Sheffield United: It’s a rocky road back to the Lane

MK Dons vs Sheffield Utd, Carling Cup 2nd Round.
MK Dons vs Sheffield Utd, Carling Cup 2nd Round.
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Jon-Paul McGovern used to prepare for Sheffield United games by watching Sylvester Stallone knock the living daylights out of Ivan Drago and Apollo Creed.

Should Carlisle give his former club a bloody nose when they meet in League One competition later this afternoon, the visitors’ midfielder knows he could be facing a similar fate.

“My partner is from Sheffield and I can remember going around to her house for the first time,” McGovern, who also represented United’s rivals Sheffield Wednesday, told The Star. “Her dad came downstairs and he’d put all his Sheffield United gear on especially. I won him around with my Scottish charm.

“He’ll be at the match and I’ve got a pretty good idea who he wants to win.”

McGovern is a proud Glaswegian, but the Steel City nevertheless commands a special place in his heart.

Bramall Lane is the ground where he made his professional debut after signing on loan from Celtic 11 years ago.

Two seasons later, having arrived at Hillsborough via a brief stint with Livingston, McGovern enjoyed arguably the most successful period of his career after helping Paul Sturrock’s side reach the Championship.

“I’ve scored against both United and Wednesday before and I’ve never celebrated,” he said. “I’ve got so many friends in Sheffield and I had some great times there. Still do in fact.

“I come back whenever I can to visit and my little lad is obviously there a lot too. In fact, I’ll probably settle in Sheffield when I eventually retire. Either there or back in Glasgow. That’s how much I think of the place.”

Having been reunited with his compatriot at Swindon Town, McGovern was a member of the squad Danny Wilson inherited when first Sturrock and then Maurice Malpas incurred the chairman’s wrath.

The 27 months he spent under the now United manager’s tutelage convinced him anything Carlisle achieve today is likely to be hard-earned.

“Danny is very good and very thorough,” revealed McGovern. “And he’s fair-minded and honest too.

“I can remember him coming to Swindon, sitting me down and telling me he didn’t think I’d be involved much because he wanted a different type of player.

“If it was a spur to try and get me to perform better then it worked because I actually went on to get more action than anyone else in the squad that season.

“If it wasn’t then at least he was honest with me right from the start which is all that you can ask for. And, quite clearly, he was also flexible enough to change his mind.”

“Danny is quite calm and considered,” McGovern continued. “He likes to step back and put his point across like that.

“Don’t get me wrong, he can be prone to throw the odd tea cup. I know because I’ve had to catch a few myself.

“But he gets the players’ respect because he likes them to run the dressing room. Take care of all the fines and stuff like that.

“During training, though, he likes to do a lot of work on the opposition so, by the time the game comes around, you always feel really well-prepared.

“He pays attention to detail, encourages you to pass the ball and is obviously very experienced.”

Unlike Wilson, who today will make his 947th appearance in the dug-out, McGovern was distinctly green when Neil Warnock, the former Northern Ireland international’s predecessor, acquired his services from Parkhead.

“The difference playing for the reserves and then going into an environment where you are actually playing for your living, for your mortgage, was something else,” McGovern said. “It was a steep learning curve but I got so much out of it and I was delighted when the chance to come to United came up.

“I dashed straight down the motorway and the club put me up in the Hilton Hotel. That’s where I stayed and I used to watch Rocky films the night before a match to get myself pumped up.

“Clearly, it was a long, long time ago but I can remember it like yesterday.”

McGovern, aged 32, made the first of his 18 outings for United against Portsmouth in August 2002.

“Celtic taught me so much but with the players they had there then, like Chris Sutton, Didier Agathe and Stiliyan Petrov, it was difficult to get a chance,” he said.

“When I first met the United lads, youngsters like Phil Jagielka and Michael Tonge, they already had tons of games under their belts whereas I had none. So coming to United really accelerated things for me and set me on my way.”