Monsieur Salut writes: Charlie Whebell was just 64 when he died at the beginning of this month. He was not a Sunderland supporter but a Hammer through and through and right down to his solid East End roots. He was a treasured colleague, both in London and Abu Dhabi, and his presence, sparkle and wit seemed to enrich the lives of all who came across him.
Not one of us maybe, but his beautiful words – Charlie was a gifted writer – did grace these pages just 16 months ago, when he mused poignantly from the Middle East on his sense of loss at the end of an era, West Ham’s final home game at the Boleyn or, as we call it, Upton Park. He said later that he recognised Sunderland supporters, by implication the older ones with their memories of Roker Park, as kindred spirits.
Read it in full at this link and you will see why it was warmly received by our readers.
Charlie was looking forward to lots of golf and football in retirement. Illness put paid to that, with cruel haste. But wherever Charlie was known, among friends still in the UAE or dispersed around the word (many of whom knew him far better than I ever did), glasses have been raised in his honour. I raise mine now …
On Monday night, a group of friends and former colleagues gathered in an Abu Dhabi watering hole to celebrate the life of Charlie Whebell just as his lifelong passion, West Ham United, registered a first league win of the season, 2-0 at home to Huddersfield. At the 64th minute, the cheering and applause for Charlie and his 64 years might have reached the Olympic Stadium all the way from the Blu Sky bar of the Southern Sun Hotel in Al Mina, Abu Dhabi.
Charlie, who should have been settling happily into the retirement to which he had looked forward so eagerly, had returned to the UK for treatment and fully intended to be at the game. He would not have called the Olympic Stadium home. That was a term reserved for his Boleyn. But the Hammers were his team and he would have been cheering the goals from Pedro Obiang and André Ayew as loudly as his friends were cheering him (and blowing bubbles) eight minutes before the first of them hit the back of the net.
Thanks to Pete Sixsmith and so many others who so generously give their time to this site, enhancing it in varied and sometimes unseen ways, I am proud of Salut! Sunderland‘s contribution to football writing. It is a source of pride that people owing no allegiance to SAFC often offer kinds words about what we do. And Charlie’s long-distance farewell to his beloved Boleyn was, in my view, one of the finest pieces we have published.
It was lifted with his consent from his Facebook page, where he had lamented being thousands of miles away instead of back in his East End stamping ground for the Hammers’ final home game at the old place.
“How I wish I was there,” Charlie wrote. “But I will be watching on TV … remembering the times when my nan lived in a prefab just yards from the Chicken Run. Where me and the other local children used to collect the balls that were kicked over the tin roof into the road and rush to give them back at the turnstiles. And 20 minutes from the final whistle when the gates were opened to let people out we used to creep in.”
The emotional connection to Sunderland was made, too, by Charlie himself in a follow-up comment: “It will, I’m sure, bring back memories of Roker Park for Sunderland fans. I’ll always remember the respect they gave when, just three days after the death of Bobby Moore, West Ham played at Roker.”
As Charlie was preparing to leave The National, the Abu Dhabi newspaper for which we worked together until my return to Europe (he had also been on the sports desk at the Telegraph in London when I was there), he received devastating news from a consultant about the results of a scan.
Nick Donaldson, another friend and former colleague (and the only Newcastle supporter to have won an award from Salut! Sunderland), takes up the story: “Massive tumour in his lung. He headed home and they discovered it everywhere … they didn’t even start treatment so you kinda knew it would be quick… but didn’t expect this. Three months from diagnosis to death. Sad times.”
Charlie, Nick added, was “looking forward to retirement more than anyone I have ever met and was as ever, just full of life and twinkle”.
When he knew time was short, but having no idea just how short, Charlie started to write a blog which, adopting the estimate he had been given, he called Fifteen Months.
There is plenty of sadness in the postings but also a great deal of wit and eloquent reminiscence amid the grim medical details. There is no trace of self-pity.
The blog’s first short article, on June 30, set the tone:
“My plan was to live forever. It had been going perfectly until 10 minutes before I was due to give my retirement speech to my work colleagues. I received a telephone call from an oncologist asking me to see him as a matter of urgency.”
He also described the smoking habit which began at the age of 12 and urged young people to resist nicotine’s lure. Most movingly of all, he told how his son, Daniel, had marked what was to be his final birthday.
“Two days before [the day], Daniel knocked at my sister’s front door wanting to take me, [my girlfriend] Ella and my sister, Carol, out for a drink at the local pub. As we began walking along the road I noticed a beautiful-looking BMW Z3 parked.
“‘Oh look,’ I said, ‘my baby,’ my eyes misting up while I remembered the little car I lovingly owned in Abu Dhabi. This one had a For Sale notice on the windscreen. ‘I must knock at the house the car is parked outside of and see how much it’s going for,’ I said. ‘Tell you what,’ said Daniel, throwing me the keys, ‘why don’t you take it out for a spin. I’ve bought it for you for your birthday’.”
Among countless tributes to Charlie, I select the following:
Liam Cairney: “I couldn’t be there so we toasted his memory in Brooklyn. A true original, one of a kind, in the best possible sense, my life is better for having known him, all too briefly. He will be missed by everyone whose life he touched.”
Georgia Lewis (Aussie Sunderland supporter, married to a Mag): “A few weeks ago I lost an afternoon’s work when my computer crashed. Much bad language ensued. As I worked late, rewriting a feature, I was chatting online with Charlie, a wonderful distraction. He told me that when you lose your work, it’s best to say ‘Oh, piddle!’ and it would put everything into perspective. He was, as ever, right. The fact that he was able to offer wise advice from his hospital bed speaks volumes about the man. One of the last of the old school journos, from the era when you could start your career as the messenger boy at the Daily Mail. Rest well, Charlie, the only person who was allowed to call me Georgie Girl!”
Marie Parkes, fellow Hammer, from the Olympic Stadium (with Charlie’s son) on Monday:: “That one was for you Charlie… we actually scored two and kept a clean sheet! Xx”
Leanne McGrath, another of Charlie’s former colleagues: “Today we said a beautiful farewell to a truly wonderful man, the one and only Charlie Whebell. Irrepressible, irreplaceable, irresistible. Love ya mate xxx”
Tom O’Hara: “Charlie and I became extraordinarily good friends during my two years in Abu Dhabi — a blue-collar kid from Philly and a blue-collar kid from Essex. We played golf three days a week. We worked nights at the goofy newspaper in Abu Dhabi. We drank a good deal. He was extraordinarily cheerful all the time. He was a talented writer and editor. He had blue eyes that the ladies loved. He smoked. He got cancer. I desperately wanted to see him one more time, but it was not to be. The world is a lesser place without you, mate.”
This has been a rather self-indulgent exercise, devoting time and space to the memory of someone with, strictly speaking, no connection to Sunderland AFC.
But I offer no apologies. Charlie was a proper football supporter, who passionately followed what is at heart as proper a football club as ours and he was, as yet another ex-colleague, Ann Marie McQueen, put it “the loveliest … a gentle friend, talented journalist, charming, funny and oh could he sing a song and tip a pint”. He didn’t get his 15 months; he deserves to be remembered.
* See this link for an obituary
* And see here for details of how to donate in the cause of Cancer Research UK and Bowel Cancer UK.