Sunday, 26 August 2012

My Favourite Blade (Number 10) - Mick Rooker

I have had this submission in my email inbox for a few weeks. It was always my intention to finish this run of the My Favourite Blade series with it, however holidays and other happenings at Bramall Lane meant that it was delayed.
Sadly that delay means that this post has taken on additional resonance. To those of you who are not Blades fans, the name Mick Rooker might not mean too much to you. However, to Unitedites, he is just one of many people behind the scenes who are the glue which keep the fabric of our club together. Sadly that is no longer the case. Following a series of redundancies, Mick is no longer working for United.
Whether that was voluntary or imposed we don't know; it is none of our business. What is has led to is an outpouring of anger and frustration (towards the club) and thanks (for Mick) on internet forums. Forums that Mick was one of the few Blades employees to visit, often with advice on away travel, helping someone out with a ticket issue, a raffle prize or just general everyday advice.
Former players such as Brian Deane and Alan Kelly have taken to twitter to comment on how sad it is that Mick has left United. To them he was not just a colleague, but a friend. For many it was a friendship formed as Mick took on a role best described as an unofficial concierge as they adjusted to life in Sheffield.
These are dark times at Bramall Lane and having been affected by redundancy myself, my thoughts go out to all those who have lost their jobs at Bramall Lane, through no fault of their own.   
Below is Giacomo Squintani's thoughts on Mick, unedited for recent events. Reading back the last paragraph, you can only wish that the executives at Bramall Lane had heeded his advice. Bramall Lane will be a lesser place in Mick's absence. I will add my favourite memory of Mick in the comments below. Feel free to add yours, it will only highlight what the club has lost - a little bit of heart and soul and a great deal of goodwill and personality. 

POSTSCRIPT: Shortly after this was posted, Mick took to the S24SU forum to announce that following a lengthy telephone conversation with Kevin McCabe he was to continue at the club "being Mick Rooker". A little bit of me would like to think that the fan reaction on twitter and forums played a little part in the club's about turn.
When Ian put out the call for Favourite Blade memories, my mind immediately went into overdrive. Edwards, surely? Or Colin Morris? Or Alan Kelly? Hmmm… somebody will beat me to them. Maybe Glen Cockerill, who showed me what it meant to make the ball do the running and the talking months before I saw Brazilian legend Zico take that art to the highest level? Not many Unitedites mention him, but Cockerill left his mark on me. Or maybe John Burridge, whose antics amused me as a kid in the Bramall Lane stand just about as much as his saves impressed me?
Within minutes, I’d decided not to bother. All bar Kelly were amongst the first footballers whom I’d ever seen and who deserve credit for me falling in love with football. But I only ever saw those guys in August, as between September and June I lived in Italy. I could not sit down and type away of special seasons or even of special matches, as those rarely take place early on in the season. As for Kelly, it was a given that someone would sing his praises, the top performer and gentleman that he was/is. So I’d just sit back and let the likes of @unitedite, @8LAD35 and @ThomasCarter83 sing the praises of Edwards, Morris and Kelly respectively – and I’m glad I did, given the top job they all did.
I asked my Mum to put pen to paper, if only for selfish reasons: I wanted to glean her view of who first got her heart pumping at The Lane back in the 1950s. Apologies for the assumption, by the way, that one’s “favourite Blade” is a childhood hero, but I think the evidence of this series supports it… Anyway, she said she found it hard enough to muster the willpower to write the shopping list, let alone a blog entry, so that plan went out of the window. In the meantime, Ian joked whether I’d asked my own Mum to write about me, given my stint in shirt and suit at Bramall Lane. And that got me thinking…
…you know what; my Favourite Blade is not Glenn Cockerill. Or Keith Edwards. Or John Burridge, enjoyable though his “Budgie” autobiography is (not much mention of his time at The Lane, mind!). My all-time Favourite Blade is not a player: it’s a shirt and suit chap. My Favourite Blade is…
Mick Rooker
Now, that is likely to prompt one of two reactions:
1. Who? Was he before the War?
2. Top lad is Mick!
Michael D. Rooker has never played for Sheffield United. He has the passion, but not quite the physique or technique. No doubt you’ve walked past the Pools Office at Bramall Lane, or Promotions Office as it’s now known (for a while Mick resisted the change, purely because he couldn’t see the point in spending money on a new sign!). Well, Mick is the Promotions Office Manager. “Blades Revival”, “Blades Superdraw”, “50/50”… all that stuff is Mick’s. He’s been drawing money out of your bank accounts for years! Most importantly, though, Mick is a true, lifelong Blade, fortunate enough to work for the Club he loves.
He is one of the unsung heroes of the “Family Club” – ‘unsung’ by those who haven’t met him, anyway! If you’ve ever needed something and have asked Mick, odds are he did the best he could for you. He understands what it means to be a Blade and treats fellow Blades as fans first, customers second. I’m sure @thecase1907 won’t mind me sharing that Mick helped him out with getting hold of a signed United shirt to promote sponsorship when he ran the Edinburgh Half Marathon earlier this year. Plus Mick does sing his own praises. Not a modest lad, our Mick. Nor should he be: for all his love for the club and his empathy towards fellow Blades, he’s good at what he does and delivers off the pitch. I know he does, because he’s told me. That’s why I sometimes use the hashtag #mickrookerismyguru on Twitter – one that Brian Deane, Alan Kelly and Tony Agana have all endorsed!
“But… didn’t he go to Hull and back?” I hear someone at the back object. Indeed. It was a time of turbulence at The Lane (not that that narrows it down!) and both Mick and Andy Daykin headed East to Hull City. Was that because his love for the Blades had declined? Not at all, it’s because he loved United so much that the only way to save that relationship was to step away for a while. I don’t know whether he expected to return as quickly as he did, but I’m sure he was delighted at the opportunity to do so and to find his relationship with his lifelong footballing love all the better and stronger for it. Ignore that little fling in Humberside and Mick’s been at Bramall Lane for twenty-five years. Think about what our club has gone through since 1987 (“Fit and Proper?” being a good place to start if you need reminding) and you soon realise that that takes something special… and Mick’s special alright!
By nominating Mick, I’m also nominating a torchbearer for all professionals behind the scenes. When clubs go up or down (and United is one example of a club that doesn’t generally hang around in any one division for too long!), we instinctively think of the players whose CVs have glory or disappointment added to them. As the EPPP takes hold, holding on to players on high wages becomes increasingly tough for relegated clubs, and our hearts often go out to those released. But if they’re good enough, someone will come in for them. What about what goes on behind the scenes, in the clubs’ offices? Budgets are often driven by what takes place on the pitch, yet they are not confined to those who take to the field.
In April 2011 at the Madjeski I bumped into a former Promotions Department employee, at one of the season’s strangest games: on the back of one point in thirteen away from home under Adams, we came back from 2-0 down to win 3-2 against one of the Championship’s high flyers. I have since felt guilty that I didn’t make a game or two earlier on, as clearly I was the key to our success that day… Anyway, that former employee of Mick’s had left following our failure to climb back into the Premiership. Those were the days!
It hit me then, albeit not for the first time, that similar tales affect hundreds of office staff at football clubs up and down the country whose clubs go down and up. Professionals for whom there is no public transfer window, who will only stay in the game if there is an opening within driving distance. It reminded me, once again, how critical the guys and gals behind the stage are in enabling on-pitch success, yet how dependent they are upon whose goal that football ends up in.
And that’s why my Favourite Blade is Michael D. Rooker, Esq. Because we’ve shared great times and because, once the adrenaline-rush of match day has calmed down, he’s a sensitive lad with whom you can have a reight good chat. But, beyond all my own personal reasons, rooted in the specific context of my personal relationship with him, because Mick exemplifies all that is good about working for your club; because he goes into the office every morning (well, most mornings) with the same fire in his belly as the likes of Vinnie Jones, Brian Gayle and Paul Stancliffe took to the field – only he’s been doing it for twenty-five years. Could you have put up with the shenanigans at S2 for twenty-five years? Trust me: if you could bottle Mick’s passion, his commitment and sell it to players who’ve just arrived at your club, you’d make a fortune.
There you go McCabe, there’s a plan… you could roll it out across the entire United family, from Hungary to China to… wherever. Any club, anywhere, needs a Mick Rooker. We’re just lucky enough to have The Original.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Interview with Steve Thompson (Part 3) - Tied Up In Notts

As we left Part 2 (which you can read here) Steve had missed out on the permanent manager's job at Bramall Lane. There followed a spell out of the game.
In late December 2004 Thompson was appointed as manager of struggling League Two side Cambridge United, but was made redundant the following summer having failed to prevent Cambridge's relegation to the Conference.
He then worked as a summariser for BBC Radio Lincolnshire before being appointed manager of Notts County in June 2006 on a three year deal which was extended by a year in May 2007.

A Notts County fan recently said to me that most managers have found it tough at Notts Co, because they are not Neil Warnock! Steve was not alone in finding it a fickle place to manage and was certainly not alone in having a difficult time. With no training ground, no centre of excellence, only a handful of players and a reduced budget, it is hard to see what the attraction of the job was.
The trouble with football is that people often live in the past, because that is how comparisons are made. It is very hard to get recognition at Notts County, but that’s the nature of the beast. The one thing about football management is that you are going to get the sack sooner or later. When I arrived there I had 3 players, no training ground, no youth team, a newly elected chairman who had brought Howard in. I had to sign 13/14 players and get them into shape very quickly. I got in there mid-June and we were starting pre-season training first week in July. 
They had been through such a hard time and the fans were all doom and gloom and then suddenly, as you start winning games, expectation levels rise. The playing budget was next to nothing and obviously we had no youngsters coming through that I could blood to fill the gaps.
When I went back Howard Wilkinson was Director of Football and he brought me in. They had just avoided relegation from the League by a point and we finished 11th and reached the Quarter Finals of the League Cup. We lost to Wycombe who went on to meet Chelsea.
Unfortunately, Steve was sacked at the start of the 2007–08 season after a disappointing start that saw the Magpies languishing near the bottom of the table. The turnaround achieved the previous season quickly forgotten.
Since leaving Notts County, Steve is yet to make a return to football and now works for BBC Lincolnshire as summariser on Lincoln City's games. 
It was a massive blow for Lincoln when they were relegated again and it is not easy getting back. Plenty of clubs in the Blue Square North are full time and it makes a big difference. Forest Green Rovers are going to be a force in that league this year, with the financial backing that they have.
David Holdsworth is the manager and he has a huge task, with no money to spend.  It is a tough league and I don’t see why it should just be one team going up automatic and another in the play-offs. For me it should be two automatic and another in the play-offs. When you look back to Doncaster, when they came back into the league they went straight through and Crawley, albeit another club with money, but another team that have progressed.
In the lower divisions if you can get two or three player in the spine of the team including a goalscorer you will do well.

We finish by talking about his first love and United's prospects for the new season.
I would never knock Kevin McCabe; he’s done a fabulous job, the way he stuck up for the club through the Tevez issue and relegation. I heard all the things about Danny Wilson when he went there, he’s a very good manager, an astute guy, he’s knows the division and he knows players. He probably got the job because he’s mates with Kevin McCabe, but he’s proved the doubters wrong getting United so close to promotion and the loss of Ched Evans so close to the end of the season was massive.
That play off final defeat was a huge blow, the expectation level has risen, but Danny is not daft. He’s been around the block, he’s got Frank Barlow who is a great right hand man and although they always sell their best players, the one thing United have always been good at is bringing their own players through. At one time United were a club that didn’t have to sell, or at least if they sold it was at a price that was right for the club, but with the Premier League it is just a buyers’ market now. In the past players knew that if they were at United they would be at a strong Championship club, or potentially a Premier League club. Now they have to leave to better themselves and earn more money.
The recession makes it hard for clubs and fans. Football has become the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It is harder for lower league clubs to make money from selling players and if you produce your own player you know you are not going to be able to keep hold of them for any length of time.
It’s a great football club, with great supporters and Danny knows that, he knows what a great club it is to manage, and when you are winning there is no better place.
I have experienced both ends of the spectrum. I’ve been at clubs when you’re only getting 2,000 and you are losing and I have been at United with  20-30,000 and you’re losing. But when that Kop gets behind you at Bramall Lane it does make a difference.
With so many ups and downs in his football career, it would be easy to assume Steve has many regrets, however there is only really one and having spoken to him and understanding his passions for Sheffield and the Blades it is quite understandable.
The one thing I was never fortunate to do was play in a Sheffield Derby. I played in London Derbies for Charlton against Millwall and Palace, but it would have been great to have done it in Sheffield. It is superb as a supporter, but to have played in one……..
Whilst Steve enjoys his radio work, he still hankers after a day to day involvement in football.
I have had a few clubs in the last couple of years that have wanted me, but you think you can wait for the clubs that you think are bigger and more appropriate and as time goes on you think maybe I should have done that. I still have aspirations to get back into football as a manager or an assistant.
Having sat and listened to him speak passionately about the game for nearly an hour, I only hope that opportunity arises soon.
Thanks to Steve for the generosity of his time. If you want to follow Steve on twitter he is @TommoTweets

Friday, 17 August 2012

Interview with Steve Thompson - Part 2 (Taking the Reins)

As we left Part 1 (which you can read here), Steve had moved to Lincoln City in the Summer of 1989 and he went on to play for them in the 1989-90 season.
Steve was still registered as a player at the start of the following season though but, when Allan Clarke was dismissed as manager, he became the Board's choice as his successor and immediately lifted the Club off the bottom of the table to a respectable mid-table finish.

He went on to manage the Imps for 114 League games, registering 46 wins and 31 draws, and left before the final match of the 1992/93 season with the Board announcing that his contract wouldn't be renewed with the Club missing out on the play-offs. Steve was still registered as a player at the start of the following season though but, when Allan Clarke was dismissed as manager (November 1990), he became the Board's choice as his successor and immediately lifted the Club off the bottom of the table to a respectable mid-table finish; losing only three of the last 18 games that season and avoiding a second relegation to the Conference.
You learn from your mistakes early in your managerial career. You get carried away with wins and carried away with your own importance and as you get you older you recognise the mistakes you made.
He went on to manage the Imps for 114 League games, registering 46 wins and 31 draws, and left before the final match of the 1992/93 season with the Lincoln board announcing that his contract wouldn't be renewed with the club missing out on the play-offs. A spell on Kevin Keegan's coaching staff at Newcastle United followed and then three months as assistant manager at Doncaster Rovers. From there he became Director of Football at Southend United, taking over as manager when Peter Taylor left with the club deep in relegation trouble.
Steve led them to 13th place at the end of the season and then left to join Colin Murphy as assistant manager at Notts County in June 1995. County made the play-offs in their first season in charge, but struggled badly the following year in a season that would see the Magpies relegated to Division Three. Both Murphy and Thompson were sacked before the season finished.
We lost in the play-offs 2-0 to Bradford City, who Kammy was managing at the time, and the following season, well you often start with a headache after the pain of play-off defeat. You have to try and lift the players and it is tough. A few defeats and you get a backlash from the fans. We lost three games at home and it was already "Murphy out".

Steve then joined Nigel Spackman's coaching staff at Sheffield United and following Spackman's resignation in March 1998 he was made caretaker manager. Manager of the club he had both supported and played for.
When we were on the cup run that season, Garth Crooks came to interview me for the BBC. I used to room with Garth on occasions whilst at Charlton and he said; “Tommo you used to bore me silly with all my Sheffield United talk and you must keep pinching yourself to find you’re in the job you are in.” He was not wrong.
I got so much pleasure and enormous gratification from managing the club, albeit for just 16 games. On an afternoon I would often just go for a walk around the pitch and then sit in the stand and think; “Flippin’ heck, I never thought this would happen in my lifetime”.
As a lad I used to get the 71 bus up Prince of Wales Road, down over Norfolk Park, getting off at Silver Blades ice rink and leg it through the backstreets to the Lane. That was my Tuesday night and Saturday afternoon when United were at home. Then I’d do the same routine in reverse at full time. And here I was, managing that same club.
I have had lengthy spells at Lincoln and I watch them now with my job, but Sheffield United has always been my club. You hear from managers who tell us that they supported the club they manage and that they stood on the terraces as a kid. I am not sure they all have, but I know I was there.
A dream job for Steve, but his job was made more difficult than it ought to have been thanks to the turbulent relationship between board and fans and also the circumstances around Nigel Spackman's departure.
It was a very difficult time. I remember getting a call on the Tuesday morning of the game at Ipswich to say that Nigel had resigned and I was going to have to take charge. There was only Fred Eyre (Chief Scout) and Russell Slade left. We lost 1-0; I think it was a deflected goal in off Shaun Derry.
I had been very friendly with Willie Donachie who had been Nigel's assistant prior to leaving earlier in the season for Manchester City. I spoke to him when the job came up and he said that it was a great chance and I should take it. Some people thought I had stabbed Nigel in the back when I took the job, but that was far from the case, he left of his own accord. I remember being there when Mike McDonald and Kevin McCabe tried to persuade Nigel to come back and see it out to the end of the season, but Nigel felt he'd been let down badly.
I brought Jim Barron in to assist me and Russell was brilliant. He had little experience of first team coaching at the time; he had been working with the youngsters, but really helped. I wasn’t totally inexperienced at that level; I’d taken charge of Southend so it wasn’t totally alien to me. The experienced players deserve credit; David Holdsworth, Nicky Marker, Alan Kelly, Simon Tracey and others helped keep it going to the end of the season.
United had spent big in the preceding years under Howard Kendall and Nigel Spackman, but belts were being tightened and the expensive, big name players were being sold. The sale of Jan Aage Fjortoft and Brian Deane on the same day had led to Spackman's departure. With a promotion push starting to drift, Steve was only given limited funds to work with.
Yes, I managed to bring in Chris Wilder for a second spell and brought in Paul Devlin and Ian Hamilton. I also gave Curtis Woodhouse and Lee Morris their debuts which was great.
A big blow that season was losing Dane Whitehouse to the injury that ended his career. I still see Gareth Ainsworth around Lincoln where he is still revered (Ainsworth's horror tackle, whilst playing for Port Vale, caused Whitehouse's injury) and I tell him I can't forgive him for that. I was sat in the dug-out and it was a bad, bad tackle.
Dane, along with Mitch Ward were coming through at United when I was there as a player and you could see then Dane had what was required to be a great player.
Probably the highlight of Steve's time as manager was the penalty shootout victory over Coventry City in a FA Cup Quarter Final replay.
We had gone to Coventry on the Saturday and nobody gave us a prayer. They were in a division above and obviously we were going through a tough time, but Marcelo got us an equaliser.
That Tuesday night, the replay at Bramall Lane, if I could relive that in my dreams a million times it wouldn’t be enough. David Holdsworth hooking in an overhead kick to equalise in the last minute, nobody would put money on that! Then Katchouro missed his penalty...
It was a terrible penalty from Katchouro. What sticks in my mind as well as Alan Kelly’s save, was the fact that the penalty takers were not always those you would have expected; Wayne Quinn, United’s left back scored the winning penalty that night.
I remember a fella that night jumping on my back saying “Tommo, Tommo”, he was a big guy with a beard and a bald head. “Tommo, Tommo, do you remember me?” I said “Nah”; I thought he was going to break my back! Anyway, he says “I went to Junior School with you!” I said, “Ah right, you didn’t have a beard and bald head then.” To which he says; “Have you got any tickets for the semi?”
Quinny was a great lad. I remember when Newcastle came in for Wayne and god bless him he didn’t know whether to stick or twist. He didn’t want to leave United. I said to him, I know you love United, but Newcastle is a massive club and off he went. He never really fulfilled his potential there, which was surprising.
United went on to face Newcastle in the semi-final at Old Trafford and to a lot of Blades fans the match felt like an opportunity missed. That if United had taken the game to them more there might have been a different result. In the end United lost 1-0.
To lead them out at Old Trafford was amazing and I still maintain to this day that we were unlucky not to get a result. Wayne Quinn had a one on one and Petr Katchouro missed a great chance, I know they had a few chances but really we were done by Alan Shearer. The header came from Shearer who leaned on Lee Sandford and got the header in at the far post, it was something he got away with for years.
Steve stabilised the team and saw United through into the play offs in 6th; although it was very tight with United edging out Birmingham on goal difference.
We had lost away at Stockport and had to wait for other scores to come in to be sure we got in the play offs.
They then faced Sunderland in the play-offs and a 2-1 win at Bramall Lane perfectly set up the second leg in front of a 40,000 crowd at the Stadium of Light.
I played against Niall Quinn (then Sunderland striker) when I was at Charlton. I think we played them four times in one season and he got three hat tricks! He was having a fitness test before the first leg at Bramall Lane and I said; “Big man, are you playing?” Quinn said “No, he’s saving me for Tuesday night; I’ll probably score the winner then.” He didn’t, but he was back in the team and a thorn in our side.
When we went up to the Stadium of Light, Peter Reid greeted me on arrival and said he had just been to the referee’s room and we had no chance as the ref was “shitting himself”. He was right, that night the referee (Mick Pierce) just couldn’t handle the game or the pressure and the noise and atmosphere that night was unbelievable. A deflected goal off Nicky Marker and a Kevin Phillips goal and Sunderland were in the final. Given the changes at the club and the limited money I had to spend, I was proud of the lads for getting there.
Having guided the Blades to the play-offs and the semi-finals of the FA Cup, it would have been fair to assume that Steve had a fair chance of getting the job full-time, but that was not to be the case.
Mike McDonald was saying you can apply for the job, so I did and got an interview and went through the process, but I wish they had said straight up what the situation was. Maybe I should have read the script. It was a fake interview. The club was a plc. the share price had dipped from the issue price  and the board wanted a big name to get the price back up. That man was Steve Bruce and it was obvious he would want to bring in his own people; Lou Macari, John Deehan and it was obvious that I wasn’t going to fit in.
There was a time earlier that season when Hull wanted me, although I think Stephen Hinchcliffe was the chairman so it might not have worked out well, with what I had done at United I might have found a club that summer, but stayed on. I should have perhaps realised that he would have wanted his own people.

In Part 3 tomorrow we look at Steve's spell as manager at Notts County, his radio punditry and he offers a few thoughts on Lincoln and Sheffield United's prospects for the new season.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Interview with Steve Thompson - Part 1 (Boyhood Dreams)

For the latest in my series of interviews with former Blades I spoke with a man who has lived the schoolboy dream and served the club in nearly every role possible. From watching on the terraces, he became a ball boy and apprentice at Bramall Lane, before the club sadly released him. He returned at the end of his playing career for a key role in a successful promotion season and was then to return 8 years later as coach before a brief spell as manager.
Steve Thompson could perhaps be viewed as unlucky, particularly with the timing of his appointment as manager at United - the club was undergoing a turbulent spell in the boardroom that did him few favours. But as we talk I realise that he doesn't see it that way. I also find out that he may have graced the Bramall Lane turf more frequently and earlier in his career, but for misjudgement of a scout, the club's lack of money and circumstance.
It was a lengthy chat and there are parts of his career that we barely touched upon, but I still think there is plenty to interest the wider football fan as much as fellow Unitedites.

As a local lad (Steve went to Acres Hill Junior School and Waltheof Comprehensive School) and he was a frequent visitor to Bramall Lane as a lad.
I was a decent player as a schoolboy and played for Sheffield Boys and Yorkshire Boys. I was a right back at the time and my role model was Len Badger. I used to go to Bramall Lane as a fan, every game I played for Sheffield Boys and Yorkshire Boys I wanted to be signed by Sheffield United. Then United offered me a place in their junior team, playing in the Hatchard League, and I ended up spending three years there.
Steve Faulkner was in the Sheffield Boys team around that time and, along with Steve, ended up at United as an apprentice.
At the time, if you were a junior you had a few jobs to do. I remember having to clean the big baths out in the changing room, clean the players cars and we also doubled as a ball boy on matchday, so I had the perfect pitch-side vantage point.
It was a great era and there were some great players for United at that time. It was a joy to watch Tony Currie, Alan Woodward, Eddie Colquhoun, Len Badger, Trevor Hockey.... I could just reel all off all the names. As time progressed you could see TC was just a world beater. I don’t think we will ever see a player as good as Tony Currie at United ever again. He had everything; strength, power, amazing technical ability on the ball, goals from midfield and a brilliant free kick. They talk about Beckham's ability with free kicks in the modern game; well TC was on a par with him.
I was a ball-boy the day United beat Arsenal 5-0 and Tony Currie sat on the ball to tease Alan Ball (Ball had done similar at Highbury when Arsenal had run United ragged by a similar scoreline). Another incident I remember was Currie on the ball and he beckoned Alan Ball towards him. Alan ran at him and TC nutmegged him.
I particularly remember a match against Hull City; I was on the cricket pavilion side, with all the other three sides of the ground packed and the number of people in front of the pavilion forced me back up into the pavilion building itself.
I have played cricket against Ted Hemsley since and we always had a laugh and I still see Badge. Genuine people and in those days they associated with the fans and the fans could associate with them. That is something that Dave Bassett did well with United, we went in that players’ bar after for a drink and Harry always made sure we attended supporters’ club dos. We were a genuinely 'United' club.
For any local lad who is an apprentice with the club he supports, the hardest part must be coming to terms with being released, yet Steve seems relatively sanguine about it looking back.
John Short was the Chief Scout at the time - assisting manager John Harris - and he said that I was too short to play right back. Up to the age of 17 I was about 5'3" and then I had a bit of a growth spurt and I was 6'1" and 13 stone. Too late to salvage my career at United though. In later years though John admitted to me he had made an error, telling me "I got that one wrong didn't I".
Steve started playing for Frecheville Community Association in the Yorkshire Football League whilst trying to forge a career away from football, however the lure of the Lane soon proved too much.
When I was released by United I was working for the Yorkshire Electricity Board and doing nights at Granville College. It was hard though and one night I was heading down Granville Road and could see the lights on at Bramall Lane for a night match. I never made it to the college. I ran off to the Lane and watched the match. I never went back to the YEB. When I stopped being a ball boy I was on the Kop and that was where I could be found every home game in and around playing.
Steve went on to play for Worksop Town and then, in 1976, he attracted the attention of Boston United's then manager Howard Wilkinson. Keen to impress, he managed to get himself sent-off for a clash with Jim Kabia during Worksop's 3–1 defeat at York Street on 24 March 1976. However, the incident did not dissuade Wilkinson and Steve soon became a Boston player.
Whilst at Boston United I was working at Sheffield Newspapers selling advertising space, amazingly I found myself working alongside my boyhood hero Len Badger. Whilst there Jimmy Sirrell (then United manager) approached me about signing for United, my boss at the paper was a Blade and allowed me to join up with United. I went to an Under 21 tournament in Holland on trial alongside fellow trialist Paul Stancliffe and United youth products Keith Edwards and Tony Kenworthy. Jimmy Sirrell wanted to sign me, but they couldn’t pay what I was earning combined at Sheffield Newspapers and Boston and we couldn’t agree terms.
Howard Wilkinson crops up a few times in Steve's story and I wondered if he had a big influence on Steve's career both as a player and manager.
A bit of everyone has rubbed off on me. I was only 18 when I went to Boston as a player and Howard was the manager for a couple of seasons. He kept in contact with me and when I broke my leg at Lincoln, I was still living in Sheffield, and Howard let me do my rehabilitation at Wednesday with Alan Smith. I was a year out, but Alan (Wednesday and one time England physio) was one of the best I ever worked with. Howard treated me like a Wednesday player; I spent a lot of time with Peter Shirtliff, Mark Shelton, Gary Megson and got to know them.
Colin Murphy brought me into league football at Lincoln City and taught me a lot. Lennie Lawrence was a huge influence in 5 years at Charlton. It’s funny, I’ve had 3 southerners, with Dave Bassett as well, and a Sheffielder in Howard and every one of them had an impact.
As Steve mentioned, Colin Murphy brought him into league football at Lincoln City and he was named "Player of the Season" in 1981/82. The Imps lost just nine times from his first 61 outings.
Whilst at Lincoln, we beat United 3-1 at Sincil Bank and won the return 1-0 at Bramall Lane. There were three Sheffield lads in that Lincoln team; me, Gordon Hobson and Phil Turner. It was only later when I met Ian Porterfield (United manager at the time of the game) in a Rotherham pub that he told me he tried to sign the three of us but couldn't have agreed a deal. That would have paired me with Paul Stancliffe and it was when I was in my prime as well, you know 24/25. That would have been fabulous, but you can't turn back the clock and I was fortunate to get the chance in my late 30's to go back and play a supporting role.
Steve's final game for Lincoln was at Bradford City on the day of the Valley Parade fire. He was The Imps' captain that day. We don't talk about the tragedy, but Steve mentions how in the days after he felt like an unlucky omen, a Jonah figure I suggest.
Post-match we flew out to Magaluf on the end of season break and I was in the apartment where the lift snapped whilst I was in it and then on the way back the plane crashed on landing at Leeds/Bradford Airport. It was one terrible event after another.
That summer Steve joined Charlton Athletic and his three seasons there saw him captain a side winning promotion to the First Division and reach the Simod Cup final. In July 1988 Steve moved to Leicester for a fee of £40,000, but had not made a first team appearance by the November. After just 5 months at Leicester, Steve was about to fulfil his boyhood dream at the age of 33. The Blades were looking to bounce back out of the Third Division at the first attempt under Dave Bassett and a fee of £20,000 secured the veteran's services.
Harry rung me up and said he was looking for an experienced centre back to supplement the squad as they were pushing for promotion. United had captain Paul Stancliffe, Brian Smith and Darren Carr and Harry asked me to come in and give it what I'd got. He said he would play me when and if, but I was 34/35 at the time and I snatched his hand off. I was never going to turn the chance down.

It clearly wasn't a difficult decision for Steve and I ask him what stood out about the team he joined. The answer he gave is similar to that of all the players I have spoken to, who played under Dave Bassett at that time.
I have the utmost respect for Harry, a tremendous manager, a fantastic motivator and he had brought together a great bunch of lads. There was a great togetherness and camaraderie about United. It was a tremendous set up and you were made to feel part of it straight away from the moment you walked in the dressing room. My first day at training up at Warminster Road had three fights and I was in one of them. I had a spat with Toddy (Mark Todd); I think Paul Williams was involved in one of the others.
Wally Downes and some of the old Wimbledon boys had brought a bit of the Crazy gang spirit with them, jumping out of trees at you and other pranks. Back then you had a row, then just sorted things out and got on with it. It was a tremendous team spirit and one I recognised from coming up against Wimbledon when I was at Lincoln.
Whether you were in the 1st team or reserves you were all as one, you played together and you drank beer together. An ethos of work hard and play hard, but if you didn't work hard you didn't get in the team. Harry allowed you the freedom of a night out and he would often come with us. In fact he used to drive some of the players and drop them off at Josie's (city centre nightclub and footballer hang-out Josephine's), but don't get me wrong he always knew everything about what time you got there, who was there and what time you left.
On the pitch, the side played better football than they were given credit for as well. It was easy to give them a long ball tag.
You only have to look at some of the players Harry had whilst he was there, take John Gannon, Glyn Hodges, players who were comfortable on the ball and great passers, he moulded Brian Deane at a young age and delivered a great partnership with Tony Agana. But he still appreciated his bread and butter players who won the tackles, stuck their head in. It was a good mix.
Yes we had a laugh and a joke in training, but I remember thinking that I had never done so much set play practice and 11 v 11 games in my life. With Harry, everything was planned and set out to the letter. You knew who you were marking and where you should be.
Steve made his debut against Wrexham at the Racecourse Ground in the Sherpa Van Trophy and followed it with a home league debut the following Saturday in a 4-2 victory over Gillingham.
I certainly remember the Wrexham game. I never enjoyed playing at the Racecourse Ground; it was tough with the partisan Welsh fans and their feelings towards English clubs. I played alongside Stan (Paul Stancliffe) in a 1-0 win.
The Gillingham game I remember little about. It was all a bit hazy as I was in dream world. I thought the boat had gone when the chance to play for United had passed in my mid-20's
I ask Steve what are his main memories of that promotion season.
On the Wednesday leading up to the game at home to Reading I had quite a serious car accident and I had written off my car. I had done a bit of damage to myself, but when Harry rang me up on the Thursday and asked, "Are you facking alright?" I told him I was fit to play. Despite the aches and pains I played well and got my only Man of the Match award whilst I was at United. Usually when you won the prize was a silver salver or a cut-glass crystal decanter, I won a car cleaning kit! I can't help feeling it was a set-up from the lads, knowing who the sponsor was that week!

We played some cracking football that season, with great wing play. If you remember Alan Roberts, Harry always used to take him off late in the game, with 7 or 8 minutes to go. In the last home game of the season, there was about ten minutes to go and Alan knew the time had come when Harry was going to make a substitution and as usual it was going to be Alan coming off. He called over to me on the pitch to what was going off on the side-line as Geoff Taylor (Dave Bassett's assistant) frantically flicked through the cards to find the number 7. Alan said; "Watch Harry. They won't find the number 7, it's in the boot of my car!" In the end they went to the away dugout to see if they had a spare. Alan still got substituted, but as he said; "At least I got another 4 minutes on the pitch out of it".
Steve scored his only goal for United at Northampton Town, but some of the shine was taken off it with horrific events elsewhere.
It was the same day as the Hillsborough disaster, so the delight in scoring was short lived as new filtered through of what was happening back in Sheffield. We were due at the PFA dinner, but that was understandably cancelled.
Despite establishing himself alongside Paul Stancliffe in the heart of the Blades defence, Steve disappointingly missed out on the final games of the season.
I had a cyst on my knee. It was a problem which eventually stopped me playing. Darren Carr came in and did very well. I guess I did the job Harry wanted me to do, in fact he told me I had.
Nine months after arriving at Bramall Lane, Steve was to move on again. Not that he was expecting a move and the way he found out about it was quite unconventional too. Perhaps he shouldn’t have expected any different from Dave Bassett.
I was realistic in that Harry had brought me in to do a job, but the way in which he broke the news to me that I was leaving was a little odd. I was up at Abbeydale Cricket Club in the close season with Harry watching the cricket from the pavilion. I had a year left on my contract and hadn't considered the possibility of leaving. Anyway, I was watching the match through a pair of binoculars and scanning around the ground I saw a face I recognised walking up the drive.
ST: "Mark Morris is there?!"
(Morris was one of Bassett's former Wimbledon players, a centre back, who at the time was still at Wimbledon and not a player you would expect to see at a cricket match in the Sheffield suburbs)
DB: "Yes, I meant to tell you Tommo, he's taking your place. I've got you a deal with Lincoln, you're going back to Colin Murphy who wants you to play for a year and be his assistant."
ST: "Oh….thanks a lot Harry"
In Part 2 we talk about Steve’s time at Lincoln and a return to Bramall Lane.

Friday, 10 August 2012

My Favourite Blade (Number 9) - Phil Jagielka

The latest in our Summer series sees an England international nominated by Leigh Drake (@omarlittlerules). Those who saw this player in his early days at United could see he had talent and over his Bramall Lane career he quickly demonstrated he had the potential to represent his country in major tournaments.

I’ve been watching United since November 1979.  Not the best time to start watching – just before THAT Christmas but as a 9 year old I fell in love with the whole experience at a wet 1st Round FA Cup game at Bramall Lane against non-league Burscough.  Stood on the Panini stickers family corner of the Kop next to a man who dressed and swore like a South Yorkshire version of Rab C Nesbitt, how could I fail to be caught up in the magic of it all?
In the intervening time I’ve had the pleasure of seeing some fantastic (and some not so fantastic) games filled with memorable moments.  My choice of “favourite Blade” is a modern-day one, chosen for more reasons than just how he was in the beloved shirt.
Philip Nikodem Jagielka played for Sheffield United through the youth team and on into the senior squad making his debut there in 2000.  I remember seeing him and thinking he needed to bulk up a bit and that he had a long way to go to become a regular in the first team.  I wasn’t the only one with the same opinions but the raw energy and enthusiasm to play was there in abundance.
Jags has been responsible for 3 on-pitch events that have provided sheer joy to Sheffield United fans.
Firstly – his 35+ yard equaliser against Premiership Leeds United in the League Cup, November 2002 is STILL one of the best goals I have seen, anywhere.  It still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up watching it again.  The atmosphere at that game was electric and to have a goal like that just brought the whole crowd to its feet.
Secondly, Jags gave United their first Premiership victory since 1994 when he half-volleyed (again after chesting the ball down some 35 yards out) into the Middlesbrough net, this time in front of the Kop.  A shaven-headed Jagielka face-sliding onto the turf while the ground erupted is another of those fantastic moments he has given us.
Third and perhaps completely overlooked by many is the home game on December 30th 2006 against Arsenal when Paddy Kenny suffered a thigh injury early in the second half.   United were 1-0 up thanks to a great piece of individual work by Christian Nade and needed to hold on for the next 30+ minutes to secure the victory.  Jags swapped shirts with the injured Kenny and will be forever remembered for his last minute save against Robin Van Persie (what happened to him?).
For these three incidents alone Phil Jagielka deserves his place in Blades history but his contribution is much, much more.
Off the pitch Jags always conducted himself with a maturity beyond his years, a trait that I understand continues through to this day.  Having met him early in his senior career at a Bramall Lane open day he was more than happy to sit with everyone who wanted a photo, to chat and to promote a positive image of Sheffield United – qualities which don’t always come as standard with those who are lucky enough to earn money playing a sport they love.
Courted by many Premier League clubs Jags stuck by his club for many years more than others less talented cared to do.  It felt like Jags wanted to learn his trade to ensure he didn’t just end up being a bench player or worse, one that was sent out on loan instead of being given a chance to shine.  This way of thinking paid off for him when he eventually left for Merseyside.  It appears Jags had and still has his feet firmly on the ground and that is not only a credit to him but to those around him, friends, family and workmates should all be included.
Finally, Jags always gave 100% - something that above all else – is applauded roundly at Bramall Lane. As a group of fans we have  always appreciated a trier. When that effort is combined with a great deal of footballing ability it makes him stand out even more.
So, although I can claim to have seen a large number of well known, bigger named, respected players come and go at Bramall Lane it’s the contributions of Phil Jagielka that have stuck with me.  I know I am not the only Blade who still follows Jags at Everton and in his England appearances, something that cannot be said of many others who once wore the red and white stripes.