustration when forwards seem occasionally to lack energy they do not always realise just how exhausting all that running and closing down can be. Steve Morison receives some criticism from those who sit around me at Carrow Road but it clearly comes from those who have never played up front, let alone on their own as he often has this season! Morison does a huge amount of running as, of course, does Grant Holt, and against a team which moves the ball as fluently as Chelsea this can be a thankless task. Behind the front two today every other member of the line-up ‘put a shift in’ to use the common parlance. Anthony Pilkington was, unusually, singled out by the manager for special praise; not only did he work hard when Norwich did not have the ball but he also made several impressive forays forward and gave Ashley Cole a few uncomfortable moments.
So this was a team effort and a point hard earned by all those in the yellow and green. But let’s return to Whitbread. In a career dogged by injury the young American/Scouser has managed fewer than 150 senior appearances with Liverpool, Millwall and Norwich yet now it seems, given a run of starts, he is beginning to produce his best and I, for one, would be surprised if his form is not again catching the eye of the USA National coaching team. His blossoming partnership with Ayala at the heart of the Canaries’ defence is testament not only to his ability but also to the superb coaching work of Ian Culverhouse and Paul Lambert. Against Chelsea not only was he dominant in the air but he made countless blocks, clearances and tackles whilst showing an admirable assurance on the ball.
That first clean sheet might have been a long time in coming but with Whitbread growing in confidence with every game it certainly ought not to be City’s last. Dad, Barry, would have been particularly proud of his son’s unrelenting focus and concentration throughout the ninety minutes as the shackles were kept firmly on Fernando Torres and his expensive team-mates.
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