Postcard from Europe: Whitbread relishes EPL return
AMSTERDAM — Parades, open-topped busses and Premier League glory couldn’t have felt any farther away for American Zak Whitbread, who was struggling with injuries in England’s League One a little more than a year ago.
How things change in professional soccer.
Having grown up as a player at Liverpool since he was eight years old — without ever making a single league appearance — the Houston native with a Cheshire drawl today is a starter in central defense for a Norwich City side that has just earned promotion to the EPL for the first time since 2004.
To put it mildly, Whitbread and all Canaries, as Norwich City are nicknamed, are singing the sweetest seasonal song these days.
"It's been pretty crazy [in town]," Whitbread told MLSsoccer.com by phone late last week. "It'll be a busy week, but it's something we've worked for all season. We'll enjoy it, as we should."
The defender missed most of the first half of the season as Norwich started slow, but the club quickly found enough consistency to inhabit the promotion playoff zone. They bounced between the second automatic promotion slot and fifth place as Whitbread solidified a place in the lineup.
As the exhausting season reached the final stretch, the Canaries won four straight to clinch second place in the Championship with a round to spare. Whitbread says team unity made the difference when it came time to do business.
“As we got closer and closer to the end of the season, we had belief we could do it," he said. "The lads have a lot of confidence. When we needed a result, we stuck together and saw games out until the 96th minute. We never said never, trained really hard and played really hard."
For Whitbread, this past season with Norwich provided a constant stream of rewards for his efforts.
"It was great just to be back playing again after all the injury troubles," he admitted. "Now, I'm getting promoted and giving the Premiership a crack."
A return to the top-flight has been Whitbread’s target ever since the 27-year-old departed Liverpool in 2006. Though he never got past the sub's bench at Anfield Road, the American figures things turned out the way they should have at the club where he spent 11 years coming up through the ranks.
"At Liverpool, it wasn't the right time for me," Whitbread said. "Liverpool's a massive club, and as a player, as a person, I think I wasn't quite up to it. But you get older and gain experience. As a center-half, being able to read the game and know what's going on around you, it just comes with experience. And as you get older, you get stronger — it adds a great deal to your game."
He jokes that his phone will be ringing off the hook with good-natured Scouse warnings when the fixture list comes out around late June and he learns the date of his first meeting with his old employers.
"I'm delighted to be in the position to be able to go back there and play them," Whitbread declared. "I've got a lot of friends who are Liverpool and Everton fans, so I'm sure they'll all be calling. Every game is a big game in the Premiership, so we're just going to enjoy it and do our best."
In March, Whitbread's rise as a Norwich regular also brought with it a first US national team summons for the former Under-20 international. He had to skip it while nursing a minor knock on the Norwich promotion trail, but he has fingers crossed for another call this summer.
"It was great to be given the opportunity in March and disappointing not to be able to join up," he stated. “It's a big summer with the Gold Cup. I'm just going to hope I've done enough [to be invited to USMNT camp]. A call-up would be great, a massive achievement on top of this season."
All things considered, Whitbread says he finally feels he's reached the place that once seemed within reach to at Liverpool.
"This is where, as a footballer, I wanted things to be heading," said Whitbread. "Sometimes, it takes a little longer. I'm happy with how things have gone, despite the disappointments. You put that in the past and enjoy the present and look forward to the future."