During that time, he has witnessed the worst effects of deprivation – unemployment, decay and violence – ravage his town and felt the despair as a stigma became attached to the place he has always called home.
The murder of Reamonn Gormley was the final straw, the 19-year-old student having been attacked while making his way home from watching a football match in February of last year. That was when Whelan, the father of two young boys, realised the time had come for him and the rest of his community to address the gang culture that was threatening to divide the town.
"Blantyre has had a lot of bad press since Reamonn's death – there was a perception everyone was a thug – but it has a great community spirit," Whelan says. "Like anywhere, it has its bad areas but if we tackle this now and get to the kids, maybe by the time they get to 15 or 16 they won't hate the guy who goes to the other school or whatever. Then they will have their own kids and that will be passed down the generations. It's just planting that seed."
The vehicle for that rehabilitation is football. All too often a divisive force in west central Scotland, the sport is helping salve wounds in the town through the Blantyre BC Soccer Academy. Conceived as part of a friendly putsch by Whelan and a handful of other parents, the Academy operates under the banner of Blantyre Boys' Club but is a distinct entity for those kids aged from three to 11. Somewhere in the region of 170 children are under the auspices of the Academy, with the inclusion of both boys and girls the initial spark behind the idea to separate the club. Quite simply, the girls team were being mocked for playing in strips adorned with a Blantyre Boys' Club badge.
"There is a lot of tradition and some people didn't want to change things but we've progressed the club more in the past year than it had been in the previous 25 years," explains chairman Whelan, whose older brother has been coaching the 1996 intake for the past decade. "I got involved four years ago and was given a jacket and told to get on with it but a few of us were the new kids on the block and ruffled a few feathers by taking the bull by the horns and making the club more business-like."
Certainly, the construction company owner has built something to be proud of. Be it the introduction of the renowned Coerver method of training, recruitment of around 40 coaches, partnerships with local schools and colleges, the ongoing attainment of SFA community club status or even attempts to become a social enterprise, the academy has made huge strides. Even little details, like the fact every shirt at every age group is sponsored by local companies speaks of a club firmly embedded in the public consciousness.
Within that lies the central tenet of the club's philosophy and the reason it has brought so much hope to a community hitherto mired in despair. Youngsters who were hitherto destined to become sworn enemies, even if they weren't quite sure why, have developed relation-ships. "It cuts down on the gang culture because kids from different background become friends," explains Whelan. "Every team knows each other and, from a social aspect, the wee boy who's three knows the big boy who's 11 because we all train together Parents see that and not only want their kids involved, but they want to get involved, too."
The demand is such that each age group from the 2002 intake to the 2007 side has a waiting list of around 20, with 60 new members welcomed in each year. In fact, says Whelan, if the club had their own facility, the academy could potentially swell to 350 kids. But therein lies the rub. Despite 98% of the children being from Blantyre, the lack of an artificial pitch in the town means they have to be ferried to Hamilton to train.
"There are two grass pitches behind the sports centre that don't get used and the pavillion was burned down during the summer," Whelan says. "If they gave us that, I wouldn't be long getting funding. We've petitioned, fought with MPs and MSPs, we even had a councillor who backed us throughout his campaign but we haven't heard a word from him since. Nobody will give us an answer why we can't have a pitch in the town. I've done a feasability study and we could put down a floodlit, fenced-in pitch for £800,000 and a building for a further £400,000. It's nothing when you see what they spend elsewhere."
His frustration is that of a man who is used to making things happen. Take next week; Whelan will be in Gambia delivering strips and coaching sessions to kids after a chance conversation with a guy at a soul night. He helped arrange the Reamonn Gormley Festival, an event attended by 1400 people that raised £5000, and a further £1000 for the STV appeal. His plans include a disability team, walking football for pensioners and coaching qualifications for older teenagers. Yet for all that, he can't seem to get the one thing that would unlock the huge potential that the academy has shown. "But, for some reason, nobody wants to buy in to it," Whelan says. "It doesn't make any sense."
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