If you had asked a cross section of City fans their opinion on Dave Jones by the time he was relieved of his duties at Cardiff last May after Reading had walked all over us on our own pitch in our biggest game of the season, I’m sure you would have got a variety of answers as to why it was the right decision. For me, his treatment of young players in general, and Adam Matthews in particular, was the thing that probably swayed it, but I’m sure there would be others who’d mention his lack of animation on the touch line, his tactical stubbornness, his failure to react to changing situations by making substitutions and his abysmal relations with the local media to name but a few of the reasons why they thought it was time for him to go. However, in any examination of our ex manager’s time with the club, it needs to be remembered that that not only did he sign Peter Whittingham, but he also did so for an absolute bargain fee (often reported as just £350,000, but there are those who’ll tell you it was even less than that).
Yes, that one piece of business in January 2007 is enough in itself to negate many of the aspects of Dave Jones’ management which rubbed people up the wrong way – has there been a better all round midfield player in the Championship over the past three seasons? Mind you, although I’ve become a confirmed Whittingham admirer, there was a time two or three years ago, when he was first linked with Nottingham Forest, when I would gladly have sold him for a fee which looks like absolute peanuts now because there was a maddening lack of consistency and substance to his game. He was a one good game in three merchant in his first two or three seasons with us and I think I’ve mentioned on here before that I often used to look at certain fixtures (usually away games) and predict that he wouldn’t last more than an hour before being subbed – I was proved right at least as often as I was wrong.
Yet, even during those times when he was such a source of frustration, there were plenty of examples of what a talent he was. Very early in his City career, Whittingham scored the first in a whole series of great goals for the club when he visited the Championship club nearest to his birthplace of Nuneaton – the goal he scored at Coventry in February 2007 would probably not feature in any top twenty of goals Peter Whittingham has scored for us, but it was still a quality strike which you couldn’t imagine many others in the team at that time scoring. However, it was a piece of skill that turned the experienced Graham Alexander inside out while laying on a goal for Michael Chopra in a 4-1 win over Preston which convinced me that we had a player capable of doing amazing things with a football on our hands. I was stood on the Grange End about ten yards away from where the Scottish international full back was left flat on his backside, but I didn’t have a clue how Whittingham had done it – it was only when I watched it later on telly that I saw the amazing sleight of foot that had dumbfounded Alexander.
It was after this that I first started calling Whittingham the quiet Koumas. A year earlier Jason Koumas had lit up Dave Jones’ first season at Cardiff with a series of virtuoso performances which contained moments of individual skill of a quality that hadn’t been seen from a player in a City shirt in decades – Whittingham suggested that he could take up the Koumas mantle, albeit in a completely different way. Although Koumas was another who never went in for excessive celebrations when he scored, his moments of magic tended to have a big influence on proceedings. From his stunning goal against Leeds within minutes of his introduction for his City debut, to the numerous match winning free kicks or assists during that very enjoyable season, Koumas demanded to be noticed, whereas Whittingham went about his business in a far more understated manner – his You Tube moments tended to be of a blink and you miss it variety and, as the weeks and months went by, I began to notice that they tended to have little influence on the outcome of matches.
However, things slowly began to change and, looking back, I think the seeds for the transformation of Peter Whittingham into the player he is now were sown in our run to the FA Cup Final in 2008. In the Fifth Round against Wolves he scored very early on when he was put clean through on goal from just inside in the Wolves half – any player who is clear of the last defender but is forty yards or more from goal has plenty of time to think before he gets to the position where he will shoot and many might have frozen in such a situation, but I can remember Dave Jones saying that the City bench had no fears of Whittingham doing that because he was the best finisher in the club. A few weeks later up at Middlesbrough, Whittingham was very influential in City’s superb win, as he not only scored a marvellous goal when he beat about five defenders in a very confined space before curling in a superb shot with his, weaker, right foot, but also made Roger Johnson’s second goal with a pinpoint free kick.
This was Whittingham having a huge influence on big matches, but the old inconsistency and diffidence didn’t really disappear fully until 2009/10 when he was the Championship’s leading goal-scorer. Last season his game developed further as he made the transformation into a central midfield player who began to become more of a rounded player whose defensive awareness showed signs of improvement. Whittingham was the shining light in a midfield which still had a tendency to get over run too often, but it was usually to him that Craig Bellamy looked when in possession and, until he ran out of steam in the second half of the second leg, he was by far and away City’s best player in the two Play Off games against Reading.
Yesterday against the same opponents, Whittingham continued his brilliant form this season. No doubt having better (and, often, more) midfield players around him is helping, but, speaking as someone who believes that all Championship players over a certain age have weaknesses to their game, it is becoming increasingly hard to spot them in Peter Whittingham this season. Yesterday, Adam Federici followed Frank Fielding and Julian Speroni in being made to look a bit foolish by Whittingham as he made it three goals in three games – to be fair to Speroni, although it may have looked like he could have saved that free kick, it was so well placed that it was always just out of his reach, but Fielding did not have a clue where Whittingham was going to put the ball when he scored and Federici was just left flat footed by a moment of pure quality. When I saw the goal I thought that, coming from anyone else, it might have been a fluke, but, given who it was, the scorer knew exactly what he was doing – I then logged on to a City messageboard and read four or five messages saying the exact same thing!
The quiet Koumas has now developed so much that I would say he is producing performances week in, week out that are better than what we saw from the man himself in 2005/06 – there are now the match winning centre stage moments of magic, but there is also a team ethic and responsibility that wasn’t always there with Jason Koumas. Given how highly I rated Koumas six seasons ago, I’m paying Peter Whittingham some compliment there, but it’s a richly deserved one and, although I’m at an age now where songs for players is not a subject that occupies my mind too much, I must say that all of us should be ashamed of ourselves for not coming up with something to recognise what a special player we have had at the club over these past five years. I’m no songwriter, but I’ve already decided on a personal tribute to a player who now has to be ranked right up there with the best I’ve seen at the club – I mentioned on here just under a fortnight ago that my dog had died and, as yet, I don’t know whether the new one I’m going to get is going to be big or small, a mongrel or a pedigree or a dog or a bitch, but I do know I’ll call it Whitts.