Bygones: Why Sheffield Wednesday means so much to Mel Sterland
It is why the former full-back, brought up on the Manor estate in the Steel City and a regular on the Kop back in the days when supporters were still open to the elements, is eagerly looking forward to tonight’s gala dinner to celebrate the Owls being formed exactly 150 years ago.
“This is such a special football club,” Sterland, still a regular at Hillsborough, told The Yorkshire Post. “It doesn’t matter whether you are a fan or an ex-player, Sheffield Wednesday is a club that gets under your skin.
“I was taken to watch my first game by my brother and was hooked straight away. To go from that to captaining such a great club and playing so many games was fantastic for me and something that still makes me proud.”
Sterland racked up 347 appearances during 11 years with the Owls. He was also part of two promotion-winning squads, played in two FA Cup semi-finals and became the club’s first full England international in more than two decades when making his one and only senior appearance in 1988.
These statistics, however, tell only a fraction of Sterland’s time at Hillsborough with the contrasting managerial styles of Jack Charlton and Howard Wilkinson offering a wealth of stories.
“I actually served my apprenticeship under Len Ashurst,” recalls the former defender. “But he left and ‘Big Jack’ came in. He was brilliant with me, even if we didn’t start off too well when I went in to sign my first contract after finishing my apprenticeship.
“There were no agents back then, so it was just me and him. I was nervous as I knocked on the door, being that age and going into see someone who had won the World Cup on my own was frightening.
“Anyway, I went in and there was Jack, fag hanging out of his mouth and this big hat on. He looked me up and down, knowing full well why I was there, and said: ‘What do you want?’
“My Dad had told me to ask for £250 per week. So, I did – and Jack nearly choked on his fag! His hat also fell on the floor.
“After shaking his head, he just pushed a bit of paper at me and said: ‘Sign that’. It was £60 per week and £50 appearance money. I signed and couldn’t get out of there fast enough.”
From such inauspicious beginnings began a senior career that, by its premature end courtesy of injury, had led to Sterland joining a select band to have won league titles both north and south of the border with Rangers and Leeds United.
It is, though, his time in an Owls shirt that those in the blue and white half of Sheffield remember fondly. As does the man himself.
“I had some great times at Wednesday,” he says.
“My two managers could not have been more different but they were both great for me.
“Howard went through everything in detail and was very, very strict. He knew what he wanted and if we didn’t get it right first time, we would stay there until we did.
“Jack, though, couldn’t have been more different. I remember the first FA Cup semi-final we played against Brighton at Highbury (in 1983).
“It was a huge day for the club and yet we managed to leave two players behind at the hotel. No-one noticed until we were nearly there. ‘Big Jack’ just forgot them both.”
David Mills and Pat Heard were the unfortunate players who had to make their own way to Highbury by taxi. For Sterland, however, that unfortunate episode is not the only reason he is able to recall that semi-final loss with a chuckle despite Wednesday missing out on a trip to Wembley via a 2-1 defeat.
“Ante Mirocevic was Yugoslavian and our first foreign player,” added the 55-year-old. “The problem was Ante didn’t speak a word of English.
“Jack, of course, knew this but – and I have no idea why – put me in the same room with Ante the night before what was at the time the biggest game of my career. So, there we were, sitting on our beds when he whipped out this English phrase book. I thought: ‘What the hell is he going to do now?’
“Anyway, he opened the book and pointed to the other side of the room and said: ‘Radiator?’ Fair enough, the radiator was where he was pointing so he was right.
“But then we put the TV on and there was a story about some hostages on the news. Anton looked at his book again and said: ‘Sausages?’ I didn’t know what to say so I just pointed at his book, then the bed and said: ‘Sleep!’
“So funny when looking back at it now but, at the time, I just thought: ‘What am I doing here?’ Still, fair play to Ante, he scored a great goal the following day.”
Wednesday and Sterland were back in the semi-finals three years later. By now, Wilkinson’s side had established themselves in the First Division but, once again, a Wembley trip proved elusive as Everton triumphed 2-1 after extra-time at Villa Park.
Sterland would not come as close again to appearing in a major final for the club he supported as a boy. Despite that, there were still plenty of highs in a stint that, strangely, did not include so much as one derby appearance against United.
“Playing for my country was a massive honour,” he says of the friendly game with Saudi Arabia. “I had grown up on the Manor estate, with five brothers and three sisters. So, to become an England international was something I was very proud of achieving. Howard gave me the letter, with the FA heading on it, and it was the best feeling in the world.”
Asked about missing out on playing in a Steel City derby during his time with the Owls, he quipped: “They were too rubbish and near the bottom of the League so it wasn’t all bad news.”
Sterland left Hillsborough in March, 1989, to join Rangers before returning to Yorkshire for a reunion with Wilkinson at Leeds just a few months later. His affection for the Owls, however, remains undimmed almost 30 years on.
“It has been a frustrating couple of years with us not being able to get over the line,” says Sterland when asked about the current goings-on in S6. “But Wednesday have a chairman now who is putting his money where his mouth is.
“There are players at Hillsborough on big, big money so the chairman (Dejphon Chansiri) is doing his bit. It is up to others now to do theirs and then, fingers crossed, Wednesday can get back up.
“Getting up there changes everything for a club, even if some of the money knocking around these days is obscene. To me, Wednesday should be in the Premier League – as should my other club from Yorkshire.”