When the editor of The Grammarian, the annual magazine for past pupils of Bangor Grammar School, invited past contributor Jonny Blair to write a tribute (for the forthcoming 2017 edition) to his friend Michael Whitford following his untimely passing in September 2016, little did we realise how seriously Jonny would take the request.
Jonny also sought the services of friend Jordie McCluskey (another past pupil and friend of Michael) and together they penned a heartfelt tribute running to some 2,700 words and accompanied by some of Jonny’s favourite pictures that had featured Michael.
While The Grammarian, of necessity, must keep its tributes brief, we feel that such restrictions need not necessarily apply to our online presence.
The full text, along with Jonny’s pictures, appears below. In the meantime we offer our sincere condolences to Michael’s wife Emma, their children and the entire family circle.
Whitty by Jordie McCluskey
Being asked to write about Michael is something that is quite tough. First of all, I by no means feel suitably qualified to talk in depth about Michael, or ‘Whitty’ as he will always be known to me. Whitty was a good friend of mine but there are many others from our year in school who would have been much closer to him, would have been best friends with him, and would give a far better account of the man than I ever could … but I will try to give an insight into the Whitty I knew, probably the biggest West Ham United fan I will ever know and, most importantly, one of the most devout, proud family men I will ever know.
We both attended BGS between 1992 and 1998. Yet I can’t ever recall a time when we properly conversed! Granted my memory is absolutely dreadful, but I honestly can’t think of one time we spoke more than a passing word to each other. We were in different School Houses, different friend circles and at no point were we ever in the same class lesson! The only memory I have of Whitty from school was completely leathering him in the face with a football in the ‘Outer Quad’ – accidentally I might! – when multiple games were taking place across each other during lunch breaks.
The first time we really got to know each other was when Whitty joined (like so many others) the Tesco revolution! So many of our BGS year seemed to be employed part-time in Tesco through those years (1997–2002) whether in the Bloomfield Shopping Centre or the old Springhill Shopping Centre – the third world of shopping centre experiences!
I had already been with Crazy Prices / Tesco for a couple of years when Michael joined. He came in to work part-time as well, but on a different shift pattern to most, working on the stock management systems – he was basically a ‘counter’, ironic perhaps given his future career path! It was during these years that we really connected and many an evening was spent skiving in the stock room or canteen, chatting away, putting the world to rights and talking mostly about football!
Those years were fantastic, no responsibilities, no mortgages, no real worries in life – and best of all, being able to play five-a-side football three times a week without worrying what part of the body would fail next! Tuesday and Thursday evenings and on Sundays (most of the time with a hangover!), we played football in a large group started from staff at Tesco. The early days playing at Ballykillaire before Eddie Irvine decided to build the dedicated indoor pitches. Whitty regularly telling everyone of his Bobby Moore-esque ability and his absolute pearler of a left foot.
Even after leaving Tesco, the two of us continued playing five-a-sides on a weekly basis – the group less Tesco-based and more friend-based. And every year there would be a new West Ham or Glentoran shirt on Whitty, which was unusual to see in an era dominated by Liverpool / Man United / Arsenal fans.
It was also during this time that Whitty would often indulge me in another shared interest – our fondness of the insane and preposterous world of professional wrestling! Several times a year Whitty would join up with a couple of us to watch a big WWE event like Wrestlemania or the Royal Rumble – a guilty pleasure if you will! Those evenings were enjoyable for all, catching up with each other and watching some guy get smashed in the face with a steel chair – the perfect combination! I was also very grateful to be invited to Whitty and Emma’s wedding evening, offering as it did a super chance to see some of the old Tesco guys and celebrate the happy couple.
Of course as time goes on it gets harder to keep in contact with people. However, there would always be the odd text message flying around – usually when Liverpool played West Ham – and any time we bumped into each other 10-15 minutes would pass quite easily as we talked about the biggest load of nonsense. I recall a pub quiz maybe five years ago, when I won a prize of a football signed by the whole Glentoran squad. I immediately thought of Whitty as something like that has very little meaning to me. Whitty was very grateful for it – a keen Glens man, one of only a couple of actual Irish League fans I know really (but something that goes right over my head!).
The first I heard of Whitty’s illness was through a friend who had bumped into him in town. Whitty had just casually dropped into the conversation that he had cancer, a somewhat flippant comment in a similar vein to telling someone he’d moved jobs – “no biggie, it is what it is, we deal with it and move on”. It was a surprising but refreshing attitude I felt he adopted the whole time he was ill, and something for which I always had a great deal of respect.
I continued to keep in contact with Whitty throughout this time, the odd text and phone call just to check in and see how things were going. I’m not great at discussing things like illnesses and sickness, so we always kept our conversation light and talked about life, his amazing kids and, of course, the one constant in life … football! I remember when Liverpool were close to winning the league in 2013, speaking with Whitty about the last game of the season when we needed West Ham to do us a favour and beat Man City. He was all like “stay calm dude, we got this” … of course West Ham got hammered 4-0 or something and we could all laugh at that (… eventually!).
I also remember being (obviously) so happy for him and his whole family when things started to turn and it looked like he was getting better. The countless trips to Little Wing for pizza nights (his older son Benjamin’s favourite I believe) indicated that things were looking up.
And then, in the summer of 2016, I was told by a friend that they’d heard things weren’t too good, he was back in hospital and the prognosis was terminal. I couldn’t believe it. I immediately started typing and deleting text messages, not knowing what to say. I ended up calling him and leaving a voicemail asking him to give me a buzz back. When he did, confirming his situation, I was borderline speechless. After exchanging some texts I arranged to call round to see him at his house. I will always remember that afternoon and how I was shocked to see the fragile state he was in, lying in a hospital bed in his living room which had been converted to help his needs. We chatted for over an hour, only briefly about how he was – the rest of the time about life, his immense pride in sons Benjamin and Theo, wrestling and, predictably again, football (he took great delight in slagging me as at that time Burnley were scoring two first-half goals in beating Liverpool). Again, you wouldn’t have known the situation Whitty was very casual about it all.
The following weeks were spent sending texts to each other – the usual mutual slagging that mates do – before I heard he’d being taken into hospice care.
Randomly enough, I was leaving money at that exact hospice for a charity event. After speaking with the main office I thought I would call round to reception to see if Emma would be free for a quick chat so I could ask after him. I was then told by the girl at the desk that they would like me to call to his room. I was not expecting this and took my time before arriving at the door. Once inside with Michael and Emma we talked about a whole variety of things (including how much Whitty would benefit from a Big Mac Meal with a McFlurry!) and at no time acknowledged the elephant in the room. I was only in for about 20 minutes as I was extremely wary of taking up any precious time but I will be eternally grateful and humbled that I was with Whitty and Emma during that very tough time.
That was the last time I saw him and it will live with me forever. A handful of texts followed that meeting before I got word that he had passed a couple of weeks later. Thirty-six years old with a wife and two young boys – life is certainly not fair.
The funeral was a fitting occasion, celebrating Whitty’s life – the way he would have wanted it. And he left the church accompanied by the West Ham anthem ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’ – a song I cannot hear now without thinking of the good times we shared.
Michael ‘WH itty’ Whitford by Jonny Blair
I first met Michael Whitford in 1990. He passed the ball to me as we played football for 10th Bangor Boys’ Brigade on a cold Saturday in December. He was playing left back and I had been slotted into a left midfield position, aiming to get the better of the opponents’ right back. ‘Whitty’, as we called him, and I teamed up on the left wing and in the end the only way I could get past the right back was to pass to Whitty and he would do it! He had a great left foot. Within a year we would also be classmates at Bangor Grammar School and still playing football together regularly at weekends through the troubled 1990s.
In those pre-internet days we did ‘sleepovers’ at each other’s houses. This would normally involve watching football on TV, playing football in the street, some snack food and drinks and playing his Sega Master System or my Super Nintendo. Back in the 1990s, as young teenagers at Bangor Grammar, computer games and football were the life outside of school and Northern Irish politics.
Whitty and I were classmates together in 1Y. Then in 2Y. Then in 3Y. We played hockey in school together too. We were also still in the same class for some lessons and roll call in both 4Y and 5Y. We played football in the outer quad almost every lunchtime.
Michael’s dad Robin and my dad Joe are good friends too. They played five-a-side football together for years. The four of us also often went to watch Glentoran. If we weren’t at the Oval, we would pick a random away match and one of our dads would drive. It was normally the local ones like Bangor, Ards or Crusaders.
So let’s talk about Michael’s nickname and its triple meaning…
1.Whitty – short for Whitford
Historians can no doubt prove the real reason for the nickname ‘Whitty’ was the usual ‘it was short for Whitford’. Nobody can really argue with that but beneath it lie two deeper, clever meanings…
2.WH itty – W(est) H(am) itty
Whitty lived up to his nickname in so many ways. Take the first two letters of Whitty and you have WH, West Ham United. Michael’s pride and joy, the team that won the FA Cup the very day Michael was born!! As a historic fact, that day in 1980 remains the last ever time a second tier team won the FA Cup. They beat Arsenal 1-0 at Wembley, the irony being that his brother Philip is a big Arsenal fan! Michael’s love for West Ham was unique and as my team was always in the lower divisions, we never thought they would ever play each other. I’m an AFC Bournemouth fan. However, over the last two seasons, following their promotion to the Premiership, the teams have now met a total of four times. Each time before his death in 2016, Whitty and I chatted online during the match as I was in lands afar. Indeed, just a few weeks before Whitty died on 20 September, he and I were messaging each other the day West Ham beat AFC Bournemouth 1-0 at the new London Stadium.
In the sadness of life, I find it fitting that our last ever conversation was about West Ham playing Bournemouth. Our friendship was based on our love of watching football together.
3. Whitty – Witty
Whitty in a different spelling also means clever, and Michael stood head and shoulders above most of us in our classes all the way through both Kilmaine Primary School (where I had only just got to know him) and all through our time at Bangor Grammar School. Whitty was a clever, witty guy, a model pupil, a hard worker and a football and computer games fanatic.
When we both left Bangor Grammar we lost touch for a bit, but soon we were working together in Stock Control at the Springhill Tesco. However, I left Northern Ireland and Whitty went to get his degree and we lost touch again.
And then, later in life, we got in touch again. Michael was by then married with a wonderful wife, Emma, and two lovely sons, Benjamin and Theo. I was only in Northern Ireland about five times over the past few years, yet every single time Michael went out of his way to meet me. We went to three Glentoran home matches (Crusaders in April 2012, Glenavon in January 2014 and Ards in January 2015). It was so memorable for me that Whitty found the time to do what we had done together 20 years earlier. We even got in an away match, Coleraine in 2014, and we attended a charity match in Bangor as well. Life had gone full circle for the two of us: we were best friends again, despite the fact I spent fewer than 20 days per year in Bangor.
Whitty and I also played five-a-side together again, for what would be the last time (see the pictures) and we re-lived those 10th Bangor glory days by hanging out on the left side and scoring a few belters at Eddie Irvine’s. It was special that Michael was there that day as I had flown home from Hong Kong for my brother’s birthday and the match was organised just a few days before, yet Michael’s reply was: “Football on Saturday then a Glens match? Sure thing, I’m in!”
I remember the final couple of times I saw Whitty, during two quick trips home to Bangor in 2015. We watched football both times, one a West Ham match which they won.
When the sun goes down tonight, in your town, or in my town, Whitty will be there shining down on us like a star. He was a model gentleman, a fantastic son, a loveable brother, a superb husband and an example to other men on how to live your life. He had no fear, no hate. We miss him dearly.
As Shakespeare once wrote: “a man of men” – that was Whitty.
Rest in peace, Whitty.