By the time I got to see Billy Whitehurst in the flesh his reputation was diminishing. Like all players with a physical reputation, time had caught up to him like a shopping trolley stuck in a rushing tide. On the night of lower division mediocrity I witnessed him play, he looked bored and out of place; on the periphery of a fourth division game on a freezing Tuesday night in Hartlepool that was probably amongst his last pay cheques. As the home crowd sought a flashpoint from him he looked to the bench sporadically – almost willing his number to be put up under the floodlights rather than play the tired old pantomime villain that in many ways had devoured him.

He still had something left however. A flash of temper, some ugly retribution that had always been his natural act when all else failed. It would come mid-way through the second half when Pools’ tricky winger Brian Honour had the audacity to turn him inside out like a used tea towel. Whitehurst reacted by trying to tackle him around the throat with an act of violence that was as shocking as it was inevitable. As the referee brandished yet another red card at the thickly built centre forward, he simply shrugged and mugged a wink at the braying Mill House stand and let out that deep laugh of his as yet another stretcher came rushing past him in sudden urgency.

Such disdain, of course, was always the default setting for the Yorkshire born striker. It’s hard to single out a player in English football whose game was based on as much anarchy and pure malice as Billy Whitehurst. Aesthetically so in fact. When the iconic soccer hard men are spoken about in the pubs and clubs amongst football supporters it’s often with a mixture of misty sentimentality and gallows humour: an erection of the heart for a bygone age with working class heroes who loved a tackle good and bad. Whitehurst, however, was a player who divided opinion amongst his own fans nevermind neutral ones.

From the moment he pulled on a shirt for his first professional club Hull City, he seemed to horrify and inspire in equal measures. A woeful return of one goal in his first twenty six games for the Humberside outfit even had him heading for the football scrap heap before his career had even begun. Their relegation into division four, however, saw an upturn in fortunes for the club and the burly striker. The hinterlands of English football was handmade for Whitehurst. Its physicality and undercurrent of violence both on and off the pitch was a dream for him. Over his next four seasons at Hull he would bag a healthy, yet unspectacular 46 goals for the club but more importantly he would get a reputation: for being a competent striker sure, but mainly for being able to cause absolute havoc in the opposition box. When Whitehurst went shoulder to shoulder with a rival centre half, his cruel intentions meant more often than not there was only one winner.

It wasn’t long before an illustrious move occured for him either. A transfer to Newcastle United in 1985 for a then club record of £232,000 represented a big step up from the lower divisions. For the disgruntled St. James’ Park faithful, however, it was something of an anti-climax. Already agitated over the loss of local hero Chris Waddle to Spurs, the sight of battering ram Whitehurst suddenly leading their line seemed an archaic rather than a progressive move from their controversial board. No goals in his first eleven games hardly helped and then there was the matter of a falling out between a section of the Geordie support and their granite lump of a striker. It led to one disgruntled fan writing that Whitehurst was ‘as athletic as an Armadillo’ in the local paper. A seven game scoring run and a no nonsense attitude meant that he would eventually win over the Gallowgate. Although he would only end up playing 38 games for the North East giants, at least his notoriety at this time was still football based.

In the pubs and clubs of Newcastle there had been rumours of his off field activities in the city during his short spell there. All alleged fight with four doormen in a wine bar, which had led to three security staff being knocked unconscious was a story that would later be verified by another Newcastle player. Another was that he had threatened to break Paul Gascoigne’s jaw because the mercurial midfielder had nutmegged him in training. Although that would later be denied by both parties, it would be the sort of infamy Whitehurst would be notorious for from then on in. Whatever interference he subsequently spun on the pitch was multiplied by a hundred off it. Not all self inflicted mind. An horrific pub attack on the player by three men during his time at Oxford in which he was assaulted with iron bars showed he was a bullseye for the type of idiots who couldn’t distinguish between a pantomime villain and a real one. In typical Whitehurst fashion of course, he was playing with thirty stitches in his face 10 days later. He even managed to rip them out with a challenge with Nottingham Forest stopper Steve Sutton during a fifty-fifty challenge in the first half. The goalkeeper was said to be ashen faced as he witnessed the centre forward running back out for the second period. ‘I looked like Frankenstein’s monster,’ Whitehurst would later recall. ‘The doctor had replaced the stitches with staples. Their keeper looked as though he was about to shit himself as well.’

A succession of clubs would follow his time at Oxford and whilst the goals dried up his reputation both on and off the field certainly didn’t. From organised bareknuckle fights with local gypsies to heavy gambling addictions, there never seemed to be a dull moment with the striker, who’s malicious presence still meant he had a steady lineup of managers willing to utilise his dubious services. From Sheffield United manager Dave Bassett, who was said to have loved nothing better than to send Whitehurst on with the simple instruction ’cause mayhem Billy,’ to a conveyor belt of respectable clubs such as Sunderland and Reading, the advice was never going to be based on the purist aesthetics of the beautiful game. ‘If a centre half was quicker or more skilful than me, I simply waited for a 50/50 and nailed him,’ Whitehurst would later say, which was a basic but effective coda that struck terror in the hearts of centre halves for almost two decades.

Although he would never have a successful career in the top levels of the English game he would certainly leave a heavy imprint on those who did. In his autobiography, Alan Hansen said of the striker: ‘At the beginning of every season I would look for Oxford – or whoever he was playing for – because it was a nightmare playing against him. Actually frightening.’ Two of football’s most notorious savages in Vinnie Jones and Neil ‘Razor’ Ruddock have also gone on record as saying they were absolutely terrified of him. It would be manager Harry Redknapp who would perhaps give the perfect quote on football’s worst nightmare. As his son Jamie prepared to take the field of play in one of his early professional appearances, he was somewhat disturbed to see the nefarious presence of the looming centre forward staring over at them. He quickly turned to the future England midfielder and simply said: ‘whatever you do, stay away from that lunatic Billy Whitehurst, son.’