Michael Hodkinson meets the Whartons – who have not one, but two, professional footballers in the family
Ever since football became a game for the masses in the 1880s, so many youngsters have had a burning ambition to be footballers.
For virtually every one of us, the dream has ended before our mid-teens and we can only watch the success of those who make it.
One of the top tips for parents is ‘not to live their lives through their children’ but if you have boys, and girls now of course, that show some ability, the fantasy can quickly return. Could our offspring be footballing stars?
But those hopes and aspirations also quickly fade and die and someone once told me that we have more chance of winning a million pounds on a lottery ticket than watching our child play in the Football League.
To discover what it is like to produce a child who becomes a professional footballer, I met up with a Ribble Valley couple who have not only achieved this once – but twice.
John and Helen Wharton (nee McNulty) both have a pedigree, which hinted at sporting prowess. Helen’s father, Bernard, once held the record for compiling the highest score in the Ribblesdale Cricket League, 162 for Blackburn Northern and Helen represented Blackburn and Darwen Schools at badminton as well as winning a Lancashire schools’ tennis doubles title, prior to teaching PE at St Wilfrid’s High School in Blackburn.
John actually represented England schools at cricket, a left arm spin bowler at under 15 level. He then went on to play at the highest grade of league cricket in the county, winning trophies at East Lancs, Whalley, Rishton and Salesbury. By this time, he had also built up a reputation as an extremely talented opening bat to add to his skills as a spin bowler. He also played local football for many years and has worked as a French polisher.
Scientists will tell you that it is the combination of nature and nurture which dictates how a child will turn out. So, looking at the athletic genes inherited from their parents (the nature) the three Wharton boys definitely had a head start should they have wanted to pursue a sporting career. It was then down to the parents to provide that stable, secure and loving family environment (the nurture) which is the foundation stone on which the boys could add the drive, determination and ambition to achieve all that they wished for.
“We were determined we would be a normal family,” Helen explains. “They were into football from a very young age and all three of them, Scott, Simon and Adam, all played for Wilpshire Wanderers where scouts from the professional clubs were a regular presence.”
Eventually Scott enrolled at Blackburn Rovers Academy when he was 12 with Burnley, Rovers and Bolton Wanderers showing an interest in Simon, but unfortunately he could go no further. Adam also became part of the Rovers’ Academy at the age of six and both he and Scott signed professional contracts at the club. I asked Helen how they coped as a family with two boys following their dreams and one not quite managing it, because this was a situation where parenting skills of the highest order were required.
“It was essential that we treated them all equally and that none of them were special,” she continued. “And Simon has been magnificent. He now works as a joiner and has continued to play the game for Langho at local level. He is proud of his brothers, is very supportive and in turn, we show as much interest in all he does, as we do with Scott and Adam.”
For John Wharton, watching his sons play football was, and still can be, almost a full-time job: “When Scott was coming through the ranks from the age of 18, he was loaned out to four different clubs lower down the pyramid to give him experience of playing first team football,” he recalls.
“He had half a season at Cambridge United and while at Lincoln City, he was part of the squad which won the EFL Trophy. He then went back to Lincoln the following season until January before joining Bury for the remainder of the campaign. Both clubs gained promotion to Division 1 at the end of that year. He was then loaned out once more to Northampton Town the next term and once more gained promotion to Division 1 via the play-offs. I tried to watch him as much as I could but it was a real feat of endurance travelling round the country and at the same time watching Simon, now playing locally, and Adam progressing through academy games at Brockhall.”
Now with Scott and Adam part of the first team squad at Ewood Park, I asked Helen what it felt like to watch them play at such a high level.
“My most poignant moment was when they both started their first game together – two of our sons lining up at the kick-off versus Hartlepool United at Ewood Park in the Football League Cup. I had to pinch myself that this was happening to a family like ours. But there are scary and heart-stopping moments. Just one tackle could spell the end of a career and anxiety is never far from the surface of my emotions. I have to keep reminding myself that I am the mother of the family, I have certain tasks to do and it is up to me to provide as much care as possible, just as it is for millions of other parents around the country. The manager demands a pre-match routine and it is vital that they leave the house in the right frame of mind. It is down to John and I to ensure that and most importantly keep their feet on the ground.”
Commenting on the highs and lows of being a parent, John says: “During a game and just after, so many of my friends and acquaintances will text with brief comments. If their individual performances have been good, the phone pings non-stop but far less if they have been below par.
“I feel that it is our job to keep their heads up. This is an occupation where you can switch from hero to villain in seconds and the social media and newspaper gossip is equally difficult to deal with for young men, particularly for Adam, in the national and local spotlight at 19. The weekend evening meals have always tended to be dominated by a post-match analysis.”
Having spoken to John and Helen, there was a touch of envy as I reflected on how so many parents would love to be in their shoes. But equally, I could see that this was your average family, dealing with the good times and the not so good, as best they could. And although this is a family with sons performing in front of thousands and thousands, their worries, anxieties and the need for parents to provide solutions to problems, are absolutely no different to those of the rest of us.