They lived together for several years in Manchester and have remained close friends ever since despite going their separate ways at club level. Both players went on to become fully-fledged Republic of Ireland internationalists and now, following yesterday’s confirmation that Whelan has signed a one-year deal at Tynecastle, playing for Hearts will become another similarity on their respective career paths.
The obvious difference in this regard is that Whelan, having shown remarkable endurance to keep operating at the top level well into his veteran years, will be pulling on the maroon jersey aged 35, nine years after Elliott first did it. The 2012 Scottish Cup winner, who hung up his boots a year ago, is delighted to see his close friend follow in his footsteps by moving to Gorgie.
“I’ve spoken to him a few times over the past few weeks and I knew, obviously, there was a chance of him going to Hearts,” Elliott told the Evening News. “He asked me for my opinion about the club and I told him I had a really good time there. From speaking to him, he’s been really impressed with the club and the manager and he’s really looking forward to getting going. He’ll be a really good addition because he’s a good player, full of experience and with great pedigree. I can’t speak highly enough of him as a footballer and as a person.”
Whelan arrives at Tynecastle fresh from having helped Aston Villa win promotion to the English Premier League last season. In total, he made more than 70 appearances over the past two seasons at Villa Park and remains a regular for Republic of Ireland. Previously, he spent almost a decade in the Premier League with Stoke City. Elliott has followed his friend’s career closely and is adamant the fact he is in his mid-30s won’t limit his impact at Hearts. “The career he’s had is a credit to him,” he said. “He’s definitely still got more in the tank, you only have to look at the recent internationals for Ireland where he was running around the pitch like a 22-year-old. He may be 35 but he’s a fit 35-year-old. He’s not had any major injuries in his career and he looks after himself really well. He played a lot of games for Villa last season. It wasn’t like he was just a squad player - he played in the real demanding stages of the season and if you asked any Villa fan about him I’m sure they couldn’t speak highly enough of his role in their promotion. Look at the number of years he spent in a good Stoke team in the Premier League - you don’t do that if you’re a poor player!”
Elliott expects Whelan to bring strength, leadership and composure to Hearts’ midfield. “If he needs to make a tackle, he’ll make a tackle but he’s a very good footballer as well,” he said. “He’s very mentally tough and he’s physically strong. He’s a real leader who demands top-level performances from the players around him. If somebody’s not doing it, he won’t be shy in letting them know but he does it in a good way. He leads by example. He’s a really strong character and I think he’ll be a huge addition to the Hearts.
“He’s always preferred to play centrally so he can have an influence on others around him. He doesn’t wear the armband but he plays like a captain. He’ll be a real leader on the pitch, especially in the big matches like the derbies and the games against the Old Firm. He’s played in an FA Cup final, play-off matches, international matches. He’s got loads of experience and that can only help Hearts.”
Whelan has been in the squad for all four of Ireland’s Euro 2020 qualifiers so far, starting the matches against Georgia in March and Denmark in June and remaining an unused sub in the two matches against group minnows Gibraltar. Elliott sees no reason why his move to Hearts should be detrimental to his international prospects as he bids to stay in contention at a time when Mick McCarthy’s team have the carrot of playing on home soil if they qualify for next summer’s European Championship finals.
“I would imagine he’ll remain part of the national team going forward,” said Elliott. “He’s been involved in all the qualifiers so far and I’m sure he’ll have spoken to Mick to check what this does for his international ambitions. I think if he’s playing regularly for Hearts he’ll remain in the squad because the Scottish Premiership is a good level of football. The main thing is for him to be playing games and if he’s doing that I don’t see why he won’t remain in the squad for the remainder of the Euro 2020 campaign because he’s a really important player for Ireland.”