“I know it’s Man United, but on a given day anything’s possible.” Were it somebody younger and greener uttering these words in the oak-panelled sitting room in Lilleshall’s elegant main house, it might be tempting to dismiss them as just another sporting truism, but Shrewsbury Town defender Zak Whitbread is a man entitled to believe just about anything can happen over the course of a football career.
After all, would the sight of a Shrewsbury side in the League One relegation zone delivering an FA Cup knockout to Louis van Gaal’s befuddled Manchester United really be any more improbable than the feat the one-time Liverpool player observed at first hand in Istanbul’s Ataturk Stadium in May 2005?
Whitbread witnessed Liverpool’s Champions League final triumph against Milan as a non-playing squad member and remembers a “pretty surreal” night as they fought back from three goals down. “I still have a photo somewhere which I pull out every now and then if any of the lads are getting carried away,” smiles Whitbread, who was then 21.
“After the game had finished we were in the stand in the posh seats and we tried to get down to the pitch. The security guard was saying, ‘No, no, no’. We were all in our tracksuits and Fernando Morientes said to the guy, ‘I’ve won the Champions League three times, let me down there’. He just looked at Morientes and said, ‘Right, go on’.
“I can’t take any credit for it, obviously, but I could help them celebrate. I don’t think the comeback will ever be replicated and to see the players in the dressing room and see how high they were made me think, ‘I want to win trophies, I want to be in that position’.”
Whitbread, now 31, has had to downsize his dreams since that famous day. When this season began he was without a club following his release by Derby County. With a new-born son, Ezra, at home, he faced an uncertain future. The mere fact of playing League One football for Shrewsbury is a blessing for a man who, just over a decade on from Istanbul, has experienced the harsher, less publicised, side of a footballer’s life.
“Come the summer, I’d been out injured but it was a lot more difficult than I thought,” he recalls. “There wasn’t even an ‘in’ at a Championship club to go in and train. That was a bit of a wake-up call. I went over to the States, where New England [Revolution] were interested. I trained for a week but it wasn’t the right time as I’d just had a little boy.”
A trial at Bradford City came to nothing before Ian Dawes, a former schoolboy team-mate at Liverpool and now head of Shrewsbury’s academy, put in a word for him with Micky Mellon, the club’s manager. “When I first met him I just had that feeling, ‘I want to play for you’,” says Whitbread.
After signing a short-term deal in October, Whitbread agreed another contract in January until the summer. As if to highlight his own good fortune, he cites the case of Oldham’s Anthony Gerrard, cousin of Steven, who joined Shrewsbury at the same time: “He signed for free and played for free. He was living off savings. It’s not all £100,000-a-week [contracts].
“I was fortunate to be offered a contract but it’s not what you are used to. Clubs can and will give you a couple of hundred quid a week. I’m not saying that’s what I’m on here, but they know you’re in a position where it’s been that long [without playing] and you’ve got to do something.”
All of which serves to highlight the gap Shrewsbury will be seeking to bridge against United at the New Meadow tonight. A home victory would bring them their biggest scalp since beating Everton in the FA Cup third round in 2003.
The tie holds extra meaning for Whitbread, who grew up as a United fan. He was at Wembley, aged six, for the 1990 FA Cup final against Crystal Palace, though he confesses to falling asleep – “the occasion was too much for me!” He was later an Old Trafford mascot for a home game against Chelsea in 1994.
So what does he make of the mess United are now in?
“It’s hard for the fans because they’ve dominated for years,” he says. “It’s easy to take a defeat if you’ve gone about it how United play. It is just the way they’re playing, isn’t it? But Van Gaal nearly won a World Cup playing like that. It’s not a bad way of playing, it just hasn’t happened, for whatever reason.”
Whitbread admits that he kept his affection for United quiet during his Liverpool days. “I had the Liverpool trackie,” he smiles. “Once you’re there for that long, although brought up a United fan, you still can’t help but be a Liverpool fan as well.”
He had begun training with Liverpool at nine and continued to do so during school holidays after his family moved to Singapore, where his father, Barry, worked as technical director of the national football association and later national coach. The family only moved back to their home in Runcorn to allow him to join Liverpool full-time.
He remembers facing Wayne Rooney, who will be absent tonight, playing for Everton in an Under-19 Merseyside derby. “We were winning 1-0 [but] he came on for the last 10 minutes, scored two and they won 2-1. It was a bit like, ‘Who’s that kid?’ He ran riot. The rest is history.”
Whitbread’s own history has been solid rather than spectacular. After seven first-team appearances for Liverpool, the one-time United States Under-20 international – he was born in Texas, where his father was working – joined Millwall at 21.
“Funnily enough, my debut for Liverpool was at The Den and there was a full house and that was one of the things that endeared me to them – the passion. It was my first game and [Millwall’s] Kevin Muscat could do this whistle exactly like the referee’s whistle; you’d be on the ball and hear this whistle and end up half stopping and then they just charged at you. I thought, ‘This is men’s football’.”
After 100 league games for Millwall, Whitbread had a season in the Premier League with Norwich City before moves to Leicester City and then Derby, where last season he missed six months through injury.
A long-undetected pelvic problem – “my pelvis is prone to slipping and rotating” – led to a series of hamstring and calf problems throughout his career. Today, thanks to the input of Stefaan Vossen, a chiropractor in Warwick, he believes he has “a few more years left” with a raised heel in his left boot and a course of prolotherapy – “a sugar injection which tightens the ligaments in your lower back”.
These are the tough, private battles that go on to sustain even a relatively low-profile football career. But it will feel worth it this evening when Whitbread steps out against his favourite team.
“The manager here says you only get 13, 14 FA Cup games if you are lucky in your career so to get one as big as this and have the chance to get an upset is great,” he says enthusiastically. “You have to savour these nights.”