The Chichester City title winner who went on to play alongside Ruud Gullit

It is a treasured possession, his name printed next to that of a footballing legend on a silk scarf almost 40 years ago.

Gary Wheatcroft
Gary Wheatcroft

The name ‘Gullit’ needs little introduction to any student of the beautiful game, but the name ‘Wheatcroft’ next to the Dutch master’s on a piece of FC Haarlem memorabilia is less obvious.

It is a constant reminder of a ‘what might have been’ moment for Gary Wheatcroft, who was one of the Chichester City squad whose 1979-80 Sussex League title win has been celebrated once more in the past week and who has just been installed as Danny Thompson’s managerial successor at Hampshire Premier League club Infinity.

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Having been released by Southampton, and having failed to win a professional contract at home-town club Pompey, Wheatcroft, a pacy winger, found himself in Holland in the summer of 1980 a few months after helping Chichester win the Sussex League title.

Wheatcroft and Gullit named together on a scarf

Then aged 20, he played alongside a teenage Gullit in a pre-season tournament - and had out-scored his team-mate who, within a decade, would have twice won the World Player of the Year award (1987 and 1989) and become the planet’s most expensive footballer (a £6m move to AC Milan in 1987).

But in the final game of the tournament, Wheatcroft suffered a broken ankle against Belgian club Ghent. And due to his injury, he was released midway through a season which ended with Gullit inspiring Haarlem to the Dutch second tier title.

Wheatcroft takes up the story. ‘I went to Chichester to play for Richie Reynolds, the former Pompey player. I’d been on trial at Portsmouth after being released by Southampton (in 1978), Jimmy Dickinson was the manager.

‘I played three games for the reserves, and they were probably the three best games I’ve ever played in my life - I scored three goals.

Ruud Gullit was briefly a teammate of Gary Wheatcroft's

‘I remember reading in the Evening News a report which said ‘the Landport lad must surely have earned himself a contract now’.

‘I was called in to see Jimmy Dickinson and Steve Foster was telling me ‘you’ll get a contract’, but they only offered me non-contract terms.

‘Looking back, I should have taken them, I really should have stayed - I think I would have got in the first team eventually. I had a spell at Bournemouth and I went and played for Fareham Town and Basingstoke before Richie Reynolds asked me to play for Chichester.’

The same Richie Reynolds who a few years earlier, after leaving Fratton Park, had played for FC Haarlem under Welshman Barry Hughes.

‘Richie said if I came and helped him win the (Sussex) league he’d get me a trial in Holland or America. I said I fancied Holland,’ Wheatcroft said.

‘We won the league and after one game at Chichester I found out that Barry Hughes had been over watching me play.

‘I went over and had a three-day trial, we played games against Stoke City and Celtic - Adrian Heath played for Stoke and Charlie Nicholas played for Celtic. In our team we had Ed Metgod in goal, the brother of (ex-Nottingham Forest star) Johnny Metgod.

‘We also played Ajax and beat them 2-0 - Gullit scored and so did I. Frank Rijkaard was playing for Ajax. Barry offered me a contract and my mum and dad flew over to Holland where I signed it.’

Between then and the 1980-81 season starting, though, Hughes left to take over at Sparta Rotterdam and Wheatcroft never enjoyed a good relationship with replacement Hans Van Doorneveld.

‘It was upsetting when Haarlem let me go,’ he recalled. ‘Ruud Gullit went on to be the best player in the world, but I was on a par with him at least when we played together.

‘It is what it is, but I do look back and think about how things could have been different.’

Prior to his Dutch adventure, Wheatcroft was on Pompey’s books as a schoolboy between the ages of 10-14.

Aged 14, Ray Crawford - then involved with the youth set-up at Fratton Park, was keen on offering the youngster a two-year deal. In addition, ex-Pompey player Tony Barton was keen to take him to Aston Villa as an apprentice, with Southampton also showing interest. And after some advice from Pompey legend Jack Froggatt, Wheatcroft chose the red and white part of south Hampshire.

‘Jack said I was better off going to Southampton, their academy has always been second to none,’ he said. ‘And that’s coming from a Pompey boy! Some of my friends didn’t like me going there, but what could I do?’

Wheatcroft arrived at The Dell as a 14-year-old in 1974, and two years later signed a two-year apprenticeship deal - and after agreeing to the latter he was given four tickets for Saints’ FA Cup final against Manchester United.

Wheatcroft never made a senior appearance during his time at the club, but helped the A team win the Hampshire League and the 1976 Hampshire Senior Cup.

‘When I was 18/19 I never really put on a lot of weight,’ he recalled. ‘And at that time to get in the first team you needed a bit of bustle. I did the weights, I was eating what they told me to, but I just never put the weight on.’

Wheatcroft also feels he played too many games during his teenage years.

‘I was playing so many games a week, it was no good for you. I was playing for the school, the cadets, the under-18s, the under-16s - I felt worn out by the time I got to 16.

‘I fell out of love with the sport, I was sick of it - I didn’t do myself justice at Southampton,’ he remembered. ‘When I look back at my life, that’s where I went wrong. I lost my way a bit there - I just wanted to be playing for my home-town club.

‘Kids are much better looked after now, they’re kept in cotton wool. I couldn’t put the weight on because I was running it off in all the games I was playing.’

In his mid-20s Wheatcroft returned to south coast grassroots football as player-manager at Sussex Leaguers Selsey. Using his Pompey contacts to bring in ex-Blues Neil Hider and Gary Ashton, he guided the club - bottom of their division when he arrived - to safety in his first season before winning the Division 2 title and the League Cup in his second.

Managerial spells with Portfield, Arundel, Bosham and Midhurst & Easebourne followed before Wheatcroft spent a few months coaching in Seattle after being invited by Jimmy Ball, son of his former Saints colleague Alan.

Returning to England, he spent almost a season managing Hythe & Dibden in Division 1 of the Wessex League, in 2015/16, before his globe trotting continued when he accepted an offer to become director of football at Chinese club Shanghai City Youth FC in October 2017.

Now back in Hampshire, Wheatcroft is looking forward to his first taste of working in the Hampshire League.

‘I’m aiming to take Infinity into the Wessex League where they belong,’ he stated. ‘It’s going to be tough because they’re the team everyone will want to beat next season.

‘I’ve got friends who have told me about clubs like Paulsgrove and Fleetlands, I know what to expect. It’s been strange so far, because of the virus I haven’t actually met anyone yet - the two interviews I had were on Zoom and I’ve had a few Zoom chats with the players, but it’s not the same as meeting them.

‘We might lose two or three players because the former manager (Thompson) has gone to Baffins, but I’ve got three players I want to bring in who will hopefully strengthen us.’