I joined Cardiff in the summer of 2006 and Whitts joined halfway through my first season. I’d spend much of that first half of the season playing behind Ledley and then when Whitts came in. I had to adapt to a new player. While Joe was better defensively, Whitts was class going forward and less good defensively. It meant that I didn’t need to do as much going forward as you could just give it to Whitts and he’d get it in the box with quality on it.
Even though he played on the wing, I really don’t think he was a left-winger. He was better in the centre, just behind the strikers. Malky played him deeper than that and I don’t think he got the best out of him. That role suited McPhail more and that was strange to me. Playing Whitts further forward would have got more out of Whitts and Macca could have played in his better position.
My view was that you should always play your best players in their best position and then slot the rest around them. Whitts’ spell under Dave Jones was when he was at his best. He was playing off the strikers and he was just brilliant. Scoring goals for fun and just dangerous whenever he went forward. That’s where he should have been utilised more and more.
His third season was when he was most dangerous – 20-odd goals and player of the year awards – and I think that was down to him finding his best position. Early on in his time at Cardiff, we had a lot of boys injured for a game and Whitts was moved inside and he instantly looked better. People forget that when he signed for Cardiff, he was still a young boy. He was maturing and growing into himself and still developing his technique and things like that.
It was the games we did in training that showed just how good it was. People have been talking about the olders vs. younger games, but I don’t think people know just how good he actually was. I’d sneak onto the youngers team back then – despite the grey hair – and it was me, Ramsey, Ledley, Gunter, Matthews, Roger Johnson and Whitts. The olders had Hasselbaink, Sinclair, Gavin Rae, Robbie Fowler and a few others.
We used to batter them every week, and when I say we, I mean Whitts. He’d score three goals minimum and we didn’t even need to play a striker. When it’s fairly established names getting thumped, you can guess that they didn’t take it very well. Gavin Rae, in particular, used to get quite annoyed but Whitts was just too fucking good.
Even when he was scoring for fun, he took it all in his stride. He was the kind of guy who let on that he didn’t like football as much as he did. It felt like he’d just found his place at Cardiff and made a home for himself. He was playing with good players, living in a city he liked and he was just settled. He was happy off the pitch and that made all the difference.
It’s how I felt in Cardiff and I think if I didn’t have family up north, I would have stayed in Cardiff. When I left for Bolton, it was purely about playing football. It was really tough, but when you aren’t playing games, you have to make the decision to play.
On the pitch, Whitts was as chilled as he was off it. For me, it was always about his penalties. I can’t really remember him missing one and whenever he stepped up. He always looked like he was going to score. His attitude put him at an advantage as he looked like he didn’t care, so keepers were always put off by that.
For me, the thing that makes a player great is the last thing they do with the ball, that last decision they make. When you think about Whitts, the last thing he did with the ball, the last decision he made was the right one. It’s something natural that you can’t really teach. He just had it. Under pressure, he would always do the right thing.
He had a habit in training of just trying to get the ball through people’s legs. He would get the ball and just wait and then place it, smash it, through their legs. It was unbelievable, but just showed the guy’s skill level.
I’ll always remember when I scored against Hereford in that FA Cup run. Someone sent me the goal recently and it’s maybe one of two or three I have saved on my phone. It looks like I took it off Whitts foot, but he didn’t care – he was first in to celebrate with me, laughing and asking what I was doing so far up the pitch.
I was never great in front of goal. As right back, I always stood back on the halfway line to defend any counters. My only other goal was a cross that I put a bit of swazz on and it flew in over the keeper. A worldie, some might say. I remember assisting from a corner once when I ended up playing left wing. I had a stinker for the rest of the game though and was whipped off at half-time. Couldn’t believe it. Some thanks I get for doing Jonesy a favour.
Whitts was as good a bloke off the pitch as he was on the pitch. That’s the best thing I can say about him. He was always cracking one-liners, always giving the kitman Iain Lanning stick and winding him up. He was just a stream of one-liners. We all loved Iain to bits, but he was the most forgetful kitman – probably the one thing you can’t be as a kitman. I remember playing away at Arsenal and Iain had forgotten my boots – the last thing I needed!
Whitts was always good company. On nights out, he’d never really make an arse of himself, but you could always guarantee that he’d be there at the end of the night. One of the last men standing. We’d always go to Dublin for our Christmas Party and it was always fancy dress. Whitts used to always make a token gesture. I think one year he was a ninja. Just really low effort stuff.
He never made any enemies throughout his time at the club. You’ve seen it over the past few weeks. No one has had a bad word to say about him. He was friends with everyone and that’s just a testament to him. He was always welcoming and helpful to new boys and new players. Even if he gave you stick, it wasn’t malicious. You couldn’t help but laugh.
My thoughts are with his family. They’ll be feeling this the most and it’s put a lot of things into perspective. When I heard the news, I was in shock and I turned my phone off for a few days as I just didn’t want to deal with it. All I could do was hope for the best. We’d kept in touch, but Whitts was way too cool for our group chats and I know that Whitts was closer to a few other ex-players. I’m sure the club will do something for Whitts, but our thoughts, for now, should be with his family.