Thursday, 31 May 2012

My Favourite Blade (Number 1) - Keith Edwards

In the first of a new close season series, a number of Unitedites share their memories of their favourite Blade. The player that filled up their senses at Bramall Lane and beyond.

To kick things off I am remembering my childhood hero, the goal-king Keith Edwards. This article first appeared in an edited form in the Blades matchday programme.
I didn’t see my childhood hero play live that often, yet he was the player I always aspired, unsuccessfully, to be.  He wasn’t the most talented footballer, he wasn’t the hardest worker, and you could even argue he wasn’t a team player.  He could spend a large proportion of the match not touching the ball. Yet, for many Sheffield United supporters, he was the talisman behind the resurrection of the Blades in the early 80’s, winning both the Fourth Division Championship in 1982 and promotion from the 3rd Division in 1984.
He played with a level of confidence that was bordering on arrogance and his forceful opinions and personality are probably contributory factors as to why he never played at the highest level, why a striker with such a prolific scoring record wasn’t always selected and why his career at each club he played for often came to an abrupt end.  It is also why he now divides opinion as a pundit on Radio Sheffield today.   
He first played for United from 1975, joining as a 17 year old, before leaving for Hull in late 1978.  I was too young to remember him then.  He returned during the early stages of the 1981-82 season. United had suffered the ignominy of relegation to the Fourth Division at the end of the previous season.  A last minute penalty miss at home to Walsall in the final league game had condemned United to the lowest level of professional football for the first time in their history. My Grandad, who took me to that fateful Walsall game passed away shortly after and, with my dad working Saturdays, I had no-one to take me to matches unless they were midweek ones.
The season started well for United and Keith rejoined from promotion rivals Hull early in the season, for what proved to be a bargain £100,000. He straight away benefited from a great supply line; Bob Hatton, a much travelled striker was reaching the end of his career, yet provided a perfect foil and link player for Edwards.  Colin Morris joined the Blades in February 1982 and was a fantastic right winger who seemed to have a telepathic relationship with Edwards on the pitch.
Keith wasn't a tall man, but he was quick and agile. The ability to turn his man and get a shot away was probably his greatest asset.  He contributed little to team play, by his own admittance, but he had the knack of always finding himself in the right place at the right time. He was a predator and played in a way that's a bit like every schoolboy does; obsessed with shooting and scoring.  That is why his play struck a chord I think.
He would always look to break the offside trap, although that would also lead to frustration as he would be caught offside plenty of times during a game. When he did time his run to perfection he would find himself at his strongest position, running at goal with just the keeper to beat. When he made it that far without a linesman’s flag being raised, you could almost guarantee a goal.
As a 7 year old reading Shoot every week, Keith Edwards was the visible face of my team, topping the goal-scoring tables in the results section and winning the Adidas Golden Boot in both promotion seasons.  The excitement of seeing him play was huge as a young fan.  The fact that the matches I saw were mostly at night, under lights, just added to the buzz and sense of occasion.  I remember a game against Wigan, a top of the table clash. Midweek, Division Four, yet over 20,000 there witnessing what was looking like a 0-0 draw, until the final seconds when he was in the right place at the right time.  Not a spectacular goal, just a simple tap-in, but such an important one. 
Attending end of season Open Days was a chance to fill your autograph book with unintelligible signatures, to have photos stood on the hallowed turf, in the changing rooms and with the players. There was only one player that I wanted a picture with.  Several pictures.  He must have been a patient man.
Within five years of returning to United Keith was gone, again. Ian Porterfield had been sacked as manager and in a clash between new disciplinarian manager (Billy McEwan) and outspoken star striker, there was only one winner.  Keith moved on to Yorkshire rivals Leeds, the only way it could have been worse would have been if he had joined Wednesday. For the next few years, until the resurgence under Dave Bassett, there were no real heroes, nothing to lift supporters who were watching a mediocre team under-achieve. 
His goalscoring record at Leeds though was poor and, after a spell at Aberdeen, he returned to Hull where he found his goal scoring mojo again.  Short spells with Stockport, Huddersfield and Plymouth  followed.  His final career stats show a league return of 256 goals in 553 appearances, a record most strikers would be proud of.  His two spells at Bramall Lane garnered 143 goals in 261 games; an average of a goal every 1.8 games.  Not many strikers achieve that sort of record in the Football League these days.
As you get older the clamour to be the striker, the goal scoring hero, fades as your own hopes of ever being a decent footballer also dissipate.  In later years the players I have admired most are defenders, more closely aligned with the position I settled into playing, to no great standard!  However, whenever the opportunity arises, be it a book launch at Bramall Lane or a Sportsman’s Dinner, I always take the opportunity to shake his hand and say thanks for what he did for the Blades and for a young boy’s interest in football. 
I am 37 now and the fact that I still do it seems quite sad, but then I see other, slightly older fans doing the same with Tony Currie. I see how happy my dad (then aged 69) was to meet some of his heroes like Alan Hodgkinson, Mick Jones and the players he remembers from his youth, like Colin Collindridge and Fred Furniss. That is when I think - why shouldn't we do it?

Football has changed massively in the lastdecade.  Players are much more detached from everyday life in terms of lifestyle and earnings and the separation from the fans is much wider. These past generations of players generally have very few of those trappings, given the relative success they once had. Recognition is important.  Besides, we would all like to be remembered - wouldn't we?

And that is why I have started this series, which allows fellow Blades to remember their favourite players and if you want to share your memories of each featured player, why not add them in the Comments section below.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Good as Gold (Stupid as Mud)

Good as gold, but stupid as mud
He'll carry on regardless
They'll bleed his heart 'til there's no more blood
But carry on regardless

(Dave Rotheray/Paul Heaton)

Dusk falling on Saturday night and as our coach wound its steady way back up the M1 I described the day's denouement as devastatingly inevitable. Many fans of other clubs graciously commiserated and said it was the worst way to lose. It is, whether it lasts 4 or 5 penalties or goes all the way through to 11, or beyond.

The fact that we finished, over 46 games, 9 points clear in third makes it even harder to bear. The reality is that over 120 minutes at Wembley, when it mattered, we were second best on the pitch and unable to hold our nerve when it really mattered. I could talk about my long-held lack of agreement with the play-off system, but given the timing that would just come across as bitter and I am not. These are the rules, this is the system in place and we knew what finishing third meant.

The inevitability may seem odd, it may seem like a typically pessimistic comment from a football fan managing expectations, but this was United's fourth play-off final and Saturday's result leaves us with a record of Won 0 Goals Scored 0 Goals Against 5. You would struggle to find a club with such a poor play off final record.

Throw in the sequence of events at the culmination of this season, from the jailing of Ched Evans and its impact on morale and team structure, to the injuries to subsequent key players such as Hoskins, Cresswell and McDonald, to the reckless stupidity of James Beattie's sending off in the final league game at Exeter and the relentless and ultimately successful pursuit of second by Wednesday. All have contributed to what has felt like a slow and painful death by a thousand cuts, the final swipe at around 6:35 pm on Saturday was the deepest and finally proved fatal.

Despite playing poorly and riding our luck a little we took it to extra time, somewhere we had never taken a final before. They even had me believing in the shoot-out. After Town had missed their first three penalties, I honestly believed Lowton would score and that would leave us two up with two penalties left.

He missed. I clutched my little boy's hand, more for my emotional support rather than his, and early in the sudden death element of the shoot-out he turned to me and said;

"Daddy, can we go back to the coach now?"

"No, the shootout is still happening, why do you want to leave?"

"Because they (Huddersfield) are going to win"

Very perceptive my boy, he has learned "The Blades Way" of doing things at a tender age. For those of us much older we become hardened by it. We are used to disappointment and despite the positive support and encouragement we give the team, we train our minds to expect the worst. It doesn't make it any easier to deal with.

The support was more positive and lively than at previous finals, but Wembley has a horribly negative effect on atmosphere, with chants starting within groups of fans cast around the stadium and the sound seemingly travelling with a delay. At one point there were about four versions of the Greasy Chip Butty song drifting around the stadium at various stages of fulfilment. The creation of a single unifying chant seemed difficult unless it was more rudimentary in nature and benefitted from the rhythm of clappers, as used by Huddersfield fans. 

The match was poor. United applying what in effect was a 4-5-1 formation, although the management would claim that Stephen Quinn was to push on from midfield to make it a 4-4-1-1. The aim clearly being to stifle the threat from Huddersfield and try and nick a goal, as we had against Stevenage. It was a similarly gritty match to the Stevenage games, with little skill on show, plenty of mistakes and scrappy play.

What frustrated me was United's contentment in launching the ball forward, instead of playing it from the back in a manner which had brought success all season. Clearly missing our midfield playmaker Kevin McDonald I would have liked to have seen Lee Williamson playing alongside Michael Doyle, giving someone to put a foot on the ball, steady the nerves and dictate possession. United offered little attacking threat. The final ball often letting us down, with two few players attacking the area and for those that did the ball was played behind them or too close to Smithies in the Town goal.

Huddersfield were the better side and provided more attacking threat throughout. On the day I can't argue with the outcome. We didn't play positively enough and lacked the fluency with which we have played all season. Whilst I couldn't say that we didn't turn up - an accusation levelled at the United team at previous finals - we didn't play to our strengths and had the look of a tired side shorn of our most potent threats.

On Sunday, whilst uploading my photos from the day, I named the folder "Wembley 2013". I could blame it on tiredness or a touch of sunstroke, but it wasn't until later in the day I noticed I had done it. When I realised my mistake the first thought in my head was,

"Please God, No!"

If Wembley 2013 does happen, many United fans won't be there; not prepared to endure more potential heartbreak at such a significant mental and financial cost and do you know what? A bit of me doesn't blame them.

Maybe, in this age of bragging over levels of support, where attendances seem more important than on pitch results to some; where measuring fan loyalty and tiresome debates of how big a fan you are become increasingly prevalent; such an attitude seems odd.

But for everyone there is a breaking point. For my dad that was the last final versus Burnley three years ago. This time, at 70 years old, the cost, the long journey, the "buggering about" before the match and past disappointment all caught up with him. I missed him not being there. He will still be there at Bramall Lane next season though and still supports the team with a passion, but for him the big days out are finished through choice. I still have an appetite for it, slightly dimmed, but it's still there.

I still believe our day in the sun, with a result to match, will come and I want to be there for it. It might be a League One play off it may be a JP Trophy final, but if and when Wembley comes round again I'll be there and, despite the mental damage limitation, I'll still believe.

On leaving The Green Man pub pre-match I saw a large flag attached to a garden fence backing on to the beer garden. Sheffield United - Carry On Regardless. Three words which sum up the life of a football fan and a song whose lyrics can be used to demonstrate the vain hope of football fans who place their faith in the universal liar.

I want my love, my joy, my laugh, my smile, my needs
Not in the star signs
Or the palm that she reads
I want my sun-drenched, wind-swept Ingrid Bergman kiss
Not in the next life
I want it in this
I want it in this



For those who read my last blog post; "Me, My Son and Wembley" I am pleased to say that despite the result we had a fun day out. We ate sweets and crisps, til we were full, I drank beer in the sun whilst we played football, we walked down Wembley Way to mingle with the crowds, he waved his flag and blew his horn and, thanks to some tweeting I did for the Football League, we were able to go pitch-side for photos as the players warmed up.

We held hands tightly as the penalties were taken and grasped them even tighter as we navigated the crowds back to the coach. Eventually, despite his protests about not being tired, he fell asleep on me as the coach neared Sheffield. His painted Blades badge, a sweat-smeared red and white smudge across his cheek. It was a day that filled up our senses and that at times he struggled to take in, but we have some great photos and some great memories to remind us in future years. We will just choose to forget about the match.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Me, My Son and Wembley

Given the recent history of both Sheffield United and Huddersfield Town in the play offs you might be forgiven for expecting Wembley to be filled with 60,000 grim faced, negative Yorkshiremen on Saturday. Their demeanour forming one big grey cloud over the game; muttering, moaning and fearing the worst.

Watching United regularly over the last 24 years I have witnessed three promotions, four relegations, three FA Cup semi-final defeats (one of which was at Old Wembley versus the other lot), a League Cup semi-final defeat and all three play-off finals united have reached have ended in defeat. The last of those came against Burnley, three years ago, when Unitedites arrived in a state of mind that seemed to be anticipating inevitable defeat. Whilst Burnley fans seemed to be there for the day out, positive, upbeat and cheery, the Blades fans struck a more muted tone that only deteriorated over the course of the match.

We know that what has happened before is history, different teams, different players and different managers, but it doesn't mean that the expectation is any different this time around. Given the novelty of a visit to new Wembley wore off three years ago,  considering the way United's push for promotion fell away in the dying embers of the season and reviewing the paucity of fit and available strikers, Blades fans could be forgiven for thinking another expensive day out at rip-off Wembley was a luxury and not a necessity. More so in these austere economic times. I suspect the ticket sales will confirm that many see an afternoon in the pub or armchair as a better use of time and money.

However, the lounge room at home or public house is not for me and the main reason I am looking forward to this trip is the fact I am taking my 6 year old son to Wembley; a father and son rite of passage. Yet, to do this, middle-band tickets and coach travel have set me back £157 for the pair of us and that is before drinks, food, programme, souvenirs. The cost, the hassle, the journey have all contributed to my Dad and Brother - both season ticket holders - not joining us. It's wholly understandable why many fans and families will not be there.

Now it is not like my son has not been to Wembley before; he went last year with his Mum to watch her team, Bolton Wanderers, lose to Stoke City in the FA Cup semi-final. Yet, as many readers of this blog will already know, it wasn't the crushing defeat that sticks in their memories from that day. It will be having their car attacked half a mile from the Wembley car parks.  It will be the snarling Stoke fan getting in their faces and hurling abuse as they walked from car park to stadium. It will be the missiles and threats flying back and forth between Bolton fans and Stoke fans in the Club Wembley seats above them. I wrote about their experience here, if you haven't read it please do.

It is hard to remove those kinds of images from a young boy's mind. My moans and groans, my fear of the potential for another Blades' failure on the big stage, pale by comparison. He went to watch a big match, at a world famous stadium, in front of a big crowd and his experience was horrific.

Thankfully his football watching experience has been more positive since. He has continued with his season ticket at Bramall Lane and watched better performances this season, with more wins and goals to keep him interested. Bolton chairman Phil Gartside, on reading this blog, invited my wife and George to hospitality in his suite at the Bolton v Everton game earlier this season. They had a great day, being well looked after by Phil and his guests, of course Bolton lost and again the result passed him by, but for the right reasons this time.

Yet, when the potential for United playing at Wembley was realised, there was still a reticence about going back. You could see the worry behind his eyes as he tentatively agreed to join me. His mind working over-time computing everything that happened last time, alongside thoughts of being with his Dad and cheering on the Blades.

Saturday's trip to Wembley is a must win game for the  Blades, failure to get promotion leaves the club in a difficult position next season, with wholesale changes likely as the club struggles to comply with FFP rules. If we lose, then realistically it could be a while before we bounce back. A Blades victory is something I want so much, yet at the same time and on a personal level, this is about giving my son the day-out at a big football match that he deserves to remember and for all the right reasons.

When I bought our tickets online, I sent a brief email to my wife. It was the excitable football fan in me; delighted to have got my tickets, despite the likelihood of it not selling out, nor my chosen price band selling out in the first afternoon! Her reply brought a little lump to my throat and dampness to my eye that, for a Yorkshireman who shows little emotion, took me back a little. 
"Don't go down there with the view that you are going to see a must-win match and it will be really disappointing if you don't win - instead look at it as a big adventure with your little boy and try to have as much fun as you can - buy stupid hats and expensive sweets/drinks/food, sing loud silly songs, put him on your shoulders to walk up Wembley Way, wave your flags - let the match/result be a sideshow rather than the main event."

"Try to imagine being a 6 year old again and forget all the years of disappointment…. that way, no matter what the result, you and George will have some great memories of a shared 'Father and Son Big Day Out'"

She is right (but don't tell her I said that) and that is exactly what I am going to try and do. I can't promise to follow it to the letter - I might draw the line at one of those red and white jester hats - but I am going with a positive attitude and I hope all other Blades fans are too.

If we all go with a bit of the wonderment and excitement of a 6 year old and less of the world-weary bitterness of repetitive failure, then maybe we might enjoy ourselves. If we enjoy ourselves, we might just back the team in a positive way. And if we back the team in a positive way, United could get the result to match the day-out.

Up the Blades!

Friday, 18 May 2012

Interview with Ian Bryson - Part 3 (A Champion Captain)

As we left Part 2, Ian had been approached by Dave Bassett to see if he would be interested in following up an enquiry from Rotherham United. Taken aback that Bassett was happy to let him go, Ian asked for his name to be circulated.

You ended up at Barnsley but only stayed three months?

I spoke to Viv Anderson and Danny Wilson and they were quite keen. Whether it was the right move for me who knows? I don’t think I should have left United, but Bassett didn’t really want to keep me. I signed and played most of the games, they wanted to play me as a striker, but although I had covered there for United it wasn't my natural position. I was only there 4 or 5 months. They were keen to sign Andy Payton from Celtic and Viv said they needed to move a player on to do it and Preston had made an offer for me.

I spoke to John Beck and, for some mad reason, I came to Preston. That meant me dropping a couple of divisions; it was a big change although they were flying at that time. I had come across John Beck before when he was at Cambridge, it was one of the hardest games I had ever played in, so I knew what to expect in terms of the pace of the game and how he played it.

The upside of this period was that making two moves in a year was an opportunity to make a little bit of money.

Preston were in a slump at the time, but they were soon heading in the right direction.

Yes, in the first season (1993-94) we reached the play off final versus Wycombe Wanderers at Wembley - so I did get my chance to play at Wembley and I scored the first goals as well. It was an overhead kick. I had mucked around in training, but I only ever tried it once on the pitch and I scored from it! I can claim a 100% record. I don’t know now what made me do it. I had a lot of family down from Scotland to watch me and they had all backed me to score first. I think they were still celebrating when Wycombe went up the other end and scored. We didn’t win and we didn’t deserve to, on the day Wycombe were the better side.

You can see the goal at about 30 seconds on this video clip here

It was play-offs again the following season.

The next season we lost to Bury in the play-off semi-final and we then followed it with a title winning season in 1995-96 when I was made captain. It was a big honour. John Beck had left, although he had brought some good players in, and his assistant Gary Peters had taken over. There was no point trying to change the style of play to be like a Barcelona so he just tweaked it here and there. It was a fabulous season we scored over 100 goals.

We had a good social life and great team spirit. Team spirit is the key thing, if you have eleven lads who work for the manager and each other you can achieve a lot. If there are good players involved you can go a long way. We played attractive football and scored a lot of goals. I think Andy Saville and Steve Wilkinson got 30 apiece and the midfielders were getting into double figures. Everything seemed to fit together.

A bit like at United then in that respect. In that second season you had a soon to be famous player join on loan?

Yes, David Beckham played 5 games for us, he was a great lad. Every credit to him when we won promotion at Leyton Orient, David came along to support the team and came to congratulate us all in the dressing room afterwards; a great lad. I’ve seen him a few times since. When I was doing my coaching badges, he was at Manchester United and when he saw me he always made a point of coming over for a chat. He remembered his time at Preston well.

Didn’t he take over dead-ball duties from you?

Yeah one or two of us thought we were the bee’s knees. When you’re an experienced pro of 33/34 you think you can do everything. This young whipper-snapper comes in from Man United and he is put on corners and free kicks and we thought this is not happening; we’ve been doing this for years! Within half a game we realised why! He could put the ball on a sixpence.

Fantastic lad, fantastic player and every credit is due for what he achieved.

You had a spell at Rochdale, but is it fair to say it didn’t work out as hoped?

Graham Barrow gave me a two year contract, but I hit a real bad spell with injuries. I think I played just 8 times in my first season and 25 games in the second season. It was a case of picking up the typical injuries for old men - calves and hamstring related. With one game to go in the season Graham was sacked and I got the job of caretaker for one game a 1-1 draw. Steve Parkin was then appointed manager and he released me. He wanted his own players in and injuries had taken their toll, it was fair enough.

I continued playing with Bamber Bridge in the Unibond League and amazingly, given the two seasons I'd just had with injuries, I played 58 games in a row. We had a great season and reached the second round of the FA Cup before a 1-0 defeat against Cambridge United thanks to a dodgy refereeing decision that led to a penalty which they scored.

Did you have a spell coaching once your playing career finished?

Gary Peters offered me a role coaching at the Preston North End Centre of Excellence which I did for 4/5 years, but I stopped when my son was 11. He was playing with a local boys' team and I wanted to watch him and support him and I couldn't do that with the Centre of excellence job as the matches clashed on a Sunday morning. I helped out at the training sessions, but didn't interfere, it wasn't my place.

To be honest am not a great believer in the Centre of Excellence model starting with players at 8 years old. It should be 14 or 15 years old and that's the age I worked with at PNE. It was incredibly hard telling players that they aren't going to make it.

So what are you up to now?

Now, I do press work for Radio Lancashire, sometimes on commentaries, but more often on the Friday night preview programme.  I also work for Premier League Productions who supply the coverage for Sky's Football First and for overseas coverage as well. I am based in the tunnel talking to the 4th official communicating back to the studio in London what is happening with potential subs, injuries, what's happening on the bench so the commentary appears seamless. I usually move between matches at the Reebok, the DW and Ewood Park. It's great; I get paid to watch Premier League football. 

Looking back to when you were through the tunnel and on the pitch, what are your best memories?

From a personal point of view, to say which was the highlight of my career is quite difficult. My time at United and Preston were similar in many ways. Although yes I got my only medal and lifted a trophy as Captain at Preston, I got to play at the top level with United and had two successive promotions. Sadly that was a time when the runners-up, as we were twice, got absolutely nothing. Meanwhile, the play off winners got them! 

And that is where our chat finished and we returned to watching the second half of Bolton v Spurs, from the comfort of our respective armchairs. Not tonight the Reebok tunnel for Ian. It was a pleasure talking to Ian, or Jock as we commonly referred to him during his time at United. He retains a humility that I have encountered in all the United players of that era that I’ve had the opportunity to speak to. To me, and many others who had the pleasure of watching him play, he remains a player much under-rated given his goal-scoring and wing play. Even, if he had picked up that further recognition, I doubt it would have changed him.  

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Interview with Ian Bryson - Part 2 (Great Escapes and Top Level Experience)

When we left Part 1, United (and Ian) had just completed back to back promotion seasons, taking them from the 3rd Division to the top tier of English football.

During that second promotion season the BBC chose United to be the focus of a documentary series focusing on all aspects of a football club. You and your family were featured heavily, how did you find it?

The documentary series was fantastic.

In those days for TV to capture your team's success in such detail was rare.

Yes and to capture that season for United, culminating in that game at Leicester was great for the team. Obviously, they focused on me a bit with the story of a couple with a young daughter coming down from Scotland. They painted a picture of me which was quite amazing and one added benefit of that was that we were never short of offers of babysitters again! That's just the Blades fans for you though, a good bunch.

Your form and goalscoring record, which you maintained in those first couple of top flight seasons, ought to have drawn some international recognition. Were you ever close to a Scotland call-up?

There were times I was mentioned in dispatches North of the Border. My mother-in-law collected the newspaper clippings when I was linked with the Scotland squad and sent them down to me. I had played for the Scotland semi-pro side (a sort of 1st Division Select) whilst at Kilmarnock, but that aside there was one or two mentions whilst I was down here. I believe that I was watched once, one time against Norwich in 1992 where Bryan Gunn, the Norwich keeper, had gone off and an outfield player ended up in goal. I scored the winner that day, but missed three or four chances as well. I had a spell up front when Tony Agana was injured.

That first season in Division One started off disastrously for United, yet you played a big part in the turnaround.

We reached the 22nd December 1990 bottom of the league and with just four points on the board. Then we faced Forest and that kick started our season. I scored two in a 4-2 win and had another shot that hit both posts and stayed out. I never scored a hat trick in my career in England and Scotland; that was the closest I came.

The celebrations at the end, with the crowd running on the pitch, gave it the feel of a promotion winning match or a cup giant-killing.

It was a great relief to get our first win and the fans obviously felt the same, we felt we had been playing well but we just couldn't get the win. Once we won that game the confidence within the squad grew and we gradually moved up the table

We then won our next game and then from late January through to the beginning of March we went on a run of 8 wins and a draw in 9 games and eventually stayed up in 13th place. Although the league is different now, I don't think anyone will survive from that kind of position again. The following season Dave arranged the Christmas party in August thinking it might help us get over that start of season blip. It was quite a unique thing, but Dave loved the media and they loved him as he was always good for a quote or story.

It didn’t really work. United again started the season slowly, but thankfully and over time they developed a consistency which saw them finish in 9th place. That season also saw the return of top flight Sheffield Derbies for the first time in 23 years.

How was it to play in the intensity of a Sheffield Derby?

The Sheffield Derbies have mixed emotions for me. The build-up to the first was great as it had been so long since the last top flight derby, the buzz around Bramall Lane and the fact it divided the street where I lived was superb.

You had a key role in the first of United’s two goals at Bramall Lane in the 2-0 victory in November 1991.

I was put through with a through ball by John Gannon and was one on one with Chris Woods. I hit it to his right and he palmed it out. Dane (Whitehouse) a good local lad was running in and we were 1-0 up. The whole day was unbelievable. Sadly, I missed the return game at Hillsborough, where we did the double, through injury.

That was the game where Bobby Davison scored two goals on his debut and United won 3-1.

I was gutted to miss out on the Steel City Semi at Wembley in 1993, that’s a big regret. It's so rare to get the chance to play there and it seemed like my chance had gone. I had been on a run in the side up to the Quarter Final replay at home to Blackburn Rovers and I had to go off injured with the re-occurence of a hernia injury. It had been operated on earlier in the season and I had to have another operation and in the end that was effectively the end of my career at United, although I didn't know that at the time. I watched on as Pembo fired in the winning penalty in the shootout. At that point I didn’t think I would be missing out on Wembley, just a semi-final versus Wednesday. Then the semi was moved to Wembley.

Is it hard to look back on the semi at Wembley?

My main memory of the semi-final was Mel Rees. We were desperate for Mel to lead the team out at Wembley but the FA wouldn’t allow it, so he walked around the pitch beforehand. I get choked up thinking about it now. Credit to the Wednesday fans that day, the reception from around the stadium was amazing, every fan stood up.

On the night we spoke, Bolton Wanderers were playing Spurs live on Sky Sports and Fabrice Muamba had walked out to take the acclaim of the Reebok crowd. We both admitted to having a similar emotional feeling watching Muamba that night.

I was at the game against Blackburn that followed the Muamba incident and it was a really emotional day. Football fans get a lot of stick for various things, but a majority are really, really good
A positive memory of that time, must be the midweek game against Spurs when United thrashed them 6-0? You scored twice I recall.

I've got a clipping from a newspaper on our memo board at home with a picture of me and Brian Deane taken on that night. We ended a six game winning run for Spurs and inflicted their worst defeat for 15 years - scoring twice in games like that were the stuff of boyhood dreams!

How was Dave Bassett to play for, as tough and straight talking as his public image suggests?

Harry often had a go and rarely gave you praise, but that was his man-management style. He always said I was a better player when he kicked me. He was probably right. Deep down you knew what his methods were, but it was sometimes hard to take. That was the way some managers worked back then. You either, bowed down and disappear, or you rolled your sleeves up and got on with it.

How did your departure from Bramall Lane come about?

It was strange really. We had just gone through pre-season and Harry took me on one side and told me Rotherham United had enquired about me and was I interested. I didn’t know what to do; I took it from that I wasn't going to figure much in the coming season if Harry was willing to tell me of interest. Therefore I asked him to circulate my name and see what came of it. He then said he didn’t mind if I left, I had real mixed emotions, I didn't want to leave, but had to do what was best for me.

What did you miss about Sheffield?

Everything and everybody at Sheffield United and being in Sheffield was great. We lived in North Anston and our best friends are a couple from there who I met walking the dog in the fields. This guy had a couple of dogs and I used to chat away with him and I got to know him, well I thought I’d got to know him. It turns out after that he just used to nod his head as he didn’t have a clue what I was saying! Both him and his wife became our best friends.

My wife has cousins and one of them bizarrely lived in South Anston; so of all the places I could have ended up in England we went where there was family nearby. All little coincidences.

I went from Scottish First Division to Division 1 (which then became the Premier League) at United, the kind of events that footballing dreams are made of and no one can take it away from me. The fans were brilliant, the stadium (even though it has changed for the better since) was great, it was just a great family club. Every time I go back you get such a great welcome. We have reunions now and then and you always get a lot of players turning up, which say a lot. Everyone at the place from office staff, through to Frenchie (Derek French the physio) and Geoff Taylor the assistant manager had the same ethos.

In Part 3 we talk about a brief spell at Barnsley, captaining Preston to a title, playing alongside a future superstar and  he did after his final league season at Rochdale. 

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Interview with Ian Bryson - Part 1 (From the farm to down the Lane)

For the fifth in the series of Blades Heroes Interviews I am delighted to have spoken with wing wizard Ian Bryson. The Scotsman was a key player in United’s back to back promotions as they eventually returned to the top flight in 1990. If the stats were recorded in those days it would show he provided numerous assists alongside 44 goals in 177 starts in all competitions for United. Not bad for a player, who up to the age of 25 was playing part time in Scotland.

He we went on to captain Preston as they started their return from the football doldrums and when we spoke we also talked of his spells at Barnsley, Rochdale and of course Kilmarnock, where it all started. As quietly spoken as I remember from his playing days, he retains a strong Scottish brogue, despite having now spent nearly half of his life south of the border. 


Growing up in Scotland did you have any great hopes of a football career?

I grew up on my Mum and Dad's dairy farm in Ayrshire. I was playing junior football from under 12 through to under-18 for Ayr United Boys team. I was playing alongside Alan McInally. In those days it was a case of you would be taken on by the club you were at as a pro at 18 or released. Unfortunately, Ayr didn't want me so I continued to work on my parents' farm and played for Hurlford United; a club in the Scottish junior leagues.

I'd been with Hurlford for about eight weeks when Kilmarnock (then a Scottish Division 1 side) approached me about a trial. I went for the trial on the Thursday, had a really good trial match, and signed for manager Jim Clunie on the Friday. I continued to work on the farm, full-time dairy farmer, and part-time footballer. It really hit home, the step up I had made when I made my debut in a benefit match a month later. It was against Celtic, which was a big thing for me. I was on the left wing and up against Danny McGrain; A Scottish international full back, a Celtic legend and an imposing figure.

Did it take you long to make your league debut?

My full league debut came in the following January against Hamilton Academicals and I scored a penalty that day. It was a quick transition from playing at Hurlford to starting in the Kilmarnock first team and I was still only 18.

Scoring a penalty on league debut for Killie, a lot of trust in a young player, were you playing up front that day?

I was playing as a left winger and in previous reserve game I had scored twice from the spot so was entrusted when the opportunity arose

You spent seven seasons with Kilmarnock and had a decent scoring record for a wide player (38 goals from 156 appearances), did you have any opportunities to move elsewhere and how did the United interest come about?

I enjoyed it at Kilmarnock, but I thought my time had passed as I was now in my mid-20's. There were times I was linked with SPL clubs, Dundee United were one I remember amongst others, but nothing happened. I was happy enough doing what I was doing then at the start of pre-season in 1988 Eddie Morrison, then Killie manager, asked me if I fancied going on trial with Sheffield United and joining them on a pre-season tour in Sweden. I didn't have to think too much about that, it wasn't a difficult decision. Off I went with United for two weeks.

Even though the Blades had just been relegated to Division Three?

Yes but even though they had been relegated it was a chance to play in England at a big club, with an impressive ground.

Was it a daunting prospect joining up with United pre-season in Sweden?

Yes it was daunting but it was a chance to show that I had what it took to do something I had dreamed of since I was young - become a full time professional footballer.

Did you feel that you had done enough to earn a contract?

I did feel I had done enough but I still wasn't a hundred percent sure in fact I asked Frenchie (Derek French - United's physio) for a shirt and pair of shorts as a memento in case it didn't work out!

On my return from the tour, Dave Bassett said he wanted to sign me and I left it to the clubs to sort out the deal. It wasn't much of a decision for me, as I was still working on the farm whilst playing for Kilmarnock, the chance to be a full time footballer was a fantastic opportunity for me.  It was a huge change for me, like learning football over again to a certain degree. I am not dismissing the standard of Scottish football at that time, but I was coming to full-time football and doing it as my living. I was moving to a big city, a new environment, different players and a different style of football.

Harry was renowned for long-ball or being direct so I wasn't used to that, but it was similar for a lot of players working with Dave. I think it helped that there were quite a few new lads around, Harry was re-building after relegation and we all bonded, adapted and learned together. That helped us do so well and played a big part in our two successive promotions.

Much is made of that team spirit. What was it about Dave Bassett that engendered such a spirit and led to such success?

Having been relegated the year before there is usually a massive transition which doesn't necessary mean immediate success. Dave Bassett deserves a huge amount of credit for what we achieved in that period. He and his scouts looked around and identified the players, most of whom were not that well known at the time; Brian Deane at Doncaster, Alan Roberts at Darlington, he had already brought Tony Agana in from Watford and we all seemed to fit together and get on well. These weren't well known players at the time. We all seemed to get on really well and that's half the battle. There were no egos or ‘Big Time Charlies’, there were few "personalities" although the ex-Wimbledon lads like Wally (Downes) and Francis (Joseph) helped in the dressing room. We built a great team spirit, made a great start on the pitch and carried it on, but it's all down to Dave Bassett.

It was a major change for you coming to United, change of club, lifestyle, environment; a complete uprooting your life and family. How hard was it to deal with?

As well as that team bonding and welcome what also helped me settle was the start I made at the club. In our first home game against Bristol Rovers I scored two goals in a 4-2 win and picked up Man of the Match. It was a fantastic start, home debut, two goals, man of the match and as a team we played really well. I then scored two in our third home league game when we beat Northampton Town 4-0. The fans took to me, they were superb, and that made things easier for me.

What are your main memories of that first season and promotion from Division Three?

Those two games aside, I don't remember too many individual games from that first promotion season. Apart from that final game at Wolves where we got the point needed to seal promotion. It is sort of the same with the following season as well. Clearly, the promotion clincher at Leicester stands out, that was the one that mattered. It was an amazing day. Every goal was followed by the fans invading the pitch and we were ushering them off. I really feared that the match might be abandoned! But to come off the pitch and find out that as well as going up Wednesday were coming down, it was an unbelievable day; you don't get moments like that often.  The whole season was just meant to be really.

The win at Leicester in May 1990 meant that United had clinched promotion to the top flight (then still Division One) returning after a 14 year absence.

For me to be playing top level football two years after leaving the farm and Kilmarnock was hard to take in. It was a fairy-tale move. I was set to play in one of the biggest leagues in the world. It was all down to Dave, he built the team where the nucleus was largely the same over the two seasons. To walk out in front of 27,000 fans against Liverpool, at Bramall Lane, on the opening day and for Deano to score was something else

1989-90 Promotion Squad - Ian is back row, far right

What always stood out for me and many other Blades fans was your work-rate in wide areas both attacking and defensively, and also your ability to find the back of the net as well regularly, as well as setting goals up.

My favourite ball to play was winger to winger and quite a few goals came from that ball for both me and the team. Really wingers should score more goals these days. Although I played on the left, I was predominantly right footed which gave me plenty of options when it came to crossing and shooting. I could stay wide or cut inside and usually guarantee I could get a cross in.

Obviously, United played with great target men, like Brian Deane and Tony Agana in the middle which is a dream for a wide player. My job was to put as many crosses in as possible, the more times you get the ball into the box, the more opportunities you have to score. Dave used to measure my performance by the number of balls I played in during the game. He used to tell me after whether I had put enough crosses in.

I'd say we were direct, but that isn't to be negative, we were not direct in the John Beck sense. We tried to get the ball from the back to the front players quickly as we knew there we had the pace and trickery to cause the opposition problems. When we have reunions and we look back at the videos of some of the goals we scored from wide positions were really good. We got goals from all over the pitch and we had quality up front, I mean Brian went on to play for England.

Ian celebrating promotion at Filbert Street with Mark Todd and Brian Deane

In Part 2 we talk about Ian and his family’s role in the BBC ‘United‘  documentary series, top level football with United, Wembley sadness and his eventual departure from Bramall Lane.