Contributed by Bryan Shannon. Top photo courtesy of Ray Soldano.
When he was a boy, the Whitehalls traveled to Scotland, Italy, Holland and Qatar to watch Danny (or ‘Dan’ as his mother calls him) play football. But, in the two years since he arrived in the U.S., they had yet to travel stateside to watch Danny play in person. They had planned for a 10-day U.S. holiday, during which time Chattanooga FC would host three home matches.
No one could have predicted the events that would unfold during their days in Chattanooga, or scripted a better ending.
Traveling to Chattanooga would mean that Steve and Liz would get to see Danny play before some of the largest crowds and most engaged fans in U.S. amateur soccer. But for Steve Whitehall, playing before a sizeable and engaged stadium of fans would be nothing new. From 1990-2005, Steve played 15 years professionally and semi-professionally for nine different clubs in England, for which he scored 137 goals total. During those years, Steve played against the likes of such legends as Eric Cantona, Wayne Rooney and David Beckham. But even a seasoned professional footballer such as Steve would come to later admit, “there is nothing (in Europe) quite like what you have here in Chattanooga.”
The first match Steve and Liz attended, a 1-1 tie with New Orleans, was not especially remarkable for the CFC or for Danny. However, this would all change in the 65th minute of the second home match they would witness in Chattanooga against Inter Nashville FC two days later.
With the score tied at 1-1, the frenetic energy generated by CFC’s Luke Winter’s second-half back-heel netter had begun to spread to others on the team. It was this intense sense of urgency which would lead to that fateful play in the 65th minute when a competitive exchange for a ball would change the course of CFC’s season.
Any coach worth his salt will tell his players to always “play until the whistle is blown.” To his credit, that is precisely what Danny did. Unfortunately for the nether regions of an unlucky Nashville defender, Whitehall’s foot failed to connect with the game ball, resulting in what is one most painful videos I have watched on YouTube in recent memory. Without any hesitation, the center official issued Danny a red card and directed him to leave the field of play. The red card would also mean that Danny would be ineligible to play in the third and final game his parents would attend before returning home to England. All of their planning and anticipation for this vacation had resulted in zero goals, one red card, and one poor soul from Nashville walking with a severe limp for the next several days.
Was this really how their 4,038 mile journey would end?
Just as the fate of Chattanooga FC’s season would turn in the 91st minute with Danny Reynolds’ free-kick and goal, so also would the luck turn of the 21-year-old striker from Warrington.
The third and final game during the Whitehalls’ trip happened to be a rescheduled match against the Birmingham Hammers, which had already completed 22 minutes of play. According to league rules, the match was to resume precisely where it left off, with CFC ahead 1-0. In addition, the match was also to resume with the the roster of players who were eligible to play on the date the match initially began on May 20. This strange confluence of circumstances meant that, despite the red card in the Nashville match, Danny would be eligible to play and would instead serve his one-game suspension the following Saturday, when CFC faces FC Carolina. Steve and Liz would get one final opportunity to see their son don the blue for Chattanooga and perhaps finally garner his ever-elusive first goal as a member of CFC. Would this game finally see Danny realize his potential as the prolific goal-scorer many of us hoped he would be?
Indeed, Danny’s time would finally come. After watching their son play for two matches and 250 minutes of play, Steve and Liz Whitehall witnessed what they had traveled 4,038 miles to see in person.
Just as he’s always done since Danny was a young boy, Steve changed sides at halftime, to position himself closest to the goal Danny would be attacking in the second half. In the 70th minute, after a Birmingham defender carelessly attempted to clear the ball from in front of his own goal, Danny Whitehall did what he had done 34 times in 2016 as a member of the Hastings College Broncos. For the 2016 NAIA leading scorer and Most Outstanding Player of the Finals, Danny’s understated post-goal celebration was the epitome of “act like you’ve been there before.”
As his teammates congratulated him as he jogged behind the goal, and 5,700 Chattanooga fans joined together in celebration, Danny Whitehall looked up to the Southeast corner of Finley Stadium to find the two familiar faces that had watched him play since the very beginning of his playing career; the smiles of the two people who had made the Trans-Atlantic trip to see their son score his first goal as a member of Chattanooga FC.
One could not write a more fantastic ending to the story of Steve and Liz Whitehall’s 10-day journey.