For the first time in his career, Jack Whatmough was ever-present in the league throughout the 2021/22 campaign.
And that coincided with Wigan Athletic securing the Sky Bet League One title, with the 25-year-old being named in the division’s Team of the Season, as well as winning the Latics’ Player of the Year award.
Having decided to leave Portsmouth after 12 years at the Club last summer, Whatmough couldn’t have wished for a better debut season at the DW Stadium.
“It’s the best group of lads I’ve ever played with,” he says. “There was a really good spirit and everyone was looking forward to the task of getting the Club back in the Championship.
“There were a lot of good teams and a lot of Clubs that have been in the Premier League in the last 10 or so years, but we had belief from day one that we could get promoted and for us to win that league showed how well we’ve done.
“Collectively, it was a really good season and individually, to be recognised at the end showed that all the hard work was worth it. I enjoyed every second of it and when you enjoy your football, you play your best football.
“Considering my career has been a little bit stop and start, playing a full season was something I wanted to tick off. I remember starting the final game against Shrewsbury and in my head thinking, ‘I’ve played in every game now’. That was a good feeling.
Featuring in all 46 matches is an accomplishment that has been a long time coming for the Gosport-born defender.
Three severe knee injuries restricted Whatmough to fewer than 100 outings in seven seasons after making his first-team debut as a 17-year-old in November 2013.
The first setback came at the tender age of 18, when the promising centre-back ruptured his ACL and suffered a shin fracture in the same incident.
“At that time, I was young and naïve to the length of time that I was going to be out – I thought it was going to be a breeze,” he recalls. “But I didn’t play again for Portsmouth for 17 months after doing that, so it was tough to overcome.
“Then I had two more significant injuries quite close together and I probably rushed coming back from the first one as I was just eager to play football. The last one, I had the proper surgery that I should’ve had, took my time and listened to my body and the advice of the physio.”
Since returning from that third long-term stint in the medical room – repairing a torn articular cartilage – Whatmough has remained injury free, amassing 88 appearances in just two seasons.
But while his career now appears to be on an upward trajectory, Whatmough’s journey wasn’t without its fair share of trials and tribulations, particularly from a mental health standpoint.
“I think that’s one thing that doesn’t get spoken about enough within football,” he affirms. “It’s tough enough when you’re playing and things might not be going perfectly on the pitch, but to be injured and have to go through that feeling of not being able to help the team, it can become mentally tough and that’s something I did find.
“My girlfriend at the time, who I’ve just recently married, was incredible when I had to go through that. We rearranged the house so that I could avoid having to go up and down the stairs for two months and she helped me shower and everything.
“In those first couple of months, you really are just stuck in a room all day, every day, which can be really difficult. You look for a buzz that isn’t football and I turned to alcohol and gambling, which obviously wasn’t the best thing.”
During his darkest moments, Whatmough admits that he would drink between four and eight cans of lager a day, while the occasional flutter on horseracing via betting apps escalated into visits to casinos and betting shops.
That was until he finally plucked up the courage to speak about his emotional plight, which would ultimately lead him on the road to recovery, with support from the Sporting Chance Clinic.
“Like a lot of blokes, I was a bit too proud to ask for that help at first, but as soon as I spoke about how I was feeling, it was a weight off my shoulders,” Whatmough confesses.
“I went to Sporting Chance and spoke to a guy called Barry for a few weeks – the level of support you can receive as a footballer is incredible. It was really good to sit down and speak to someone who didn’t know me, so it was a different voice and a different opinion, rather than my family or the Club. That really worked well for me.
“Portsmouth were incredible as well. Kenny Jackett was the Manager at the time and I spoke to him on the phone for 10 or 15 minutes – was very supportive. Clubs don’t look down on you when you’re struggling; they try to help.
“Speaking out is definitely a lot healthier than bottling things up. It was stupid what I was trying to do, but that’s way behind me now and I’m really enjoying my life again.”
Now in a good place mentally and physically, Whatmough is making the most of it, enjoying a summer of fun before attention switches to his first season as a Sky Bet Championship player.
“This summer has probably been the busiest I’ve ever had!” he states. “First of all, to be able to celebrate with the fans after becoming champions was amazing – it was nice to see smiles on the faces of everyone.
“Shortly after the season had ended, I went to Vegas, then I had my stag do and I also flew out to Spain for my mate’s wedding. I came back to get married myself and then flew out for my honeymoon, so it’s been a busy one!
“I’ve got two young kids and they’re my switch off away from football, so I’m spending a lot of time with them as well, while trying to fit in some training around that.”
Although he is very much focused on what’s to come, the former England youth international hasn’t forgotten about his upbringing at Fratton Park.
Whatmough explains: “It was tough to make that decision to leave, but at some point, in any job you do, sometimes you just get to that stage where you need something new and I felt I was at that point.
“I’ll always be grateful to Portsmouth for giving me that opportunity in football. There were a lot of good people in the Club who wanted to help.
“Andy Awford gave me my debut at 17 in his first game as Caretaker Manager against Southend. I remember him telling me to bring all my family down because I’d be making my debut. Originally, I said I needed three tickets, but Andy called my mum and it ended up being about 13 people coming along.
“He was incredible – he just knew when to give you a compliment and when to bring you back down to earth.
“Then there was Jon Slater (Head of Education). As a second-year scholar, I was travelling a lot with the first team and would miss a lot of education sessions on a Wednesday. He would take the time to sit with me on a Thursday afternoon after training to help me stay on track. He also spoke to us a lot about life after football, which kept us all level-headed.”
Whatmough’s only regret? Not achieving promotion from League One with the Club he joined as a 13-year-old.
“Being a local lad, I took a lot of personal responsibility for the inability to get promoted when we had such a good opportunity to do so,” he notes.
“Three and a half years ago, Portsmouth were clear at the top in January and then slid into the Play-Offs. That year ended in disappointment and then we had another Play-Off defeat the following year. We just missed out on the Play-Offs the season after.
“I was desperate to help them get promoted, but it wasn’t meant to be. Now, I’m just looking forward to testing myself in the Championship for the first time with Wigan.”
Having overcome so much adversity already in his career, Whatmough is more than deserving of the opportunity to compete at the next level.
This feature originally appeared in the summer 2022 edition of the EFL Magazine.