INTERVIEW: Alan Whittle – the first Englishman to play in Iran


Turning a corner and coming face to face with the armament of a tank, Alan Whittle knew it was time to flee Iran. The first Englishman to play in the country, the Everton title winner had held out long enough amid the bloodshed of the 1978 Iranian revolution. Tehran was no longer safe for him, his wife and youngster son.

The 72-year-old has watched the news with sadness in recent weeks as violent scenes unfolded with resounding echoes of the uprising that forced his own departure.

Speaking to Sportsmail from the relative safety of his home in Wirral, Whittle relives his final days in a city he loved, with the maverick forward having spent 17 months with Persepolis FC.

Everton title winner Alan Whittle was the first Englishman to play football in Iran

The 72-year-old has watched the news unfold in Iran with sadness in recent weeks

The 72-year-old has watched the news unfold in Iran with sadness in recent weeks

“Everything was suspended, we had no games and we were under curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.,” he begins, recalling the measures imposed as the ruling Shah dynasty clung to the power. “I went out several times. There were a few bullets flying. I had a gun pointed at me once. I was outside when maybe I shouldn’t have been. I was like, “Woah, wait a second, keep your mouth shut, Al.”

“But it was when you were driving around the corner with your wife and son and a tank was coming towards you that you were like, ‘Oh, goddamn it.’ One of my teammates had to go into the gutter with a gun, just to protect his house. The club’s owner, Abdul, had already fled. He was a Shah, he had to go. I was owed a few pounds, but there was nothing I could do about it. I realized that our lives could be in danger. We had to get out.

It wasn’t that easy. With banks closed and ATMs a convenience of the future, Whittle had to arrange for money to be sent from England for his family’s plane tickets. His wife, Jeanne, also lacked the necessary papers, and a frantic day was spent scouring Tehran with the help of a teammate to finalize their escape.

“It was a relief,” says Whittle. “I didn’t want to go, but it wasn’t a difficult decision. We came out at the right time. I haven’t been back since, but I often think of my team, the boys. I would go back tomorrow to see them, if it were possible.

The 20-year-old Whittle had won the Premier League with Everton in 1970 and equaled Dixie Dean’s club record by scoring six consecutive appearances. Today, her hair may have thinned and turned gray, but check out her goals on YouTube and her blonde stubble is unmistakable. The resemblance to his nephew, Everton midfielder Tom Davies – with whom he remains close – is uncanny. In Iran, it’s a look that stood out.

Whittle's resemblance to his nephew, Everton's Tom Davies - with whom he remains close - is uncanny

Whittle’s resemblance to his nephew, Everton’s Tom Davies – with whom he remains close – is uncanny

“Everyone knew who I was,” says Whittle, who immediately achieved superstar status in the capital. “But you had to be very careful what you were talking about, because you never knew who was listening. If I were to criticize someone, there might be a pat on the shoulder. You never knew who the spies were.

“There have always been tensions in Iran. I was in the owner’s apartment and his coat suddenly came open. He only carried a gun! I said, ‘What is that?’. He said, ‘Alan, this is my protection. I thought, ‘I have to be on my guard here.’

“But I don’t want to present them as bad people, they were beautiful people. They were kind to me and my family. They also had a real passion for football. And they could play.

Whittle, to the surprise of many, left second division Leyton Orient to join Persepolis in 1977. He was doubling his money but was also drawn to adventure. Forty-five years later, no regrets.

“I gave them respect, they gave me respect,” he says. “We got to their FA Cup final. When there are 200,000 people in a stadium, you have to be able to play. We were Manchester United of Iran, but we lost that day, 1-0 against the army team. We beat them.

“I remember the heat we used to play in. One day I turned around and thought, ‘There’s a stand over there, and it’s a nice shadow on the left side. “. I said to the guys, ‘Look, you see that shadow, I’m not moving from there – you hit me, I’m going to knock them down!’.”

Whittle scored 16 goals in 34 games and each time was rewarded with a Pahlavi Gold Coin. But he also wanted to share the wealth. His former Crystal Palace teammate Don Rodgers quickly took advantage.

Whittle relived his final days in the Iranian capital of Tehran, which he had come to love

Whittle relived his final days in the Iranian capital of Tehran, which he had come to love

The sniper striker spent 17 months with Persepolis FC and says he loved his time there

The sniper striker spent 17 months with Persepolis FC and says he loved his time there

“I said to the owner, ‘Give me a few pounds and I’ll get us some decent gear,'” Whittle recalled. he was on a good winner.Everything had to go through the Iranian Embassy but, because it was me, it went smoothly.

Whittle wanted nothing in Tehran – “a nice apartment, good food, booze and cars” as he puts it. But there were also customs he had to accept.

“Me and Jeanne were in a taxi and a woman jumped out carrying her sheep. It was just their way. Another time we purchased baby furniture for our son and arranged for delivery. We were walking through town and noticed a cart being pushed up the hill with what looked like our wardrobe and drawers. Turns out it was our closet and drawers!

“But we loved our time there. We could go skiing in the mountains or sunbathe by the Caspian Sea. It was paradise.

It was tomorrow’s first-ever encounter between England and Iran in their World Cup opener that brought us to Whittle and allowed him to travel down memory lane. But a memory should serve as a warning to Gareth Southgate.

“The Iranians were good players 40 years ago, and that’s when they stayed in the country,” he says. “Now they play all over Europe. They will have serious talent, I know that. If England expect an easy game, they will be taken aback. I’m torn, I’ll settle for a draw.


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