Sporting Bygones: Bringing back the memories of when Sterland became an England hero

NOT many English-born footballers can say they have experienced the thrill of scoring for their country in a final. Mel Sterland is an exception to the rule.

Back in the mid-Eighties, when the sport was far less hyped than it is today, Sterland found the net as England won a two-legged European Under-21 Championship final against Spain.

It was a goal that confirmed his status as a youngster with a massive future in the game and one which produced a memory that still brings a huge smile to his face.

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Over the course of the last eight days, England’s current Under-21 side have been striving to emulate that glory and for Sterland, 49, the televised tournament in Denmark has delivered a poignant reminder of the past.

The former Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United defender scored the only goal in the first leg of the 1984 final in Seville.

Ironically, the second leg was played in his home city of Sheffield where goals from Mark Hateley and Howard Gayle completed a 3-0 aggregate win at Bramall Lane.

Looking back to events 17 years ago, Sterland said: “I still remember it like it was yesterday. I played a one-two with Paul Bracewell before smashing a shot into the bottom right-hand corner. It was an unbelievable feeling and definitely one of the highlights of my career.

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“Playing for your country is a great honour but it was even more special for me because nearly all the other players were with First Division clubs. I had never even played in Europe before and I had come from a Second Division club in Sheffield Wednesday.

“A week later, we won the second leg at Bramall Lane, the pitch was c***p, but I recall picking up the trophy with our physio Alan Smith (who also worked for Wednesday).”

Although Sterland graduated to the full England squad, he won only one cap, four years later, in a friendly against Saudi Arabia. Competition for the right-back shirt was intense with Viv Anderson and Gary Stevens among those who blocked his path to the international stage.

There were others who played in that European Championship final and never even won a single cap; midfielder Kevin Brock (Oxford United), goalkeeper Peter Hucker (QPR), defender Derek Mountfield (Everton), striker Mich D’Avray (Ipswich Town), and wingers Gayle (Birmingham) and Nigel Callaghan (Watford).

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Others, including defenders Dave Watson (Everton) and Gary Stevens (Tottenham) and winger Mark Chamberlain (Stoke and later Sheffield Wednesday) won only a handful of caps each.

Striker Hateley was, without a shadow of doubt, the player whose career got the biggest boost from England’s Under-21 glory.

At the time, Hateley was still a relatively newcomer on the scene at Second Division Portsmouth yet the teenager took the competition by storm, scored seven goals and won the ‘Golden Player’ award.

Within a month, Hateley had won his first full cap as a substitute against the USSR, scored against Brazil in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana Stadium, and been sold for £1m to Italian giants AC Milan.

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Midfielder Steve Hodge (Nottingham Forest and later Leeds) won the next highest number of full caps (24) and also played for England in the semi-final of the 1986 World Cup.

After 11 years with Wednesday, Sterland joined Leeds following a title-winning season in Scottish football with big-spending Rangers.

His reunion with former Owls manager Howard Wilkinson at Elland Road led to more silverware with Leeds lifting the League title in 1992.

However, it was also the beginning of the end for Sterland’s playing career as a serious ankle injury brought his premature retirement at the age of just 31.

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During the years that have followed his retirement, Sterland has battled against the booze, depression and suffered a number of health problems. In his autobiography, subtitled ‘Boozing, Betting, and Brawling’, he also revealed how he came close to committing suicide.

These days, while no longer able to play the game, he is still a popular visitor on match-days at both Hillsborough and Elland Road.

England’s victory in 1984 was their second consecutive triumph in the Under-21 tournament after beating West Germany 5-4 on aggregate in the 1982 final.

Over the last 27 years, however, England have failed to pick up the trophy with many observers suggesting our game has fallen behind that of our continental rivals.

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Stuart Pearce’s side were heavily criticised last weekend despite drawing 1-1 in the opening group game with Spain.

According to the critics, England’s passing ability was vastly inferior to the Spanish – and provided yet another rude awakening for the nation after Barcelona’s destruction of Manchester United in the Champions League final.

Sterland, however, thinks some of the criticism is unfair.

“Possession doesn’t win football matches,” he said.

“Although Spain had a lot of the ball, they only scored one goal. England have always been the bulldogs who work hard for each other off the ball. I agree with Stuart Pearce. There were a lot of good things from England in our performance.”