'I don't know what I'd do if I saw him in the street' - Dane Whitehouse opens up on the tackle from Gareth Ainsworth that ended his career
For over a decade, as a Sheffield United supporter born and raised in the Steel City, Dane Whitehouse was living the dream.
Football had been his life from a young age and his ability and dedication had taken him right to the top. He had pulled on that red and white jersey in the Premier League; he had scored in both games against bitter rivals Wednesday as the Blades did the double.
He had resisted big-money moves elsewhere to stay at the club he loved. And then in one second of a game away at Port Vale, with one swing of Gareth Ainsworth's boot, everything changed.
"I never even saw him coming," Whitehouse told The Star from his home in Rotherham. "One moment I was looking at the ball and next, I was writhing in agony on the floor.
"In my career I broke my leg, broke my ribs, broke my nose, broke my arm. I once played on against Barnsley after breaking my jaw. I had a high pain threshold. But I had never been in pain like this.
"My knee had gone pop, crack and snap, all at the same time. I couldn't feel it at all and told the physio: 'My knee's gone'.
"He just said to me: 'Don't look down'. Because I had done my ligaments, the bottom half of my leg was virtually hanging off.
"I couldn't feel it because I'd knackered all the nerves and everything as well. But my foot ended up facing the wrong way."
That fateful November day at Vale Park was 23 years ago last Sunday, but the passage of time has not helped heal the wound felt not just by Whitehouse, but thousands of Blades fans who felt he was one of them.
Born on the Woodthorpe estate, Whitehouse was a Blade from day one.
"I wouldn't go so far to say football saved me, because I had a very good upbringing," he said.
"That was down to my mum and dad. My dad always said: 'Whatever happens in life, go out there and earn it.'
"I took that on board and worked damn hard. But at the same time, it was a difficult childhood. It was a rough estate and as a kid, I saw things I didn't want to see.
"My dad was an old-school bouncer and he went to prison. Some of my close friends went to prison. It wasn't easy but in another respect, it opened my eyes. It made me think: 'I don't want to go down that route'."
Football took him down a different path. Scouted by Sheffield Boys as a youngster - his teacher at Woodthorpe School was their coach - he was picked up by United and made his first-team debut at 18.
He played in the all-Sheffield FA Cup semi-final at Wembley and attracted serious interest from Leeds United and Birmingham City. There was even a tentative approach from Wednesday at one stage.
But a career that many thought would later include England honours as Whitehouse reached his peak tragically never got that far. He was just 27 years old when the tackle from Ainsworth saw him leave the Vale Park pitch on a stretcher. After two years on crutches, gruelling rehabilitation sessions in the gym and six reserve games, his career was over.
"After the operation I asked the surgeon if I had a chance of getting back. He said: 'Everyone's got a chance, but it's all about hard work'," Whitehouse added.
"I told him that if there was hard work involved, I would put it in, day and night to give me a chance. I was in the gym every single day, and it used to drive me mad.
"I used to lose my rag with my mum and dad and sister, and it was affecting me mentally as well as physically.
"But I just wanted to give myself a chance.
"I ended up playing six reserve games, but I knew it wasn't right.
"And if there's one thing I'm not, it's a cheat. I tried to be honest with myself. I was in training and controlled the ball, and my knee gave way. I took my boots off and said: 'That's it, I'm done'.
"I couldn't play a football game at 50 per cent, knowing that if another tackle went wrong I could lose my leg."
While Ainsworth's career continued, playing over 550 professional games, Whitehouse faced up to the realities of life as a retired footballer. He now works days and night shifts in a steelworks, while Ainsworth is the manager of Championship side Wycombe.
In an interview with The Times in 2017, Ainsworth said he sent a letter to Whitehouse, "wishing him all the best". Whitehouse is willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that it was sent, but says it was certainly never received.
United’s fans have not forgiven or forgotten, and Ainsworth is assured of a fiery reception if he ever returns to Bramall Lane. In 1998, after the return game between United and Port Vale, Whitehouse’s dad Sid barged his way on to Vale’s team coach in an attempt to confront Ainsworth.
"I think it took quite a few people to get him off that coach,” Whitehouse added.
"If I injured someone, or I went in for a tackle and they ended up hurt, I would have god damn made sure I went to see them.
"He had so many chances, but didn't. That's what p****d me off even more.
"I've never hated anyone, and I don't hate him as a person, but I hate him as a footballer and I hate his manner.
"He never paid any respect to me, when I was going through a bad time. He may say he sent a letter, and he may have. But even then, it's not good enough.
"No player goes out there to deliberately hurt an opponent, but if you do then you at least apologise to them. We had phones back in 1997 - it wasn't the 1940s. So I think a letter is a get-out clause, to be honest. His rashness cost me my living and if I ever saw him in the street, I honestly don't know what I would do. I don't know if I'd lay into him.
"I know I wouldn't shake his hand, and I would definitely not accept an apology from him. It's too late now."