Justin Whittle (219 appearances, 3 goals)
William Young / @williamyoung95
20th February 1999. Hull City vs. Barnet. A meaningless date and fixture for many I would imagine, but for me sticks out as a very important one, as it was the first time I would make my way down to Boothferry Park to watch the Tigers. After four minutes, Barnet scored. Typical. What a great start to my support. Thanks dad. Of course, this was the season that featured City in their darkest (and arguably greatest) hours, but, as a little four year old with no clue of the possible horrors that were facing City at the time, or barely any idea of how football even worked, hindsight is 20:20.
About eight minutes later, City equalised. I honestly can’t remember how, I probably missed the actual goal, but I won’t forget the celebrations, nor the name of the man that scored. Justin Philip Whittle.
Whittle was a relatively late arrival into the professional game at the age of 23, joining Celtic in 1994 after a spell in the army. He never broke into the first team in Glasgow, and left shortly after for Stoke City. In a four year spell at Stoke, the defender became a fan favourite, winning Stoke’s player of the season for 97/98. Unfortunately for Potters fans, a falling out with manager Brian Little prompted Warren Joyce to enquire about his availability, and in November of 1998, Whittle moved across to East Yorkshire for £50,000.
Of course, Sarge Joined us right in the middle of what was, seemingly, a dismal capitulation into non-league football, a team six points adrift at the bottom of the Football League. But obviously, we all know how the story ended up going, and Whittle was a key part of it, with several fantastic performances as City survived at the expense of Scarborough. Even if his City career ended here, he would still be revered as a hero of the club.
For the 1999/2000 season, City had gone into it looking at promotion out of the division, but was a season of mid table mediocrity, which culminated in the sacking of Warren Joyce, to be replaced by a familiar face to Whittle, Brian Little. Despite the underwhelming season from the club as a whole, Whittle continued his form from the previous season, once again providing many great performances at the back.
Justin managed to stay on the right side of his former enemy for the 2000/01 season, and despite a pretty awful start which featured City locked out of the ground and on the verge of extinction, it ended with a playoff push which saw defeat at the hands of Leyton Orient in the semi-finals. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Sarge was once again was superb, his partnership with Ian Goodison being a highlight of the year.
In 2001/02, Brian Little brought in various defensive signings which initially pushed Whittle onto the bench, but due to injuries and just plain shiteness (looking at you, Nicky Mohan), Justin returned to the starting XI and returned to his imperious partnership with Goodison. The season ended once again in mediocrity, with City finishing eleventh and Little paying for it with his job.
2002/03 started again with a new manager in Jan Mølby, and also with many new signings, which again forced Whittle to the bench. Once again, due to injuries and suspensions, Whittle was quickly called back into the side and, once again, Whittle remained an important part of the defence for the remainder of the season, as Mølby attempts to relegate us ended quickly, replaced by Peter Taylor, with the Tigers finishing in 15th and moving into the KC Stadium.
In Justin’s final season with City, his time was unfortunately blighted by injuries. Though when he was fit, despite being captain, he was usually on the bench behind Marc Joseph. When injuries once again appeared however, Whittle stepped up to partner Damien Delaney, and put in some of his finest performances in amber and black. Despite this, once Joseph returned, Whittle also returned to the bench, regardless of his good form.
Taylor’s treatment of Whittle always felt a little disappointing, and he always seemed to hold other defenders in a higher regard, despite them never playing as well as Sarge did. Thankfully, despite all of this, Justin’s time at City did end in success, captaining the Tigers in gaining automatic promotion from League Two.
Knowing the writing was on the wall, Whittle left City in the summer of 2004, despite the offer of a new contract. His love for the area meant he didn’t go far, as he moved across the Humber to Grimsby Town. He spent four seasons there, becoming captain and being one of the Mariners key players before leaving them in 2008. It was also at Grimsby where his most famous piece of action, at least nationally, occurred, where he smashed Alan Shearer in the face during a League Cup tie. Nice one, Justin.
After leaving Grimsby, Sarge went to non-league side Harrogate Town for a short spell, before returning back to East Yorkshire and joining North Ferriby United in 2009, where he would end his playing career in 2011, becoming Ferriby’s assistant manager for a few months before leaving the club in October.
Whittle will always remain one of the most loved players in the club’s history. Players like him are rare, and we should be happy that we had the Sarge in our defence for as long as we did. Sure, he wasn’t perfect, but his tackling, his tactical nouse, his heading, his passion and determination, his pure likeability and of course his heart, made him stand out from any other player to have pulled on the black and amber, playing across a period of near relegation, to near extinction, to a new stadium and the start of a meteoric rise. When most think of that Great Escape, they’ll think of Sarge.
And rightly so. He’s a hero.