Jon Stead - How Neil Warnock got the best out of me at Sheffield United and prolonged a career that included Huddersfield Town, Blackburn Rovers, Bradford City and Harrogate Town among others
The career of the gangly centre-forward from Huddersfield had been on fast forward and now he was scoring the winner for Blackburn Rovers at home to Manchester United, his sixth goall in only 11 matches as a Premier League footballer whilst Dwight Yorke watched from the substitute’s bench.
In January of that year, Stead turned out for his hometown team in front of 3,667 at Cambridge United. Seven days after that came the last of 54 league starts in his first spell for the Terriers (there were 14 substitute appearances too), scoring 22 goals. Within days he was the first footballer transferred from English football’s third tier into the top division since Tommy Miller joined Ipswich Town from Hartlepool United.
It is easy to see how fame could have gone to a young man’s head – Stead had just turned 21 when he slayed the Red Devils – yet in his case, it is still surprising, particularly to someone like this correspondent who interviewed him a number of times in the following seasons, when his awareness of his own failings seemed clear and damaging.
“I’m confident what I’m saying now won’t go to Jon’s head,” said Stead’s Blackburn manager Graeme Souness that day at Ewood Park. “He has a fantastic attitude and he listens. Jon hangs on your every word and wants to learn.”
Now, after 17 more years of football, Stead can admit he probably thought he had “cracked it”, and would pay the price down the line.
You do not get to 38, the age Stead retired at earlier this month to move into coaching, without putting that right and it was Neil Warnock – a Marmite man to some but a magician to Stead – who turned a career that could have gone down the plughole into one that stretched to 700 professional games.
“The interest from Blackburn came very quickly,” recalls Stead. “I was aware of some clubs watching but Blackburn came from nowhere and the following week I was starting away at Middlesbrough in the Premier League! It was quite a big deal but it didn’t feel that way because it happened so fast.
“I didn’t have chance to worry or have any negative thoughts about my own ability. Up until that point everything was going so well for me so it was just a case of, ‘Yeah, of course I can go and play in the Premier League!’
“I was so sure of myself, I’d had no setbacks until then, you just kind of roll with it.
“The next couple of seasons the whole situation probably did catch up with me a little bit and I had a difficult spell at Sunderland (scoring twice in 35 league appearances after moving in the summer of 2005). It was probably a bit of delayed reaction.
“I can probably admit I got bit ahead of myself. I went to Sunderland and thought I’d cracked it. I thought I’d be playing the rest of my days in the Premier League. I’ve always worked hard but subconsciously I probably took my foot off the pedal a little bit.”
Moving to Sheffield United in January 2007 got Stead back on track.
“From there I think the rest of my career was strong and I’m grateful for that but if I hadn’t turned it around I could have ended my career a long, long time ago,” he admits. “It was the first spell where I struggled to score goals and I wasn’t sure how to deal with it.
“I was fortunate Neil Warnock took me to Sheffield United. From that point on, even when I was having tough spells, I was quite capable of dealing with it and turning it around quickly.”
Warnock, now manager of Middlesbrough, struck a balance between being demanding of his centre-forward and relaxing him.
“It was like you were playing for your Sunday League team again and I don’t mean that in terms of professionalism, I just mean you were relaxed and back to the days where you played football because you loved it,” explains Stead. “There was no pressure, no anxiety.
“He manages to do that because of his aura, the way he is, the way he conducts himself. It was a perfect antidote for me after the tough times I’d had. I was smiling every day and enjoying my football in a good dressing room.
“He sent me a text message before my penultimate game and a video message since retiring saying how proud he is of me. It shows the man-manager he is. I’ve worked with a lot of managers and there’s probably three or four who still speak to me and refer to themselves as gaffer and I’ll still call them that as well.”
‘Relaxing’ is not usually the first word that springs to mind when you watch Warnock on the touchline, but like many successful managers he is capable of contradictory things.
“A lot of players, if their manager has a few pops at them they completely go into their shell, I like somebody to be constantly on my case,” insists Stead.
“Roy Keane was a very special one because I had him at two different clubs (Sunderland and Ipswich Town) and at both I ended up leaving. At Sunderland I just thought I could never be anywhere near what he expected from a player but at Ipswich when I was leaving he was brilliant with me. When I’ve seen him he’s been brilliant, always asking how I was getting on and saying I was a top professional.
“Mark Crossley told me Roy Keane had been saying how highly he rated me and my attitude and just to hear that, you thought at least I’d lived up to some of the standards his career was built around. You’ve got to be proud of it.”
Stead’s has been a career to be proud of, taking in a second spell at Huddersfield, a remarkable time at Bradford City headlined by a goal in a 4-2 FA Cup win at Chelsea, and a swansong at Harrogate Town where he inspired a Conference play-off final win at Wembley last year, and signed off with an FA Trophy victory followed by his 700th and last game.
“I always ask have I made the most of what I have and when I look in the mirror, I honestly think I have,” reflects Stead. “I’ve had a very good, solid, long career. I’ve played at the top level, had some fantastic moments and it’s come through hard work. I think I’ve done it the right way, I’ve not fallen out with anybody.
“I’m more than happy and I think that’s making this transition (into coaching) a lot easier.”
Like many in the game, he owes Warnock an awful lot.
Jon Stead has done enough interviews over the years and especially over recent weeks that when you ask him to pick out his highlights, they are instantly at his fingertips.
“My debut for Huddersfield,” is the first he rolls off, recalling a Division Two defeat at home to Brentford in August 2002. “Being a Huddersfield lad and growing up supporting the club, then managing to play for the first team was a big one, as was promotion in my second season there.
“Scoring the winner against Man United at Blackburn (in May 2004) was an absolutely massive thing. My stepdad was a big Man United fan so it was a big talking point in our household and a big moment to make you think, ‘Wow, you’ve played in the Premier League and scored against Man United.’ It was the stuff of dreams.
“I’m not discarding anything at the other clubs I’ve been at but if I had to shortlist three or four moments, the last two years with Harrogate have been really, really special, a perfect ending to my career.
“To have a National League season (in 2019-20) and promotion in a play-off final at Wembley, the first time I’d ever been there, and get the club into the Football League for the first time in their history, to be part of that history was so special.
“To reach 700 games playing for a club that means a lot to you and to go out with a Wembley win, which I never thought I would because I was out of the team for a long time.
“It’s been a fantastic career and one I’m really proud of. I’ve not won masses of stuff and played Champions League football but I’ve made the best out of who I am, I think, and for that you can be content.”