Joey Barton has completed the 17th and final signing of a busy summer window by bringing in former Stoke City and Republic of Ireland midfielder Glenn Whelan on a free transfer.
Whelan has been training with Rovers for several weeks and his signature was all-but confirmed by Barton on Tuesday a few hours before the deadline closed, with the Gas rubber-stamping it on Saturday ahead of the League Two fixture against Crawley Town.
The 37-year-old, who has signed a one-year contract, played under Barton at Fleetwood but the two go even further back having been teammates in the Manchester City academy aged 14.
Barton accepts that Whelan’s impact at Rovers is likely to be as much off the field as on it, with the veteran’s character and presence in the dressing room absolutely vital in changing the culture of the team.
Whelan brings immense experience having made 640 appearances, including more than 300 in the Premier League with Stoke, and nearly 200 in the Championship with Sheffield Wednesday and Aston Villa, plus 91 caps for the Republic of Ireland.
He will be an integral part of Barton’s leadership group, with his arrival mirroring the club’s first deals of the summer as Mark Hughes and Paul Coutts signed in May to help guide and mentor the younger elements of the squad.
“As a manager when I look back over my notes from the first season at Fleetwood, when you’re changing the culture of the group, it’s difficult to do it with young lads, I think you need men to help you do that,” Barton said.
“Paul Coutts, Mark Hughes, Glen Whelan, Leon Clarke and the lads we already had here your Alex Rodman’s and Anssi Jaakkola’s they just give you that ‘been there, done it, got the t-shirt’.
“You don’t want too many of them because you’ll have no legs and you won’t have enough energy which is what football can sometimes be decided by. But you need the brain and the nous in there and I think you need to have that balance in your group.
“We already have had the highs and lows of a campaign and you need a few solid senior citizens to be in there to say ‘okay, we’ve been here before, settle down, let’s get this group into this space’.
“They police your dressing room for you, we’ve got good conduits off the field side where you can reverberate messages through the dressing room.
“Also, you know that if any of the younger players are getting a little bit carried away there’s nothing better than an older and wiser head to give them a clip round the ear and keep them in line.”
Evidence of Whelan’s position in the squad was on display at The Quarters as he led a team bonding exercise in the canteen prior to Friday’s training session, involving press-ups and the loser having to recite a poem to the rest of the group.
Each member of the squad emerged with broad grins across their faces with various back slaps and a general sense of enjoyment within their surroundings.
Trivial it may seem on the outside but it’s notable for the fact that Barton knows how important team chemistry is and how he needs to create and foster it in these early stages of the campaign, especially with such a turnover in playing staff, but also Whelan’s role in that process, despite only having been at the club a few weeks.
“They become your standard-bearers if they’re training at that level and they’re preparing at that level,” Barton added. “They’re doing everything, sleeping and eating in the hotels, the way they travel to games, their recovery protocols, at that level then they’re great messages to send to our younger players.
“I think one of the things I found when it came to the football club is the people in positions of leadership on and off the pitch weren’t giving the right messages and that leaves the younger generation with no real role models of how to do things correctly.
“So, we feel we’ve got that now and we think in the next period that’ll start to emerge as we try to build a winning culture at the football club. I think the experience of those senior players is going to be absolutely key and vital.”
Of course, Whelan is at the club to be more than just social secretary and Mr Motivator as he’ll now form a strong central midfield unit alongside Coutts, Sam Finley, Josh Grant plus Antony Grant, Zain Westbrooke, Cam Hargreaves and Sion Spence in more advanced roles.
It gives Barton’s a multitude of options in terms of what type of midfield and system he wants to select, plus doesn’t put overt pressure on the likes of Whelan and Coutts to play 40+ games as their fitness levels can be carefully managed across the course of the season.
On the field, Whelan provides composure on the ball, tenacity in the tackle but also tactical nous, game management and positional play that should help improve his teammates.
“I always think if your central midfielders are in position, usually your whole team is in position because everyone kind of takes their reference point off them,” Barton said. “Me and Wheelo played in the same youth team so he’s shown just what a great pro he is.
“We were in the same youth team for under-15s so we’ve been together a long time. He’s actually a year younger than me but because of his birthday he could play the year over.
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“He was a really talented young player and he stepped up and played in our age group. I played in midfield with him a number of times so for me it’s almost like having a coach on the field and the same with Couttsy.
“There’s lots of experience in the spine of the team and then for me you put legs and energy outside of that, I think you start to move into the space you want to move into as a group.
“And, as I say, Wheelo fully understands the position, you don’t get 90-odd caps for your country unless you know what you’re doing and have the career that he’s had.
“But also, those guys drive in training every day because they train like they play and that’s why at this age they’re still able to produce and perform in a professional space because they’re superb professionals.”