Norman Whiteside debuted for Manchester United on April 24, 1982 against Brighton & Hove Albion. He was two weeks shy of his seventeenth birthday, making him the youngest United debutant since Duncan Edwards in 1953. In his second game, on the final day of the 1981/82 season, he scored against Stoke City. Thirty-three days later Whiteside became the youngest ever player to debut in the World Cup, starting at forward for Northern Ireland against Yugoslavia at España‘82. Seven years later he was just a trans-Atlantic flight away from joining the Portland Timbers of the Western Soccer League.
After scoring goals in the 1983 League Cup and FA Cup finals as well as the dramatic 110th minute winner in the 1985 FA Cup final, Whiteside was a legend at Manchester United in the final days before the arrival of Alex Ferguson. Under Ron Atkinson the Northern Irish star was a fan favorite, combining a knack for goal with a brutally physical style. At 6’ 2”, Whiteside came to dominate in the First Division as strike partners came and went. Ray Wilkins, Mark Hughes, Bryan Robson and Brian McClair all played for significant periods alongside the young forward.
At just 21 years old, Whiteside scored Northern Ireland’s first goal of the World Cup, securing his country’s only point at México‘86. But as Ferguson took over at United ahead of the 1986/87 season, Whiteside’s injuries and penchant for night life increasingly kept him out of the starting XI. After a transfer request at the end of the 1987/88 season was refused, he never scored again for United. Knee injuries allowed for just six games in 1988/89 and a growing dissatisfaction on the part of Ferguson. Still, Whiteside was a prominent name and at just 24-years old, still very much a young player.
As 1988/89 drew toward a close, Whiteside had appeared just six times in a United shirt in a season where the club finished in eleventh place in the First Division. Needing time to rehabilitate his injured knees and a persistent groin problem, he looked abroad for a chance to play competitively during the offseason. A connection with former West Ham United and Cardiff City defender Clive Charles led Whiteside to reach out to Portland Timbers of the Western Soccer League in the United States. Owner Art Dixon was contacted directly by the former star forward and arrangements were made to provide transportation and lodging for Whiteside and his wife. “I got a call from Whiteside letting me know he wanted to do this and to let me know that he did not want to be paid but that he needed certain medial care to ensure his rehab success,” Dixon remembers twenty-two years later.
In the days leading up to the close of the 1988/89 season, Whiteside again put in a transfer request at United. He also traveled with Northern Ireland in their Italia ’90 World Cup qualifying campaign throughout 1989. Though he did not feature in the match, Whiteside aggravated a groin injury ahead of the April 26 match in Malta. Said Dixon at the time, “Somebody called and said that they had read in the British press that Norman had been reinjured in Malta; and we thought it was a cruel joke. Then his manager, Alex Ferguson, called and said it was true.”
Even with the groin injury in Malta, Whiteside still seemed inclined to come to the United States and join the Timbers during their 1989 season. Portland had been without professional football since the original Timbers folded after the 1982 season in the North American Soccer League and were drawing small, if consistent, crowds to Civic Stadium. Mid-way through the season, an average of 4254 came through the gates for the ’89 Timbers, so adding an internationally-known forward could do nothing but raise the profile of the new club and include a player experienced at the highest levels to a young and developing side.
Despite the additional injury in Malta, Whiteside was still planning on traveling to Portland at season’s end. Dixon and the Timbers purchased airline tickets and reserved a hotel room for the Whitesides to use during their stay in Portland. The Timbers had both forward Scott Benedetti and goalkeeper Kasey Keller away on international duty with the US U-23 side in France and South Korea, so bringing a big draw and a possible replacement for Benedetti’s scoring, could actually help the club in the WSL.
“We had agreed to everything and were moving forward and at the last moment I got a call from [Ferguson] and he asked about our home field. When I told him it was turf he said that [Whiteside] could not come because of possible further injury,” Dixon recalls. Indeed the hard turf at Portland’s Civic Stadium was in poor condition, even by artificial turf’s standards. “They were not about to take a chance of him injuring himself further,” Dixon said, looking back at the saga in July 1989.
Whiteside himself seemed disappointed at his denied experiment in the United States, sending Dixon a letter apologizing for the circumstances and expressing an interest in ‘amending the unfortunate situation.’
United did not want to risk another injury to Whiteside because Ferguson had decided to accept the secret transfer request. In July, Everton purchased Whiteside for £600,000, leading to widespread criticism of Ferguson but netting United quite a bit of cash to help in their bid for Paul Ince. Though Whiteside contributed to the Toffees’ 1989/90 season, his knee injuries proved to be debilitating, limiting him to just twenty-nine matches in two seasons and ultimately leading to his retirement at twenty-six after 1990/91.
Portland Timbers finished second in the North Division of the Western Soccer League, good for berth in the semi-finals. A 2-1 loss to eventual champions San Diego Nomads ended the 1989 season for Portland and a poor 1990 season doomed the Timbers to fold again, not to reappear until 2001. Keller, Benedetti and player-coach John Bain were all selected in the best XI for 1989 with Keller winning the league’s Most Valuable Player award.
While the entire episode garnered almost no local coverage in Portland, the missed opportunity has never been forgotten by Dixon. Of Ferguson’s last contact, Dixon wistfully says, “That call ended the dream.”