Any professional footballer that exceeds 500 career appearances must be doing something right, both in their performances and their fitness levels.

Watford legend Luther Blissett achieved it, and it can often be easier for goalkeepers due greater longevity in the game – but don’t say that to Alec Chamberlain.

Of those playing currently, Dean Lewington of MK Dons (and son of former Watford manager Ray) in on 917 appearances, not far short of Tony Ford’s record of 931 for an outfield player.

Top of the list of English Premier League and Football League appearances is former England goalkeeper Peter Shilton, whose 1,005 league appearances may never be topped.

Watford’s assistant head coach, Dean Whitehead, is part of the 500+ club, having clocked up 622 appearances for Oxford United, Sunderland, Stoke City, Middlesbrough and Huddersfield between 1999 and 2018.

“I think you always aim high, and once you get that first game you get the taste and the hunger for more,” said the Abingdon-born midfielder who played for his hometown non-league club before moving the few miles to join Oxford.

“Where my career took me, for what I had, was something I couldn’t dream of really.

“I was a naturally fit player and you need luck along the way with injuries. I think I only had one injury that put me out for a while, I strained my ACL at Sunderland and missed two or three months.

“Apart from that, no operations or anything like that. I was very fortunate.”

After four seasons of lower-league football with the Us, Whitehead made the leap – both in terms of level and distance – to Sunderland.

“At that time I was a real home boy, living at home,” he admitted.

“Then all of a sudden I was up the other end of the country, because I wanted to go to a club that had stature.

“My girlfriend, who is my wife now, came with me and that helped me a lot.

“I had a couple of other options because I’d let my contract run down at Oxford. I wanted to see where my ceiling was really and Sunderland was a big club.

“I spoke to Gordon Strachan at Coventry, and I talked to Barnsley and a few others. On the way home from Coventry I had a phone call from Mick McCarthy at Sunderland, and the minute I’d spoken to him I was very keen.

“They’d just been relegated from the Premier League and they were changing the way they recruited. They wanted more hungry, younger lower-league players.

“They were a Premier League club with Premier League players coming down to the Championship, expecting to go back up.

“I wanted to test myself, because I didn’t know whether I was good enough. The only way is to chuck yourself in and hit it head on.

“I knew I had to earn respect in the dressing room. There were top-flight players looking at me and wondering if I was going to help them.

“Over a period of time, other players get to understand what your qualities are and what you bring, and then you earn respect.”

Sunderland went straight back up, then came straight back down, before going immediately back up again.

“We knew we had a team full of talented young players but who were inexperienced and hadn’t played in the Premier League,” said Whitehead.

“We won the Championship and then found it difficult in the Premier League.

“We went back down, won the league again and had some better players with more experience and that helped us stay up.

“The gap between the Championship and the Premier League has always been wide, and the quality in the Premier League now is insane. It’s on another level.

“With the talent there now, the distance you have to bridge when you go up is bigger than ever.

“Last season Sheffield United were a solid, good Championship team that won most weeks. Now they haven’t won and they’re getting beat heavily.

“The gulf in quality, and in finances, is there for all to see.”

After spending three of his five seasons with Sunderland playing top-flight football, he stayed in the Premier League with a move to Stoke City.

Watford Observer: Whitehead in action for Stoke against Man United's Robin van Persie.Whitehead in action for Stoke against Man United's Robin van Persie. (Image: Action Images)

“I knew going to Stoke was going to suit me,” he said.

“You looked at the squad they had there, and while the names on paper didn’t look the most glamorous within the squad there was a huge bond.

“We had some very good players who sometimes went under the radar a bit: Peter Crouch, Charlie Adam, Jermaine Pennant, Matty Etherington, Robert Huth.

“We had good players, but what we were more than anything was hard working. The attitude in the squad was really good, and we’d give everything.”

It was while at Stoke that Whitehead tasted European football, as the Potters qualified for the Europe League.

“Of course you don’t expect that when you start out,” he said. “I was just trying to get by as a footballer.

“Things snowball, you get better, your confidence grows and then you’re playing in a European competition and having a good run in it.”

Having clocked up 132 Premier League appearances over four seasons at the Bet365 Stadium, Whitehead moved back to the north-east.

How does an ex-Sunderland player get welcomed at the Riverside Stadium?

“Actually I got a really good reception at Middlesbrough, and I loved my time there,” he said.

“I can’t say I ever had a bad time at any club. I always saw out my contract, I never went out on loan. Once I was at a club, I was all-in for that club.

“I was lucky to play for some very good clubs that had a decent history behind them. I was fortunate.”

Watford Observer: During his time at Middlesbrough, Whitehead shields the ball from Man City's Sergio AgueroDuring his time at Middlesbrough, Whitehead shields the ball from Man City's Sergio Aguero (Image: PA)

He made 50+ appearances for Middlesbrough and then Huddersfield before calling time on his playing career and moving into coaching.

During his 622 games he played for the likes of Mick McCarthy, Tony Pulis, Roy Keane and Tony Mowbray – but he says it was another manager who ignited his interest in a career within the game after he finished playing.

“I think you take bits from every manager your work with, but the biggest influence on me was Aitor Karanka at Middlesbrough,” he said.

“Tony Mowbray got sacked, he came in and I was one of the more senior players. He had worked at Real Madrid and liked young players, and I was thinking ‘where do I fit in here?’

“But he bought me in, and we had some good conversations where he said he was keen for me to start my coaching journey then. He never pushed me, it was more encouraging me.

“There is always that thought, in the back of your mind, when a manager mentions coaching to you. You think ‘is that me done as a player then?!’ And that was initially in my mind.

“It didn’t turn out that way though, and I kept on playing. But he obviously saw something in me that made him think he wanted me to get started on the coaching side of things.”

One question you have to ask anyone who has worked for him is whether Roy Keane is the same as the persona we now see in his career as a pundit...

“He was really good. Roy Keane is Roy Keane, and what you see on TV is what he is.

“If he’s got something to say, he’ll say it. If you’re not doing the job or performing to the standard he wants, then he’ll tell you.

“But he’ll also talk and have normal conversations just like anyone else. There were times when we weren’t playing well and he’d have a go, but that’s the case with any other manager.

“You just remember his achievements, and the aura that he has. We had an unbelievable few years with Roy.”

After spells on the coaching staff at Huddersfield and Shrewsbury, Whitehead got a job at Port Vale which eventually led to him working with his current boss, Valerien Ismael.

“I was at Port Vale, and Darrell Clarke the manager had to have some time off for family reasons.

“Adam Murray, who had worked with Valerien at Barnsley and West Brom, came to the club. I didn’t know of Adam at all before working with him there, but after about six weeks Darrell came back and then at the end of the season Adam called me and asked me if I wanted to go and work at Besiktas.”

Watford Observer: A midfield battle with Man City's Kevin de Bruyne during Whitehead's spell at HuddersfieldA midfield battle with Man City's Kevin de Bruyne during Whitehead's spell at Huddersfield (Image: PA)

If Oxford to Sunderland is a big move, then Port Vale to Beskitas is a whopper.

And for Whitehead it meant being apart from his family too.

“I went out there on my own. I’ve got two boys, and the age they were at it wasn’t right to uproot everything. You never know how long things will last at any club.

“It was tough being away from the family. It was a decision where I knew I couldn’t have any regrets and be looking back thinking I should have gone.

“Turkey is a very different country. The language barrier was difficult – we had interpreters but even then it was difficult because you’re constantly talking and giving messages, and if the interpreters aren’t close enough you don’t know if the messages are getting through or being understood.

“Every game out there is a war, especially when Europeans go into a club and don’t deliver the performances or the results they want. It can get very difficult.

“It was an unbelievable experience though, and the atmosphere they can generate in a stadium is awesome.”

Although his stint in Turkey was short, Whitehead got the chance to coach some notable names.

“Yeah, we had Wout Weghorst when we were there. He hadn’t gone to Man United at that point.

“He is a really good player. Technically he is excellent and he has the mentality of an elite player. He believes he can be the best No.9 in the world and he approaches games and training, everything he does, in that way.

“People just see a bloke who is 6ft 5ins tall and think he should be this or that. He’s a top player though. Like Peter Crouch, they’re both technically top players.

Watford Observer: Whitehead celebrating with Peter Crouch at StokeWhitehead celebrating with Peter Crouch at Stoke (Image: PA)

“If Wout had a weakness it is actually in the air. Because of his size you think he’s a player who wants it in the air, but he’s better into his chest or his feet. He is a top player and a really good person too.”

Then there was former England midfielder Dele Alli.

“Dele was having a difficult time in terms of options in England, and maybe wanted to get away from the English press.

“He just wanted to go away, play some games and regain some confidence. But football sometimes doesn’t work out the way you hope.

“He is a gifted player and has been from a very young age. Hopefully he’ll come back.”

Is it difficult for a coach who hasn’t played international football to coach, and earn respect, from a player who has?

“I’ve not had anyone say anything so far, but I knew what you were about to ask!

“It’s something I do get asked: how can you tell Dele Ali to go and get into space, receive it on the half turn and play it forward?

“As long as you’re giving the right message and the right detail, then it’s fine. You have to make sure you get those real small details right.

“And that’s not just for the very best players, that’s for every player you coach.

“I used to do loads and loads of work with Weghorst after training. I wasn’t a goalscorer, I can’t tell him how to score. But I can put on sessions where it helps him on different angles, to take different touches – the information I share might be different to what he’s heard before.

“I’ve been there as a player as well. When you’re a player, you maybe don’t take the time to look back at games or watch it again and understand why you made a decision at a particular moment.

“That’s what coaches are there to do, and to help with.”

At 41, Whitehead is still a relative pup in the coaching world, but he does aspire to go further.

“I think eventually I want to have a go at management, but I’m really enjoying the coaching side of things and the work on the training pitch.

“I love being outside and working on the grass with the boys. I still like to join in with a few rondos!

“At some point I will have a go at managing, but I also know it’s very difficult.

“You can’t plan your career so easily on this side of the game, as you could when you’re a player. As part of a coaching team, every day can bring something different.

“All you can do is attack each day, go with it and see where it takes you.”

His 662 appearances meant he played against Watford quite often, although he readily confessed “my memory of games is not good at all”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, he did recall a win over the Hornets.

“I do remember coming to Vicarage Road with Huddersfield in the Premier League and winning 4-1 (December 2017). It was a really big win for us.

“Later that season we did the double over you, Tom Ince scored in the last minute and we won 1-0.

“Huddersfield stayed up that season too.”

• In the first part of our exclusive interview with Dean Whitehead, which you can read here, he talks about the environment and mentality he found at the training ground when he joined Watford in the summer, why it was necessary to trim players and staff, and the importance of rules that will have a positive effect on behaviour.