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Mensan Phil's journey from football to finance

Mensa member PHIL WHELAN describes his journey from Premiership footballer to accountant - via the classroom!

My Granddad was always the wisest man I knew. Not the sharpest or the cleverest, but most certainly the wisest.

His words of wisdom didn’t come very often, but when they did, they were words to hold on to and treasure. This is why his words of advice, when we were discussing my future career, have always stuck with me throughout my working life.

“Son,” he began in his broad Lancashire brogue, “always remember that you are a long time working. So, whatever you choose to do, make sure it is something you enjoy.”

As you read about my careers, it may be worth remembering this advice and judge for yourself whether I heeded his advice…

While preparing for my A Levels back in 1990, I applied to Leeds University to study accountancy. Remembering my Granddad’s words, I had carefully considered the subjects I enjoyed at school before deciding on my course at university. I loved maths and PE lessons in equal measures at high school but, with no obvious path in the sporting arena, maths prevailed and a career as an accountant or a stockbroker appeared the destination.

That is, however, until a successful trial game at Ipswich Town led to an offer that was hard to refuse. This resulted in me commencing my degree not at Leeds but at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich, while playing football for Suffolk’s only professional club.

Fast forward an eventful 18 months and I’m coming to the end of my second year at university, studying for my end of year exams. A fluke injury to the Ipswich Town centre half and captain resulted in me making my league debut in April 1992 at the tender age of 20.

Southend, Essex and Roots Hall will always be ingrained in my mind for a couple of reasons: Firstly, Roots Hall is the name  of Southend United’s stadium and venue for my first game for Ipswich: the 2-1 win in that game would have been memorable enough, but the first Ipswich goal was scored, as reported in the Ipswich Gazette: ‘...through a towering 61st minute header from the debutant Whelan.’

Secondly, little did I know back then that in 2000 I would return to play for Southend, my fifth and final club. This is also where the youngest two of my three daughters were born.

Back to 1992 and while Ipswich Town were winning the old Division 2 title and becoming one of 22 founder members of the Premier League, I also had the small matter of eight end of year exams to complete, allowing time for only a very short holiday in Rhodes prior to the commencement of pre-season training.

I still remember lying on the beach in Lindos, basking not only in the glow of the 35 degree sun but also in the promotion and the knowledge that I had successfully completed year two of my degree. Thoughts drifted back to my Granddad’s words and I thought to myself: ‘I’m not sure I’ve planned it this way, but if one enjoyable career is good then what is two at the same time?’

The following year was, looking back, crazy in many ways. However, as a 20-year-old who knew nothing different, to me it was just my life. Ipswich had a relatively successful first year in the Premier League, including victories over Manchester United, Spurs, league champions Leeds and local rivals Norwich City. This was in addition to appearances in both cup quarter finals, narrowly missing out on a trip to Wembley in a tense FA Cup defeat to Arsenal.

I played 32 games in the Premier League and an additional 10 cup games that season which came to a close two weeks before the start of my final exams. For those that are interested in the history of football, the end of season game was at home against Nottingham Forest and was Brian Clough’s last game as a manager. We won 3-1 and I must admit to feeling a little sorry for preventing one of the game’s greatest ever managers winning his last game before retirement.

What a summer I had in 1993! That game against Nottingham Forest; my finals at UEA; an England under-21 tournament in Toulon, France (winners) with the likes of Steve McManaman,  Jamie  Redknapp and Ray Parlour; finally, a trip to Buffalo, New York with Great Britain for the World Student Games (we came fourth).

I arrived back from America on July 12 and it was straight back in to training with Ipswich to get ready for the new season. Wow - it’s a good job you don’t look too far ahead when you’re only 21!

Football is certainly a different kind of career and I loved the vast majority of the next ten years of life as a sportsman. Sure there are downs...

Downs such as defeats, being left out of the team and worst of all, serious injuries - I broke my leg twice, my nose multiple times and had five knee operations during my 13 years as a professional. But mainly it is a great way to earn a living.

Going in to work at 9am every day to keep fit, develop your skills and have fun with 20 of your mates is far from the hardest job in the world. I had the joy of promotions, the ecstasy of scoring last minute winners and innumerable laughs on a daily basis during my time doing the second best job in the world.

Second best? Well, as injuries started to bring my career to an end, a chance meeting with a friend set me on my next career path. Pete was a headteacher at a local school in Essex and had just started a teacher training hub in the area due to a shortage of primary school teachers.

“Come and spend a few days in my school and see what you think,” was his invitation. A week was spent at South Benfleet Primary School and I loved everything about it immediately. The energy and enthusiasm of the children, the chance to influence young people’s lives in a positive way on a daily basis and the opportunity to spend the day flitting between a classroom, staff room, computing suite and sports field filled me with more excitement than the thought of any office job.

So the next year was spent learning how to teach (and more importantly how to control 30 enthusiastic, energetic and often mischievous children), followed by a move to my home county of Cheshire in 2004 to commence my teaching career.

The next 16 years were every bit as enjoyable as my first encounter with primary school. I loved having the chance to be a positive role model in children’s lives, whatever their background. Helping them to develop maths and English skills, passing on my sporting knowledge to budding athletes and telling untold ‘dad’ jokes to often unwilling audiences is surely as pleasurable as work can be.

My favourite jokes were ones that left some children thinking about for hours. Such as when teaching science and telling them about my beloved anti-gravity book “that is impossible to put down”.

It was a sad day when I decided to hang up my football boots because I thought that was it and my granddad’s words would never again ring true in my ears. But I followed my heart once again in 2003 and have never regretted it since.

Not even in the last four and a half years spent as a headteacher. Yes, as the head you don’t get to develop the same relationships or create a truly positive atmosphere in the classroom for 30 pupils to thrive in. However, you do get to ‘make the weather’ in the whole school and be the driving force behind making school a fantastic place for young children to attend.

Why then, did I decide in March of this year to end it all in order to enter the third very different career of my life at the tender age of 47?

The simple answer to that question is, I’m not quite sure. It was probably because a chance opportunity to move into another industry arose – and it was probably time for a new challenge.

I have always been interested in accountancy, I suppose it’s only natural then that my eye has constantly been drawn to finance and the joy of numbers that it holds.

Recently, an opportunity came along to take on a business in the payroll market, mainly based in the education sector. Having enjoyed rediscovering the pleasures of accountancy (hard to believe, I know), I decided to take the plunge and retire from teaching to move in to my new role.

My new business, New Red Planet Limited, is now up and running. The start to my third career has already been a steep learning curve but one that has been very exciting and invigorating. Will I enjoy being an accountant as much as I did football or teaching?

I don't know the answer to that but, who knows . . . maybe in three years' time I'll be saying that teaching is the second best career anyone could wish to pursue.

Thanks Granddad, your advice will live with me for ever!

If you feel that New Red Planet Limited might be able to provide you with payroll and accountancy solutions, or you are interested in listening to more of Phil Whelan as a public speaker, please contact


  Phil Whelan playing for Middlesbrough and (above) as he is today







    This story first appeared in the February 2020 issue of Mensa Magazine