A recurring theme amid the tributes to Peter Whittingham was the nod to his magical left foot, described by Aaron Ramsey and others as a wand-like weapon.
Dietmar Hamann described it as “one of the best left pegs I’ve ever seen” but Ramsey, Whittingham’s former Cardiff team-mate, also alluded to Friday mornings at training when senior pros would take on the next generation. More often than not, Whittingham was the first pick among his peers. “I’m proud to have played alongside you and will always remember the young v old games and you just running the show,” Ramsey said.
Whittingham’s career is synonymous with a series of spectacular, piercing left-foot strikes, notably from set plays – goals that almost belong in their own genre – but he was so effortless in style, an evergreen performer who exuded such elegance.
“His touch was fantastic; some of his long-range passing was out of this world,” says Russell Slade, the former Cardiff manager. “He could see you, find you and put the ball right on the tongue of your boot. Even if we were playing poorly, if we had a free-kick or a corner, I knew we had a chance because of the quality he could deliver.
“You felt for the goalkeeper sometimes because even if the keeper guessed the right way, if he was hitting the target, more often than not it was going in. That was a wonderful asset he had and as he got older he was able to adapt because he wasn’t the quickest in the world but he was very clever. Because he had such a football brain, he would find time and see things very quickly.”
Another former Cardiff manager, Dave Jones, infamously felt Whittingham, who looked up to Ryan Giggs as a youngster on the books of Aston Villa, deserved more recognition after scoring 25 goals in a single season from the left flank. “He has not always probably been given the credit by people who didn’t know him as well but he had enough quality to have played more games in the Premier League,” Slade said.
Neil Warnock, his final manager at Cardiff, once likened Whittingham’s quick thinking to a Ballon d’Or winner. “When the ball comes to him, I’m thinking ‘get rid, get rid’ but he sees things that are impossible for anyone else to see and makes it look so cool,” Warnock said. “I used to think Bobby Charlton used to cheat because he never ran about, until later on I realised he was that good he didn’t have to run about because he used his brain. That’s what Peter does.
Whittingham was revered by managers and team-mates, as well as Cardiff supporters but, a modest and unassuming character, in many ways he was a reluctant legend.
Following the news of his death from a fall at the age of 35 on Thursday, some Cardiff fans suggested retiring the No 7 shirt, while others have signed a petition to build a statue.
Whittingham was regarded a cool customer even in the most challenging circumstances and atmospheres, so much so his former team-mate, Ben Turner, with whom he played alongside for five years during which they won promotion to the Premier League, describes him as a “horizontal footballer”, who gave precious little away. “Whitts was the same laid-back guy, no matter who you were playing, where you were playing,” Turner said.
“There was no stage too big for Whitts because he didn’t take life too seriously but I think that’s how he was so good, because everything he did was so relaxed.
Slade concurred. “You would never sense any nervousness with Whitts going into a game, it was just like another day at the office, and that’s how he played, but he loved the game.”
Whittingham was born in Nuneaton and began his career at Villa, where he won the FA Youth Cup in 2002, edging out an Everton side who included Wayne Rooney, before going on to gain international recognition with England Under-21s.
But it was at Cardiff, whom he joined in 2007 for £350,000 after loans at Burnley and Derby, where Whittingham made his home, living in Penarth a few miles outside of the city with his young family.
He thrived in the Championship, thrice being named in the PFA team of the year and, aside from a season in League One with Blackburn, whom he joined after departing Cardiff three years ago, Whittingham spent his career in the top two tiers of English football.
There were promotion parties and Wembley finals along the way. He spent a decade at Cardiff, scoring 96 goals in 437 appearances, and will be cherished for many years to come.
“That loyalty is extremely rare,” Slade said. “The meat of his career was at Cardiff City. I think that says an awful lot about his character, and how happy he was at the club.”