All eyes still on the Canary who joined the Rat Pack

Sarah HardyFormer Canary player Jim Whitley had his footballing career cut short due to serious injury. He tells Sarah Hardy about his new life – playing Sammy Davis Junior in a hit musical that arrives in Norwich on Monday.Sarah Hardy

Many, many small boys dream of becoming a professional footballer - I've got one at home - but those that actually make it are few and far between! So imagine making it, getting that contract with a top team and then everything coming to an abrupt end when injury strikes. It's heart-breaking.

But that's exactly what happened to Jim Whitley, described as a 'tenacious' midfielder by various footballing pundits. 'I think that means that I used to get stuck in, used to kick people a bit,' laughs Jim.

He signed for Manchester City as a 16-year-old schoolboy and enjoyed plenty of first team action. He had spells at Blackpool, Northampton and Swindon and came to Norwich City on loan in 2000 when Nigel Worthington was in charge. 'It was a great team to be part of and I got very close to being signed permanently,' Jim says.

He says that he still keeps an eye out for how the Canaries are doing and is confident that they will bounce back. 'It happens to most clubs, they go through awkward spells - just look at Man City!'

He continues: 'I knew Robert Green well and I still like to watch him, he's doing very well at the moment and Bryan Gunn was a big part of the club.'

Jim, who is now in his mid-30s and has a footballing brother called Jeff, was forced out of the game with a serious knee injury in 2005 and was left wondering what to do with the rest of his life. 'I had always loved music, always sung - had been in the school choir and in a band - but that had sort of reduced to just doing karaoke in bars when I was busy with my football,' he says.

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But, after also being signed for Wrexham, he was asked to sing on a record about the team and producers were so impressed that he was invited to perform a solo show at a local theatre.

Word of mouth led to invitations to perform at weddings and other social events and then to appear as Nat King Cole in a Christmas show which toured the country. From this he was asked to play Sammy Davis Junior in another touring production of the Rat Pack Vegas Spectacular which arrives in Norwich on Monday.

'I've always loved the music of Frank Sinatra and his counterparts. Who doesn't? It appeals to all ages. This show is great for me as I'm learning all the time.'

Jim knows that he is incredibly lucky to have found another career that appeals so much, too. 'I guess there are comparisons, it is all about performing in front of people, about being on a stage. But all my footballing experience doesn't stop me getting really nervous when the curtain goes up - give me Maine Road any day!

'You are much more vulnerable out there on the stage. It is just you - in football you have the whole team with you.'

He adds: 'Both are really competitive areas to try and make a living, you have to be tough, to take rejection and then bounce back - so I guess I've got that experience to help me.'

While Jim is enjoying his new career, he admits that football will always be the love of his life. 'Yes, if I had to choose, I'd want to be a footballer, I do feel it every day that I can't play. I just mess around with the dog in the park - that's about it.'

He doesn't think that he will ever return to the beautiful game, saying that it really is a young man's sport and that all players are so quick these days. 'I think I'd be fit enough but I'd worry about any facial injuries, getting an elbow in the face wouldn't make me look so good as Sammy Davis Junior!'

He doesn't fancy going into coaching, saying that he thinks managers have a really hard time. 'It's not for me, I don't fancy it at all. Too many come and go, it's too stressful - look at Bryan Gunn. From hero to villain, it's not nice.'

Jim continues to base himself in Manchester which is handy for him to travel to various parts of the country with the Rat Pack tour. 'I'm used to driving, to getting myself about - I guess that comes from football days, too.'

He loves being in this show, reckoning it's simply great fun, for both the audience and the cast members. 'We all get on really well, we have a lot of fun on stage and there's a lot of interaction with the audience,' he says.

Jim isn't sure what will happen next but hopes that the West End might call. Game on!

The Rat Pack Vegas Spectacular, Theatre Royal, Norwich, Monday, September 21. For further details and tickets call 01603 630000 or visit www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk.