If Northern Ireland manager Billy Bingham had any doubts about starting 17-year-old Norman Whiteside at the 1982 FIFA World Cup Spain™, they were quashed after the teenager’s sterling showing at the pre-tournament training camp. A physically imposing presence despite his young age, Whiteside displayed maturity far beyond his years at the Brighton base before jetting to Spain, making him seem less like a newcomer and more like a seasoned professional.
Above all, it was a training ground goal of stunning quality against Pat Jennings, one of the greatest goalkeepers of his generation and Whiteside’s senior by nearly 20 years, that solidified the talented teenager’s place in the Northern Ireland team.
“There was only a few of us there to see that goal in Brighton,” said the former Manchester United star, speaking exclusively to FIFA.com. “It reminds me of my 1985 FA Cup final winner against Everton. I used a defender to screen Pat [Jennings] so he couldn’t see the ball and then I bent it around the defender which made it too late for him to get to it.”
It was a strike that any hardened frontman, let alone a 17-year-old, would have been proud of – and one that made the whole Northern Ireland squad stand still and take notice. It was evident that Whiteside was ready to be handed his international debut, and it would come at the biggest stage of them all. At age 17 and 41 days, he would go on to be the youngest player to ever appear at the World Cup, surpassing the record previously held by three-time winner Pele at Sweden 1958.
Hailing from the working-class estate of Belfast’s Shankill Road, Whiteside caught the eye of legendary Manchester United talent-spotter Bob Bishop as a youngster, the same scout who discovered compatriots George Best and Sammy McIlroy. After signing schoolboy terms with the Old Trafford club, the forward made his United debut aged just 16 towards the end of the 1981/82 season.
Despite a meteoric rise at such a tender age, Whiteside took it all in his stride and, just two days after his 17th birthday, the composed teenager scored on his Old Trafford debut. To this day, he holds the accolade of being the youngest player to score a senior goal for Manchester United.
After becoming the youngest player to appear at the World Cup and starting all five of Northern Ireland’s games at Spain 1982, Whiteside would go on to represent his country again at the global stage four years later at Mexico 1986. In the intervening years, he enjoyed success by twice winning the FA Cup with the Red Devils, famously bagging an extra-time winner against Everton in 1985 with a superbly-taken curling shot as well as claiming the 1984 British Home Championship with his country.
Whiteside made the move to Merseyside club Everton in 1989 but his career was cruelly cut short due to injury and he was forced to retire from the game in 1991, aged just 26. After football, Whiteside trained as a podiatrist, eventually opening his own clinic in Manchester, and continues to work in corporate hospitality at Old Trafford today.
Brave, skillful and able to strike the ball with venom, uncapped Whiteside’s exploits for Manchester United towards the end of the 1981/82 season soon caught the eye of national team manager Billy Bingham. While the 1958 World Cup veteran had initially planned to bring the 17-year-old to Spain 1982 as a part of the 22-man squad – with a view to giving him some game-time off the bench – Bingham got more than he bargained for after seeing Whiteside in action at that pre-tournament training camp.
“I thought he was a possibility to take along [to Spain] and I had no idea that I was going to play him. We trained for a couple of weeks in Brighton and he was the outstanding player in all the practice games,” said Bingham, speaking in 1986. “By the second week [of the training camp] I decided to myself he was going in the first team. I thought at 17-years-old, he had the maturity of a player who was 26.”
On the back of two senior club appearances for Ron Atkinson’s United, the setting for Whiteside’s first international cap could not have been much more prestigious: the World Cup finals. On his debut at age 17 years and 41 days against Yugoslavia in Zaragoza, Whiteside broke the record previously held by Pele by becoming the World Cup’s youngest player, but his composed demeanour seemed to cut the figure of a veteran rather than a teenager.
Whiteside started all of Northern Ireland’s games at the tournament, including the iconic 1-0 victory against host nation Spain in Valencia, as the spirited minnows stormed to the second round group stages against the odds.
“I got a bit of a hint that I was going to be called up to the Northern Ireland squad for the 1982 World Cup from Jim McGregor, who was both the Manchester United and Northern Ireland physiotherapist. He told me that the national team manager Billy Bingham had been to a few United reserves games to watch me.
"Our youth coach at United, Eric Harrison, also kept saying things to me like: ‘Keep up the good work and you might have a chance to go to Spain with Northern Ireland.’ I didn’t really take much notice but then I got the official letter sent to Manchester United saying I had been called up to the squad.
“At the time, I didn’t know that I would be in the starting XI at Spain 1982, it was just an honour to be part of the squad. Although I didn’t do my chances any harm with some good performances in a pre-World Cup training camp in Brighton.
“When I found out I was going to be making my international debut at the World Cup, I just took things in my stride, other people seemed more nervous for me than I was. The older players, the likes of Martin O’Neill, Pat Jennings, Sammy McIlroy, all wished me luck before the game, but I think they knew I could cope with the pressure.
“I remember singing the national anthem during the game [against Yugoslavia] and also getting booked, so I’m also the youngest player ever to get booked in the World Cup finals!
“Taking the title of the youngest player to appear at the World Cup from Pele was superb. The biggest thing I remember was the press from all over the world asking me questions and me trying to answer them after they had spoken in their native language, it was a bit tricky as I kept forgetting what they had asked!
“And then at Spain 1982, we went on to beat the host nation in the group stage. It was a great game that had everything. The atmosphere was unbelievable, with a corner of Northern Ireland supporters who were very vocal as usual. We had Mal Donaghy sent off and we went down to ten men, but somehow we all pulled together and managed to get the 1-0 win.”