Barry Kitchener, Harry Cripps, Teddy Sheringham, Terry Hurlock, Tim Cahill, Neil Harris, Paul Robinson. There have been many players who whenever Millwall fans reminisce, will eloquently wax lyrical about how these are some of the greatest/hardest/most terrifying players they have ever seen at the Old and New Den. Players who we remember growing up watching wishing we could be, who we would cheer and chant their names from the stands and terraces.
But what about the others? The players who when we find old programmes in the garage, we would flip it over and have completely forgotten that these players played a part in successful teams of the past. The ‘Steady Eddies’ who may not have scored hat-tricks or hit crunching tackle every week, but those who were reliable and wouldn’t let you down.
The third entry in the Unsung Heroes collection is a player who was on course to becoming a Millwall legend. A player so gifted at the back, he was noticeably far too skilful for the League One level he was playing at. That was until, a transfer request was handed in and Millwall's figure of strength, skill and consistency left not only under a cloud, but under a monsoon. This is the controversial Millwall defender, Zak Whitbread.
Texan born Zak Whitbread started his career at Liverpool FC, playing a handful of games in the 2005-2006 Champions League qualification campaign before joining Millwall on loan. With the hope of gaining first team experience, the season proved to be bittersweet for Whitbread. Although he managed to play 25 times for The Lions, including the FA Cup game and replay against his parent side's rival's Everton, the season ultimately ended in relegation to League One.
Whitbread signed on a permanent deal the following season and along with the likes of Lenny Pidgeley, Darren Byfield, Filipe Morais and Chris Hackett, the squad and the Millwall fans believed we had more than enough to gain promotion from League One at the first attempt. Unfortunately, this was proven to be the polar opposite of what the team actually delivered that season, with Millwall having a dreadful start which included a 5-1 away defeat at Chesterfield. Whitbread struggled with injury and form that season, only taking part in 20 games in the first half and the fans were starting to get a bit agitated with Zak. Could it have been his form or the fact this was a centre half who seemed to care more about how blonde his hair was rather than his side's current plight? Whitbread had replaced the steady and solid Darren Ward, but only in the bad hair department. James Brown once sang "Living in America" and the Millwall fans were debating whether to chip in for a one way plane ticket back there. The season ended slightly better for Millwall, who after the sacking of Nigel Spackman saw his assistant Willie Donachie get the job on a full time basis and help The Lions finish a respectable 10th place.
With the new 2007-2008 season came new signings and the additions of Andy Frampton and Scott Barron seemed to put extra pressure on Whitbread, although this was the season where his form started to pick up and Millwall's suffering supporters were starting to see glimpses of skill and class that had laid dormant. Whitbread played in 28 games that season and also managed to get on the score sheet against Oldham, Leyton Orient and Swansea City. Whitbread was starting to show his skill and his exceptional ball reading ability. Not always just clearing it or smashing it into Row Z, he would bring the ball down on his chest rather than just head it and would be more comfortable playing the ball out from the back. This was another season where Millwall struggled and Kenny Jackett was brought in midway through the season to replace Willie Donachie who was shown the way out. It was a season of disappointment with Millwall finishing in 17th place, but Whitbread was a shining light in yet another League One relegation battle.
Whitbread's final full season for Millwall was a one of personal success but cruel heartbreak in the 2008-2009 play off final against Scunthorpe. Playing in a total of 44 games, including the classic two-legged semi final victory against Leeds United and the 3-2 defeat at Wembley, Whitbread was now arguably the best defender in the division. A tough tackling, physical player but who was equally graceful and elegant on the ball. Whitbread was the bleach blonde ying to the more rugged and route one Paul Robinson and Andy Frampton's yang. Their styles were vastly different but they complimented each other perfectly. Whitbread with his blonde flowing locks and Frampton with his £5 haircut from Dave the Barbers down Southwark Park Road. As mentioned they had different football styles too! Whitbread's goal scoring wasn't as prolific as the year before, but he did score an 86th winner in the 3-2 away win at Crewe Alexandra. As every Millwall fan knows, although Gary Alexander scored the greatest goal at the new Wembley, the play-off final ended in a 3-2 defeat and Whitbread was cruelly robbed of the chance to showcase his rediscovered form and outstanding ability at a higher level. This was also the last time Whitbread would play for The Lions.
In the July of 2009, just before the season was due to start, Whitbread turned down a new contract and was placed on the transfer list. Although very close to signing for Swansea City, Millwall's American exile put pen to paper on a two and a half year deal at Norwich City. Due to the form and tight ship at the Canaries back line, Whitbread only played a small amount of games in Norwich's promotion season. Ironically, one of these games was on as a late substitute against Millwall at The Den and being incredibly lucky not to be shown a straight red in the game that Millwall went on to win 2-1.
Whitbread would go on to be promoted at the end of the 2009-2010 season with Norwich and would then celebrate another promotion the following season to the Premier League. Whitbread was a regular for Norwich, before a run of injuries saw his release at the end of the 2012 season. Further spells at Leicester City and Derby County were concluded with a recent spell at Shrewsbury Town.
In all, Zak Whitbread played 119 times for Millwall and unfortunately no umbrella could withstand the thunderstorm that came from the cloud that he left under. If he had stayed longer, or seen out the end of his contract, it could have been a different story. He would have certainly gone down in Cold Blow Lane folklore, but just like Voldermort in Harry Potter, the fan in the stand who remembers him always feels a bit uneasy saying his name out loud.