How John Sheridan provided a bright spark in hard times for Leeds United

John Sheridan: In his 'Leeds United days.
John Sheridan: In his 'Leeds United days.
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‘I was lucky to score one or two goals’ – John Sheridan on Eddie Gray, Howard Wilkinson and seven years at Leeds United.

The way John Sheridan talks about his contribution at Leeds is very different to the way his contribution is talked about.

The biggest regret of my career is probably not playing in the top flight with Leeds United.

Now Chesterfield manager John Sheridan

Listening to him speak about his time at Elland Road could easily give the impression that he was just another player, one who chipped in with the odd goal.

His words fail to give a true impression of the ability he had, an ability that made him a bright spark in a dark time for the Whites and the scorer of 47 goals – some of them world-class finishes.

In conversation about his 1982 to 1989 stint with United, he refers to his own good luck and fortune several times.

His modesty feels a far cry from the cockiness that led to his release from boyhood club Manchester City.

“Probably attitude was the issue with me when I was 15, 16,” he said. “I played for Man City from the age of 10 and just because you’re signed on at Man City you think you’ve got this right to make it.

“Maybe just being with my mates in and around Manchester, sometimes your attitude is just not focused on what you need to do.”

Sheridan was too good a player to slip through the cracks and drift away. He was playing local football in his native Manchester when a Leeds scout, acting on a tip-off from John’s younger brother and Whites youth team player Darren, came to have a look.

That look turned into an invitation that turned into a week-long trial that turned into 230 league games.

“I was very fortunate to get an opportunity to go to a club like Leeds. Darren put a word in for me, the scout came down, I came for a trial and I was very lucky. I performed well in the week and was offered a contract,” he said.

Allan Clarke was the manager when Sheridan arrived but he was soon replaced by Eddie Gray at a club that was not quite the Leeds United of the 60s and 70s.

“When you’re growing up, even though you’re from Manchester, watching Leeds United in the 70s they were one of the best teams in Europe,” said Sheridan.

“When I signed in the early 80s, the team was on a downward spiral, that was probably the start of the club going into bad times. It was still a massive club and a brilliant opportunity for me.”

Relegation from the First Division meant opportunities for the youngsters and there was actually a little luck in the way Sheridan got his.

“I was down to play for the youth team on the Saturday morning, 11 o’clock kick-off on Fullerton Park,” he said.

“Brian Flynn got injured on the morning of the game and Eddie Gray pulled me out of the youth team and told me I was playing against Middlesbrough.”

He credits luck for the way his debut went, too. But that cockiness that was problematic at Maine Road was beneficial at Elland Road.

“I played in a team with some really good players and was lucky to have a good debut,” he said.

“I think I got ‘Man of the Match’ in the game, so I was very pleased, chuffed to bits to get the opportunity.

“Once I got out on a pitch, I probably had this little bit of cockiness in me and to play at a club like Leeds United you have to have a little bit of an edge to you to perform.

“You know what the fans are like there, they know a player, they’d been watching teams who had played in Europe and won league titles. You’ve got to try and go out to perform to try and impress whoever is watching you.”

Impress he did. With the backing of Gray, a man he describes as ‘the biggest influence’ on his career, Sheridan remained in the team.

“It wasn’t a time when Leeds could go out and buy players for big money so it was a case where Eddie was going to throw one or two young players in,” said Sheridan.

“I was very lucky that the manager believed in me and kept me in the side. The team wasn’t doing great but Eddie probably doesn’t get the recognition he deserves for bringing young players in who went on to have quite successful careers.”

Sheridan became a firm favourite, despite, as he points out with a chuckle, his Mancunian upbringing.

The 80s were not kind to Leeds United, however. There were no trophies and there was precious little top-flight football.

But there could have been more, and that still sticks in the throat a little for Sheridan.

On May 29, 1987, now under Billy Bremner’s management, the midfielder gave Leeds a 1-0 lead in extra-time in the play-off final against Charlton with a beautiful free-kick.

The Whites had one foot in the First Division and yet two goals from Addicks defender Peter Shirtliff snatched glory away.

“The biggest regret of my career is probably not playing in the top flight with Leeds United.

“That wasn’t to be. Getting to the first play-off final and obviously the FA Cup semi-final under Billy, unfortunately we didn’t win anything but it was a brilliant season for the supporters when times were hard. I probably would have ended up staying if we’d gone up that year, I think the finances would have come into the club.”

Instead, Howard Wilkinson arrived in October, 1988 and, less than a year later, Sheridan was sold to Nottingham Forest.

Leaving Elland Road was not what he wanted, but it did lead him to promotions and a League Cup winners’ medal elsewhere.

“I signed a contract the day before the ’87 play-off final, I loved it there that much, whether we went up or not, I just wanted to stay at Leeds,” he said.

“I didn’t think about going anywhere else. I didn’t really suit Howard’s style but I’ve got a lot of time for Howard. He came in, made changes and was very successful.

“I ended up at Sheffield Wednesday where I probably played the best football of my career in a very good team.

“Things sometimes work out for you. It was just the right time for me, not that I wanted to go, but they got offered a fee they were happy to take and that’s life sometimes.”

Sheridan moved on and under Wilkinson Leeds moved up, winning promotion to the First Division and becoming champions of England two years after that.

A guest at the club’s recent centenary celebrations, there are no hard feelings between Sheridan and Leeds, just fondness.