Joining Darlington this year brought David Wheater his long overdue return to action, throwing the ex-Middlesbrough defender back into what he knows best: taking names (and elbows), while continuing with the kind of off-field performances his public never knew they needed.
It took over a decade but David Wheater completed his footballing road home to the North East this year. After the well-documented and drawn-out ending to his days at Oldham Athletic, the former Premier League man was back on first-team duties for the first time in almost two years, as he made his second Darlington debut in February’s 3-0 win over Chorley.
In a sport that could perhaps be accused of taking itself too seriously sometimes, there has never been much danger of the Boro-christened ‘Redcar rock’ losing his humour. A player who was part of multiple England squads, he has felt reinvigorated by the environment at National League North Darlo.
Not long after his arrival, his Quakers teammates were blessed with the latest round of his Elton John ‘I’m Still Standing’ specialty (as previously seen on karaoke in selected public venues). The initiation effort came with eyewear to match.
“It’s just a crowd pleaser, isn’t it?” he says. “I’ve always listened to Elton John since The Lion King.”
“I don’t think any of the young lads knew what it was but you’ve got to give it a go. I’ve still not got any recognition off him yet, but I’m still hoping.”
The on-field grapples are not the only area in which he reckons his younger counterparts could benefit from his tutelage, as he gives his assessment on the squad sound choices.
“Oh, horrendous. It’s crap, honestly.
“Jacob Hazel, he asked us all in the group chat for a song each, and they’re all 20-25, putting things like Lil Baby. Even Chris Brown, I used to love Chris Brown’s music when he was younger, but now it’s just terrible.
“There’s a few good songs on it, but it’s just rap music from now, and it’s shocking; it all just sounds the same.”
With that in mind, surely the choice he went for was one of top-calibre, unquestionable musical craftsmanship?
“I threw in ‘Discoland’ by Flip & Fill. I think it got switched off halfway through because the lads weren’t happy with it, but I think it’s a cracking tune.
“Scooter came on after we won not long ago, that went down well, ‘The Logical Song’. I’ve got a few of their songs; I’d like to see them actually.”
As his Clubland TV allegiances prove, he was the youngster himself once. Trying to find his feet in what was a stellar Middlesbrough dressing room, it seems the homegrown talent had some recognition wrongly stolen away from him.
“I put Guns N’ Roses on, stuff like that. It was all a bit soft there, Ginuwine and Jodeci and all that, and I’d put ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’ on.
“I put it on and (Emanuel) Pogatetz took the credit for it; everyone thought it was his music because he was a bit of a rocker, bit bonkers. I was about 19, thinking ‘this is my music, this!’
“I remember we lost that game 3-1, so probably best we forgot that one anyway.”
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Part of the club’s 2004 FA Youth Cup-winning side, he was among the admirable number of prospects in that era to both reach the first team and make a career. A bigger honour, though, must have been graduating to become a leading fantasy-football budget option – you can’t beat a goal threat for 4-4.5 million!
“Yeah, so why was I cheap? A lot of people said that actually, because I got a few goals in my first season.
“Not bad if you’re in someone’s fantasy team, is it?”
He came through at a point in the game when young players’ integration to the senior ranks was at least slightly kinder than in years and decades previous. There was no monstrous use of boot polish or washing machines in his experience, while he actually got away without any initiation song.
“No, I didn’t do it; I didn’t at Bolton either. I did my first one when I was at Oldham.
“Actually, I did do one at Bolton, when I re-signed after a couple of years; we had new signings and they did it, so I did one. I think I did ‘Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang’ by Dr. Dre, then I did Pulp at Oldham.”
Talks are ongoing with Dr. Dre’s representatives for permission on ‘Nowt But a Dave Thing’ (Wheater’s remix), but while the world waits for that, what would he have in mind if he ever recorded a cover song, with any teammate(s) from his career?
“I’d probably sing it to the Oldham lot and do ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’, Elton John and Kiki Dee. So Solid Crew would be good, get a few of the Boro boys, Stewie Downing, (Jimmy Floyd) Hasselbaink and (Mark) Viduka.
“I don’t think I’d get Jimmy up singing. I think if I asked him, he’d slap me or something, volley me up the arse.”
His love for wrestling is an open secret by now, which began when his dad, who worked off shore, brought a video of 1994’s WrestleMania X back with him. As tapes like that started stacking up in the house, the albums eventually followed.
“I go back to my mam and dad’s sometimes and I see the amount of CDs that I bought: all rap, like DMX, Nelly, Eminem, all sorts. I can’t remember buying them but I’ve even got things by The Roots, and Jay-Z’s early albums, stuff like that.
“I used to like rap, with 2Pac, Nelly, all them, but today’s terrible. Anything that’s a good sing-song, I enjoy; Coldplay, Elton John, we put Taylor Swift on in the car.
“If we’re going out, I’d prefer to go to Flares than a nightclub with all the new tunes on. I think the first album I ever had was Take That; I think I got it for Christmas off my mam and dad.”
He isn’t the only Middlesbrough old boy at Darlington with a rap-loving background. It was at Ipswich Town that former frontman and current Darlo manager Alun Armstrong developed a liking for G-Unit, after teammate Darren Bent had lent him his CDs.
“I was at Doncaster with the gaffer (on loan) when I was about 17, and he picked me up in one of those Escalades; big, spinning chrome wheels he had on. His assistant at Darlo, Daz (Darren Holloway), said he used to wear mad stuff; all the caps and the baggy tracksuits, like what the rappers wear.
“He just loved it.”
Spending part of his Bolton years playing for another music enthusiast, in Neil Lennon, he confirms that the Northern Irishman didn’t spend any of his ferocious energy on meddling with team playlists. It was during Owen Coyle’s tenure that he joined the club from Middlesbrough, a manager whose famous boundless enthusiasm would seemingly make them kindred spirits.
Given their Premier League relegation in 2012, it is easy to forget that Bolton were as high as 8th after beating Arsenal 2-1 at home with five games remaining of the season prior. It was a time when BlackBerry phones were still in, footballers on Twitter was a relatively new phenomenon, and in the Bolton dressing room, the tunes were bouncing off the walls more than Owen Coyle.
“When I first went, January 2011, I think that’s when I most enjoyed the music – when Pitbull was good! Chris Brown (featuring Benny Benassi), ‘Beautiful People’ and that, I think that was the best time for music.
“We had iPads on the walls so we could just pick our own songs really. That was my go-to, Pitbull and Chris Brown.”
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His spell at the club became several eras in one – Premier League (and an initial, legitimate challenge to return), further relegations, promotion and survival, all with the increasing backdrop of overwhelming club struggles. Having been confirmed as leaving in 2016, he would stick around for pre-season, then playing a pivotal role in promotion back to the Championship.
The club’s Player of the Year and Players’ Player, he was named in the League One Team of the Season and voted PFA Fans’ Player of the Season, coming up as well with nine goals, including in the 3-0 home win over Peterborough United that clinched promotion. There was a fairly-noteworthy day a year later, too.
With Wanderers 2-1 down at home to Nottingham Forest, Phil Parkinson’s side were heading for relegation going into the final few minutes of normal time. A Wheater equaliser – never has a bobbled, deflected finish been more welcome – was the prelude for a stunning conclusion, as Adam Le Fondre set up Aaron Wilbraham for a diving header shortly afterwards.
The post-match celebrations heavily featured a certain number 31 who had a liking for appearing with the band in local establishment The Crofters.
“I’ve sang with them a few times; I just get excited and try and show off. It was always Status Quo ‘Rockin’ All Over the World,’ I think that’s just a great tune.
“Walking round the pitch after we stayed up and that was on, the fans just love that song, it gets everyone going. In The Crofters, I sang an Oasis song, it might have been ‘Wonderwall’ or ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger.’
“He’s a friend of mine, the lead singer, and he always got me up to sing whenever I was there. I think they’re from Bolton, so he must have known who I was and asked me to go on stage.
“I was like ‘oh, no.’ I was with my mates and they said, ‘You’re gonna have to,’ because everyone was turning around looking at me, so I thought I’d give it a go.
“I think that was the first time, and then when we got promoted, he saw me come in, and I was ready for a sing-song then anyway, so I got back up with them.”
On the theme of surprise and nervy call-ups, the England senior squads he was part of under Fabio Capello included the trip to Trinidad and Tobago for a June 2008 friendly, alongside the likes of David Beckham, Steven Gerrard and Rio Ferdinand. The then-21-year-old did not get to come on in the 3-0 win, though it made useful practice for taking a plane trip somewhere and not playing!
“I was on the bench twice and I went with them another time after a 21s game. When we played Wales in a 21s play-off to get in the European Championship, something like that, and me, (Gabriel) Agbonlahor, maybe (James) Milner, flew straight out to Belarus, and we weren’t even on the bench!”
There was, unfortunately, no initiation to be done with the senior squad. If he had faced that almighty fear, in front of Beckham and the rest, what would he have gone for?
“Probably ‘Hero’, Mariah Carey, and just sing it to Becks. That would be nerve-wracking, wouldn’t it?
“Even when I was there, I was looking around and there was Beckham, John Terry, Gerrard, and I’m thinking ‘frigging hell, what am I doing here?’”
There was less reservation when he decided to do the worm through Steven Gerrard’s entourage after spotting the Liverpool captain while in Ibiza with ex-Middlesbrough teammate Stewart Downing. In keeping with such world-class moves, Michael Jackson would be his choice if he had the chance to see anyone from all-time (living or dead) perform.
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He plans to tick Coldplay off the list next year, as one of the few remaining acts in the world he hasn’t seen!
“I’ve seen Bon Jovi five times, I think. I’ve seen Elton John three times, and we’ve got more tickets for next year.
“I think one of my first concerts was James in Newcastle. Eminem I’ve seen, when 50 Cent was just coming on the scene and he was there, at Milton Keynes Bowl.
“Travis, Jay-Z, Rihanna, Pink, Justin Timberlake. We took the kids actually a few weeks ago to see George Ezra in Manchester, their first concert; my little girl wants to marry him now.”
The enjoyment of family time is pretty much mirrored in the contentment he has been finding again with football. Fifteen years on from a loan at League Two Darlington, he represents them again today two divisions lower, after their climb back from the ninth tier following the club’s initial demise a decade ago.
He had been training with Alun Armstrong’s team for a number of weeks before officially signing in February, going on to agree a contract in April that takes him through to the end of the current season. Awaiting his return from a thigh injury, Darlo sit 4th in a National League North that they have become more than familiar with in recent years, and may have even escaped along the way, if not for ground grading issues or COVID-enforced season abandonments.
Firmly in the play-off places, they are just three points behind leaders Brackley Town at present. For ‘Wheatz’, who stepped in as captain last season when Will Hatfield joined AFC Fylde, he has been grateful for his second time around as a Quaker.
“It’s class. I love it, just enjoying football again, obviously after what happened at Oldham.
“The physio, Dan (Danny O’Connor), good friend of mine now, he was looking after me even before I signed. I was speaking to the manager, and I needed a back operation, and he said, ‘Dan’ll look after you, get you back fit,’ so I felt like I owed it them to sign.
“I got there and there’s so many good players, and the staff, it just seems like such a well-run club. I met the chairman, who’s a great guy as well; got some money out of him a few weeks ago for our team night out!
“Didn’t think he wanted to but he got in his wallet; some chairmen wouldn’t do that, they’d just brush you off. It’s a good family club, all the staff are great when you go to the stadium.
“I’m really enjoying being back there and playing football again.”
Despite having broken his nose ‘about five times,’ getting involved in the blood and thunder of tussles with opponents is a part of the game he still relishes. He recalls one instance of a famously shy and retiring Welshman who took that competitive exuberance in entirely good spirit.
“I elbowed Craig Bellamy once, by accident but I proper caught him, so I helped him up so that he wouldn’t have a go at me. But he did; he called me a big-chin…C word.”
Most of what he says is with a laugh, an approach that he has managed to hold on to in the 17 years since his professional debut (for Middlesbrough away to Sporting CP in the UEFA Cup’s last 16). Football – even in non-league in some cases now – could be seen as somewhat sanitised, with a hyper-awareness around always maintaining public image.
He undoubtedly maintains a love for the on-field simplicity, but with so much of what now surrounds the game overall, is enough of it still fun?
“It is fun for me. The thing is, if I see stuff on the Internet about me, I couldn’t give a toss really, so I don’t take anything to heart, I just enjoy it.
“When you’re playing football, you forget about everything. There’s still some good lads, a lot at Darlo who like having a good time, but when you’re on the pitch, it’s all business.
“I think you just have to do stuff in moderation really. The manager as well, he doesn’t mind us going out and having a good time.
“Sorting fines out between ourselves, we have a mess on with that, and if lads aren’t happy, we’ll have a court case before training. Everyone just starts shouting at each other, it’s good fun.”
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The chance to play for Watford, given the possibility of their former chairman/Rocketman stopping by, might have been welcome. Have offers from much further afield than just down south, however, ever come his way?
“There’s been a few mentioned from my agent but I’ve never wanted to. I struggle in the heat here when we get a few days of summer; I feel like I’m going to pass out if it gets over 20 degrees.
“People have asked me, ‘Would you like to play in Dubai?’ and stuff like that – I’m thinking ‘I can hardly walk about in Dubai without nearly falling over.’ There’s been a few things off my agent, talking about India and stuff like that, but I’m a bit of a homebody, I like England, so I think that’s where I’m going to stay!”
Another World Cup is about to get underway, and while the likes of James Milner and Jamie Vardy made themselves unavailable for England some time ago, there is an experienced defensive option that the Three Lions have also not been able to call upon since 2018. Only one shy of his first cap, Wheatz announced his international retirement (on April 1st).
Four years on, will he possibly now reconsider, should injury arise in his ex-Boro teammate and manager Gareth Southgate’s squad in Qatar?
“I don’t know, because them international breaks are nice – but I don’t even get them off now! If they need me in the World Cup, I might come out of retirement.
“Defence could do with a bit of help, couldn’t they? Conceding three against the Germans – that wouldn’t have happened on my watch!”
The decision to have back surgery last November came after eight years of often taking painkillers so that he wouldn’t miss games. His hope now is to continue playing for as long as he can.
He faces a late fitness test to take part in this final scene. Back through the years, the interviews on here have ended with the player being asked for four career teammates they would choose alongside them in a small-sided line-up.
Rather than an outright ‘best’ selection, the idea is simply for some examples of those they know they would love to play alongside again.
“I think I’d have probably Stewie Downing, he’d be in there. Stuart Holden from Bolton, he was a good lad; good player as well before he got injured.
“Strikers…I’d put Viduka in. You knew what he was going to do but you just could not get the ball off him.
“He was serious but he was a nice guy as well. His banter was so terrible, but he’d think it was funny, so then it was funny.
“I think he knew that, so he’d tell rubbish jokes. He’d call Stewart Downing, ‘Stewart Upping,’ that was his banter.
“A goalkeeper…I don’t know, goalkeepers are just weird, aren’t they? (Told he doesn’t need a keeper, and he can throw an England player in instead) Oh, I’ll put John Terry in.”
To catch each of these interviews, you can follow me: @chris_brookes
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