Thursday, 16 September 2010

Boxing Day Hero

In April last year, I spoke with former professional footballer Mike Pickering. He had an accomplished and varied career, both playing for and captaining several clubs in England and also experienced the razzamatazz of the North American Soccer League. What you read below was intended as a feature piece for the South Yorkshire football magazine First E11even, unfortunately the magazine folded before this could be published.  Having put the work into writing it and putting myself through it discussing one of Wednesday's biggest victories over United with a former Owls captain, I thought it was worth a wider audience.

“It was a fantastic experience, playing against some great players like Cruyff and Best. When I walked out on to the pitch, the stadium announcer introduced me as “the man-for-man marker, all the way from Sheffield Wednesday”.
I am sat in a staff cafe, in an office in Sheffield city centre. The quietly spoken man sitting opposite is telling me about his football career, in particular a brief spell in the States playing in the NASL, both with and against some all time greats. Yet he will be a familiar name and face for many football fans in South Yorkshire, having started his career at Barnsley, played for Rotherham and captained Wednesday.  
Woven into his story are many great memories from playing in all four divisions, playing in the US, and playing both with and for World Cup winners. However, what he will be most fondly remembered for by one half of Sheffield is one match. On 26th December 1979, he captained Wednesday to a 4-0 defeat of United at Hillsborough. A match that, having just passed its 30th anniversary, is still discussed and argued about today. As a huge Blades fan, I struggle to raise the subject of the “Boxing Day Massacre” with him. It can wait; there are other tales to be told first.
Mike Pickering was first spotted playing for Spen Valley Schools in an English Schools cup match at Oakwell. “We were not a great side; there were only 3 schools to choose from. The approach from Barnsley came after a 7-0 defeat. I was of big build for my age and I can only assume my energetic, all-action style in midfield made me stand out.” Mike was asked to attend a trial by Jock Steele, manager of the then 4th Division side and soon signed schoolboy forms. There were only three apprentices at Barnsley at that time - one of the other two being Mick McCarthy. Soon after, Steele was replaced as manager by Jim Iley, who wanted to see the players he inherited in action. Mike was given a run in the reserves against Halifax and, following a strong performance, was offered a professional contract. He was quickly promoted to the first team at just 17, playing centre back where, despite not being particularly tall, his strength in the air and reading of the game held him in good stead and he was a key player for the next 3 years.
Given Barnsley’s lowly league status they found it difficult to resist offers for their better players. Mike was told that Southampton (previous season’s FA Cup winners and a 2nd Division side) were interested and he jumped at the chance of an upward move, despite the upheaval it would cause. “Afterwards I found out that both Ipswich and Spurs had also been interested, but Barnsley didn’t tell me at the time. It was a sore point for me, but in hindsight I don’t have regrets as I had a great time with the Saints. It was a great step up and I was playing alongside players of the quality of Peter Osgood, Mick Channon and Alan Ball.” 
Southampton had played up at Bradford the previous night and Lawrie McMenemy picked him up from Barnsley on his drive back down to Southampton. Spending a 5 hour car journey with McMenemy was a little overwhelming and the move down South at such a young age was not easy. Mike was grateful to Alan Ball for taking him under his wing. “Being a Northerner himself, he looked out for me and helped me adjust. I think he liked the Northern grit I showed.” Mike played all bar one game of that season, missing the final game of what was a promotion winning season as Southampton reached the top flight.
Celebrating promotion with Southampton (No copyright details)
Sadly, for Mike, the joy of reaching the top flight was short lived. By November of the following season he had made only 3 appearances - all defeats. Feeling like a scapegoat, he approached Lawrie McMenemy about making a move to seek first team football.
Within a few hours an offer was on the table, from Jack Charlton at Sheffield Wednesday. The move would mean dropping two divisions but, amazingly, would lead to a pay rise. Money was not the prime motivating factor though.  The return to the “footballing hotbed of South Yorkshire” and the chance to play under Charlton were clearly an influence. Mike talks fondly of him. “He was a good man. He had a certain charisma, but not in the normal meaning of the word. What you saw was what you got. You always knew where you stood. He got some stick in the papers at the time, they said he was always off fishing or shooting and not focused on the job, yet he was always the last person to leave.”
Despite being in his early 20’s, Mike was viewed as the experienced centre half required and was installed as team captain. Following a few signings the following summer, Wednesday went into the season with higher expectations, however they started badly and Mike suffered an injury which kept him out for ten weeks. It took a while for things to gel and Wednesday's home form was patchy. 
Going into the first derby of the season United were top of the table and favourites for victory. It was the 100th Sheffield Derby and a record Third Division crowd of 49,039 packed Hillsborough. As a player, Mike thought the fact that it was over Christmas and kicked off at 11am took the edge off the build up as the players were sheltered from it.  Christmas Day evening was spent at the Rutland Hotel. There was fun and games organised and Tony Toms (the team trainer) organised a team awards ceremony.  Mike still has the pound notes awarded for his "Best Dressed Player" and "Player You Would Most Like to Have in the Trenches" awards. “The daft mementoes I have kept, the shirts and other items I have given away to charity and friends over the years.”

Leading the Owls out on Boxing Day 1979
The day itself passed very quickly in a bit of a blur. “It was a grey, bleak winter’s day. The build-up had been going on for weeks and, although fans had been queuing outside from early morning, we saw little of it. The noise from the crowd was amazing. They had put a strong referee in charge (Pat Partridge who had refereed at the World Cup in Argentina that summer) and he made us do the coin toss in the tunnel - I cannot remember why! So although we did it again on the pitch, we had already decided who was kicking off and which way we were kicking beforehand. It was a pretty even first half. I remember getting a strong tackle in on Barry Butlin early on, which was always good as a defender and we all just seemed on our game. Then, just before half time, Ian Mellor struck a beauty from 25 yards to put us one up . Then John McPhail (of United) followed up a rebound off our bar, but hit it straight at Bob (Bolder – Wednesday keeper). We started the second half really sharp and early on Mick Speight (United Captain) was stretchered off trying to defend a game of pinball in their box.” Two goals in three minutes from Curran and King made it 3-0, before local boy Mark Smith added a fourth with a penalty. The biggest derby win since United had won 7-3 back in 1951 and the ground was bouncing.
Post match, the players went their separate ways and for Mike that was a return to the family home in Holmfirth for a belated Christmas Dinner. Returning to Sheffield a couple of days later the euphoria had died down a little yet the blue and white half of the city was still buzzing. Some say that day kick-started Wednesday’s season -from the 21st December 1979 they went on a 19 game unbeaten run. “It had all come together and, once we started to get results, the mix of experienced players and young local lads worked really well. Our away form picked up and we got results at grounds that were always difficult for visiting teams such as Oxford and Swindon. United fell away and we were the team that got promoted to Division 2, pipping Chesterfield by one point.”   
Mike continued to enjoy his time with Wednesday but, after falling out of favour under Howard Wilkinson, “new managers always had new ideas and liked to bring their own players in,” Mike had several loan spells including 6 months in the North American Soccer League with the San Diego Sockers. “They had a largely-German team and I was recommended to one of the coaches as someone who might bring a bit of steel to the defence.” That recommendation was from Brian Tiler, the  ex-Rotherham player who was coaching out there at the time and was later to tragically die in the car crash that severely injured Harry Redknapp during Italia 90.
Playing in the NASL in the early 80’s was a surreal experience. The team shared the stadium with the Padres (Baseball) and Chargers (American Football), yet for Sockers games there would be 4,000 people rattling around a 40,000+ capacity stadium. Mike tells me that the only time crowds significantly increased was when there was a rock concert later in the day and people would wander in from the tailgate parties in the car park. The football match would be the pre-gig warm-up for Guns'n'Roses or other bands.
The league was in regional conferences to limit travel, but only in the US sense. “You would play 2 home games and then go on road trips, taking in 2/3 away games over the next fortnight. Fly, hotel, train, hotel, play, fly, hotel....”  Despite the repetitive routine and the low crowds, Mike talks fondly of playing in some of the great US stadia such as the LA Coliseum and the Rose Bowl.
After returning from California, Mike had a loan spell back at Oakwell, but was recalled to Hillsborough to be told of George Kerr’s interest at Rotherham, where he went on to spend 3 years. “It was a great club, so friendly; the pitch was perfect to play on, even if the surroundings were not too pretty. There was a real community spirit about the place and everyone who worked there looked out for each other.”  Final league spells at York and Stockport, were followed by a return to the area and non-league football, with Hallam, Frickley and Goole. 
Mike’s two regrets from football are that he didn’t build on his O Levels with more qualifications that would have helped post-football, “I had the time to do it, but you just get swept up in football,” and that he didn’t pursue his coaching badges. “I drifted away from football and as a player I was never a good watcher." That continued after I finished. He always looked out for the results of his former teams, but rarely watched.  However, alongside the day job in office facilities, Mike has recently found a route back into football – matchday hosting in the lounges at Hillsborough, alongside John Pearson and David Hirst.  And he loves it. “Watching and talking about football, what more could you want.”  He’s got some of his interest and love of the game back. On Sunday 18th April, Mike and his son will attend his first Sheffield Derby since leading the Owls out on Boxing Day 1979.
So if you find yourself in hospitality at Hillsborough, take the opportunity to have a chat.  He is a humble man who has played with, played for and played against some of the best and there is that little matter of a certain match 30 years ago.        



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  3. I had the pleasure of meeting Mike at Hillsborough today v Brentford,what a lovely humble man he is.Told us stories from the past and seemed more than happy to do so.