Fern Whelan interview: Love, laughter and the long goodbye – Ex-England international rewinds the track
The feeling of being denied the last few matches of her career is still raw, but from TV to treatment room, Fern Whelan’s current work means she still has both feet in the game. The recent Brighton & Hove Albion defender’s endeavour and ability saw her enjoy footballing feats that most can only imagine, so when it comes to golden memories, she’s got them locked down – just like a 90s dance routine.
This season, Brighton & Hove Albion added a physio for the (men’s) Under-23s who brings years of know-how to the role. The qualifications and hands-on practice are long since accounted for, but Fern Whelan has also felt firsthand what only a sidelined athlete can truly appreciate.
While her career could never accurately be documented without factoring in injury’s contribution, the ex-Everton defender lived out for real such dream-worthy moments as lifting major trophies, earning individual accolades, and wearing that England shirt as a full international. September saw the Liverpool native announce the conclusion to her playing days at 31, and though there is undoubtedly a weight lifted for a player and person who went through the mill and back again, finally cutting the chord to a lifelong attachment has been anything but pain-free.
“Relief’s probably not the word I’d use,” Fern explained. “I was actually pretty devastated that it was coming to an end.”
“It’s something that I’d probably put off for at least the last four years, I would say; it was always ‘I’ll play one more season.’ It was trying to break that link with football, and it’s all I’ve ever known really.
“After having discussions with medics, consultants, surgeons, they said to me last year, before last season, ‘you’ll play one more year and that’s pretty much you done, your knees aren’t in a very good way,’ so I kind of had to admit defeat. I didn’t really want to, if I’m honest, but I had that year to get my head around it a little bit.
“I had an ankle operation in December, which was the icing on the cake for me really; I put my heart and soul into playing one more year, then another injury came along. It was just a sign that my body was ready to stop, ready to go into other avenues, and it came to March, COVID happened, and there was six games of the season left that I would have been fit to play in, so I didn’t get to actually play out the last few games of my career.
“That’ll probably be something that’ll always devastate me, but I was kind of like ‘oh, I’ll play one more year again!’ Then after speaking to family and friends, it was the right decision for me, mentally more than anything; I think I’d gone through so much turmoil in my own head that I just needed to let my head settle and be okay with the decision I’d made.
“I suppose now I’m missing it, but I’m not in pain, I’ve not got the daily struggle of being in the gym and rehabbing. It just got to the point where I was rehabbing more than I was playing, and that’s not fun for any footballer.”
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There were, though, plenty of times along the way where she was able to be in the midst of the action. Most recently appearing in the FA Women’s Super League last November, in Brighton’s 3-0 home win over Birmingham City, Fern had a valued impact after joining the club in 2017.
It was in her first of two spells at Everton, however, that she felt she soared highest. With the Toffees from teenager to mid-20s, it still stands out most strongly in her affections – like that favourite old song that just hits right to the heart.
In the multitude of memories, of people and places, that football has sent her way, music just about always makes a cameo. That was never encapsulated better perhaps than on one UEFA Women’s Cup trip with Everton.
Belgium was the setting, and the stars of the show? Jill Scott, Natasha Dowie and Fern Whelan.
“We used to hang around with each other quite a lot,” Fern recalls. “We had a bit of downtime, I was rooming with Tash I think at the time, so we were having a bit of a singalong in the room, and we started practicing our dance moves, I think.
“One of the girls saw us, through the room, and was like ‘you need to do it for the rest of the team.’ So we did, on probably the second-to-last night, we had a laugh, we put all the make-up on.
“It was the ‘Backstreet’s Back’ (Backstreet Boys) song, I think. I still remember the moves to this day.”
At Everton, her time as an up-and-coming local prospect coincided with the club competing strongly at the top level. A 19-year-old Fern was named FA Women’s Young Player of the Year in May 2008, and later that year, she captained an England team at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in Chile (led by Mo Marley MBE) that included the likes of Steph Houghton and Toni Duggan.
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Reaching the senior squad at 20, her first Lionesses cap arrived two years later, the first of three she would win under her future Brighton manager Hope Powell.
“When I first signed for Everton at the age of 16, I was pretty much flying, in terms of playing around so many England internationals, so I was just getting better and better each training session. Mo Marley put a lot of faith in me and put me straight into the starting eleven at a very young age, so it was probably from signing for Everton, to 19/20 (when I was happiest).
“I got Young Player of the Year one season, was involved in the FA Cup when we won, so it was that kind of era for me, when I was getting around the England squads. Probably before I did my first pretty bad injury, those are my best kind of memories.”
A UEFA Champions League quarter-finalist with the club (against Duisburg in 2011), her team input wasn’t limited just to going toe-to-toe with attacking players, as she confirms when asked about getting involved with the dressing-room music.
“Oh yeah, I used to do a bit of everything, when I had the confidence! I used to do a bit at Everton; when it got a bit more competitive and it became a real thing, the pressure was on.
“I shied away from it at Brighton, I let the youngsters do it. Emily Westwood was (DJ) at Everton; if it wasn’t her, it was Rach Unitt.
“At Notts County, it was Desi Scott, and then at Brighton, I think it was Fliss Gibbons. With England, I think it was one of the younger ones, I think it was Carly Telford.”
Fern joined the action in the 2010 FA Cup final a good hour or so before Natasha Dowie’s last-gasp extra-time goal secured a dramatic victory for Everton over Arsenal. She also featured all the way up to the Premier League Cup final (ultimately missing out through injury) in 2008, when they lifted the trophy and ended the Gunners’ stupendous 58-game domestic winning streak in the process.
The Arsenal of that era was all-conquering, though not the only superstar line-up Fern got fairly used to seeing right in front of her.
“I saw Spice Girls when they were five and then again when they were four, I loved them that much. I went with my sister (the first time), she got the tickets for my birthday, I was only little.
“I used to go and see quite a lot of concerts, so I’ve seen Justin Timberlake, Spice Girls, and then 50 Cent, so you can see a little bit of the mix of music there. I did see Westlife as well; anything you can sing along to I used to really enjoy.”
If given the power to play around with time and secure a place in the crowd for any group or performer in history, she would choose Michael Jackson. The first music Fern remembers buying, though, was from a world-famous act she did see perform.
“It was a CD, I think it was Westlife. I wanna say it was the ‘World of Our Own’ album.”
As well as sparking the odd choreographed special on a European trip, the right sounds were also every bit a practical part of Fern’s career.
“Oh yeah, definitely. I think when it was the better times, when I wasn’t injured, and it was going away with England, it was always part of my pre-match prep.
“So the first thing I’d do when I got on the coach, headphones in, I’d always have a playlist to go along to. ‘All I Do is Win’ (DJ Khaled featuring T-Pain, Ludacris, Rick Ross and Snoop Dogg) was the song that used to get me really pumped-up.
“Before every game, I used to make sure I listened to it; if I hadn’t listened to it, then I’d feel like I was going to have a bad game. That was my ritual, I’d always play that song.
“The latter part, when I was injured and stuff, (music) just got me through gym sessions. I don’t think I ever did a gym session in silence, it was more ‘put the upbeat tunes on, it’ll get you through.’
“Never depressing kind of songs in the gym, it was always to try and lift the mood a bit, for me or for any of the youngsters that were around me who were injured as well.”
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And when it comes to purely choosing for herself?
“I’m a little bit old school, so I like Beyoncé, Usher. I like the new kind as well, so Gavin James, for example.
“Also Chris Brown, The Script, James Morrison, Ed Sheeran.”
The setting can vary – on the bus to an away game, at the hotel after the team meal etc. – but a singing initiation often tops any big-game pressure for a player! Indeed some have been known to pay fines just to get out of it (or even simply run off, as ex-Premier League striker Adam Le Fondre recalled of one teammate in his interview on here).
The cutlery tapping the glass to let everyone know it is time for the new players to step up has been described by some as the worst sound in football. Fern recalls her own experience of this by now well-established tradition.
“Yeah, I did an initiation at Brighton, and I did it at Notts County as well…you’re gonna ask me the song now…I think it was ‘Mr. Brightside’ by The Killers. It’s one of those songs everybody knows the words to, so they joined in.
“That’s the thing, you can live or die depending on the song! But I chose one everybody knows the words to.”
Admittedly, some tracks demand significant extra work to learn in full, which Fern and these next couple of former teammates know all about. If she was recording a song cover, with anyone she has played alongside, she would be looking to a North East duo (no, not that one…) to help turn it back to 2010.
“I’d be covering Eminem and Rihanna ‘Love the Way You Lie’ and it would be with Carly Telford and Jill Scott…and Rihanna! It’s one that we’ve probably covered before!
“We were on a long coach journey every day, when we were training at Bisham Abbey (with England), and that was the song we used to put on at the back of the bus every day. So we made sure that we learned the rap from it, verse by verse, word for word!
“So any time we saw each other after, it used to be the song we put on in the car. We’d probably be able to do it word for word now.
“It’s just a good memory.”
Good memories were certainly made at Notts County, too. However, the team folding right as the 2017 WSL Spring Series was about to begin was a shattering blow to many, and for Fern, it came just over a month after she had been announced as signing a new contract.
It left those involved without a club, vital income, and in plenty of cases, without even a home, while fans felt their team ripped away. Fern had helped Notts reach the first Women’s FA Cup final held at the new Wembley, in 2015.
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She cruelly missed the final with Chelsea, but three months later, played in the Continental Cup final against Arsenal. As well as the likes of aforementioned England keeper Carly Telford, Fern’s time at the club included linking up again with a friend and fellow defender, if frustratingly too briefly.
“At England, going through the age groups, I’d always played centre-half with Sophie Bradley, so we really built a partnership. We joke about it now because we got to the point where we were just about to play together, and then she ended up doing her knee when I was fit, and vice versa.
“We then signed for Notts County and we were both buzzing we got to play centre-half alongside each other again, and then she got injured again unfortunately. She’s one I would have really liked to have cemented that partnership with.
“I played with Lindsay Johnson for a long time at Everton and that’s who I knew as my centre-half partner, but also playing with Becky Easton to the right of me. With how young I was, she was brilliant, and the communication between the two of us, there was always that level of understanding.
“When we stopped playing together, I really noticed the difference of not having her alongside me; she kind of became my comfort blanket, as such.”
Before the blue side, Fern was with Liverpool as a youngster, and was an avid Reds supporter growing up. Currently calling the South East (Sussex) home, that was also the part of Liverpool she was raised in, in Childwall.
As the Whelan surname suggests, there is Irish on her father’s side of the family. Fern also discusses her maternal heritage, deeper information on which she never really had the luxury of learning about when she was younger, with the historical complexities, as well as just how far removed the culture she grew up in was.
“My mum’s side, she’s from Uganda, so I’m half-African. I was obviously always proud of that side of my heritage, but it was more that it never really came into things in Liverpool; I grew up in quite a white society, I would say, so I never really embraced it as much as I could have done.
“As I’ve grown up, I’ve grown more curious about that side of the family. I’ve never actually been to Uganda or met that side of the family, so I think that’s probably why.”
Thirst for knowledge is not a new development for her, as she remembers one notable coach finding out frequently. As the question of which manager and specific approach got the best from her is put to Fern, she instantly highlights one of the central figures in English women’s football in recent decades, and certainly someone who could never be accused of wanting the limelight.
“100 per cent Mo (Marley). Out of all the managers I’ve had, she would stand out as the one you’d say got me the best.
“I was just one of those players who wanted feedback quite a lot, whether it was good or bad, I just wanted to know how I was doing. I probably pestered her a bit too much!
“But after most games, we used to have probably a 45-minute-to-an-hour phone call about the game, about what I did well, what I didn’t do so well, and how I could get better. I was probably that annoying player who just wanted to get better all the time, and Mo was definitely the manager who allowed me to do that.
“If there was anything I wanted to work on, she would always stay behind after the session with me. She always did the extra bit for players, so she was brilliant.”
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Any extra information on opponents can be an advantage, though for a young player, sometimes the only way to learn is the hard way! For Fern, one highly notable ex-England striker gave her exactly that.
“Someone who taught me something from the first couple of times I played against them was Kaz Walker, when she was playing for Leeds. I think it was just a shock to me, because I played up against so many international players, and her movement was unbelievable, she was great in the air, she was very powerful, and she was horrible to mark.
“Then a couple of years later, playing Champions League against Birgit Prinz, the German centre-forward, she was unbelievable. Currently, playing against Vivianne Miedema, she’s on another level to strikers I’ve come up against before.
“I think what makes her different is she can hover out of a game for 80 minutes but you just can’t ever switch off, because for those ten minutes she is in the game, she’ll score four!”
In 2020/21, we find Fern immersed in an aforementioned full-time physio role at Brighton that she recalls applying for this summer ‘on a bit of a whim’, not at all expecting to get it. Her physio work ran alongside her playing career, and she stills works part-time at her old clinic.
TV appearances to talk about the game began some time prior to this year for her, but she has recently been a guest on BBC’s The Women’s Football Show, and was in the Sky Sports News studio earlier this season to report on WSL and men’s Premier League action. Oh, and there is also the small matter of becoming a first-time parent next year with her fiancée, current Brighton midfielder/forward Aileen Whelan.
There is still just about enough opportunity for other pursuits, which Fern shares.
“Over lockdown, and the last couple of years of living by the sea, I’ve started to become a little bit of a beach bum. I’ve bought a paddleboard and I’ll go down to the sea quite a lot, go swimming in the sea, which is something I’d never do in Liverpool because it was far too cold.
“So more just taking up outdoor walking activities, and I’m a big family person, so as much as I’m six hours away from home, the time that I do get off, I’d always be travelling back to Liverpool or they’d be coming here to visit.”
Football has been the catalyst for Fern getting to compete in different, sometimes faraway countries, and it was of course what ultimately took her 200+ miles from home to where she now resides. To have even returned from setbacks like a near-two-year lay-off is testament to remarkable fortitude, and while it would not be anyone’s choice to go through, it is something to take immense heart from.
Fern considers what a game that has brought joy, tears, shocks, changes, and some magical highs, has taught her the most.
“I think it’s made me a more all-round person. I think going through all those injuries made me that, because for the first ten years of my career, it was tunnel vision, football was the be-all and end-all, and that was the way I operated.
“When you realise that gets taken away, you’ve got to find other things, so that’s probably what it taught me, that I wasn’t just a footballer. It was learning a lot more about myself and what other qualities I brought as a person.
“I learned a lot about personal development, and that I’m too hard on myself, so it’s taught me not to be, and to embrace the positives more. That you’re not failing if you don’t do something right first time.”
When England reached the 2007 UEFA Under-19 Championship final in Iceland, Player of the Tournament was one Fern Whelan. That competition also saw a young forward named Ellen White finish joint-top scorer overall (whatever happened to her?).
It is time here for Fern to cast her thoughts back over the years one last time. In the regular final question, we need four former teammates – just as examples, rather than an absolute ‘best four’ – to go alongside her in a 5-a-side line-up.
After initially saying ‘I would just put my old Everton team back together again!’, she eventually put forward this wider mix from her career.
“Rachel Brown-Finnis – I played in front of Browny for most of my time at Everton and she is the best goalkeeper I’ve played in front of; brave, fearless and a brilliant shot-stopper. Special character in the dressing room and a good friend.
“Kelly (Smith) and Fara (Williams) – they are both technically the best players I have played against and on a team with. Both have ability to play with both feet, a nightmare for defenders and will score goals galore between them.
“Ellen White – Ellen is a natural finisher on the pitch and a true professional in every sense of the word. She may not have the best dance moves, but we will let her off for how much of a goalscorer she is, and how hard she works for her teammates!”
To catch each of these interviews, you can follow me: @chris_brookes
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