World Cup: From Sheffield to the biggest stage of all

Ron Springett
Ron Springett
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Quick quiz: Who was the last player from a Sheffield club to play in the World Cup finals?

Unfortunately you have to go back 20 years to find the answer, with the Steel City’s two sides seldom represented on the global stage these days.

John Sheridan

John Sheridan

The man was, in fact, Sheffield Wednesday’s John Sheridan, who on July 4, 1994 in the USA, ran out for the Republic of Ireland in what was to be their final game in the competition, losing 2-0 to a Dennis Bergkamp-inspired Holland in the round of 16.

Of course, by that stage Jack Charlton’s men had already had their moment in the energy-sapping sun of the States.

On June 18 in the Giants Stadium, the Republic registered one of the all-time greatest shocks of the World Cup, when Ray Houghton’s stunning goal secured a famous 1-0 win over Italy, one of the favourites for the competition and indeed, the team that would go on to the final, only to lose to Brazil on penalties.

Sheridan almost wrote himself into Irish folklore when he thundered a vicious strike off the crossbar with 15 minutes remaining, but that mattered little in the end as the party kicked off in New Jersey.

Alan Kelly. Sheffield United Goalkeeper.

Alan Kelly. Sheffield United Goalkeeper.

The Owls midfielder wasn’t the only Sheffield representative though, as sitting on the bench for the Irish that day and for all of their games in USA 94 was Alan Kelly.

The United goalkeeper was understudy to legendary stopper Pat Bonner in the tournament but although he didn’t play, the then 25 year old was in awe of what was going on around him.

Just a few years before that, Kelly had been playing in what was then the Fourth Division, for Preston, before gaining a move to United in 1992.

Before long he had won his first international cap and began vying for the number one jersey. That would prove a difficult task, trying to dislodge the well-established Celtic keeper Bonner, a hero of the Republic’s maiden World Cup campaign in Italia 90.

Republic of Ireland goalkeeper Alan Kelly

Republic of Ireland goalkeeper Alan Kelly

Nevertheless, though Kelly would have a watching brief for the tournament, it still stands as one of the highlights of his career.

“It was an incredible experience,” he said. “Football has obviously always been a global game, but I felt that it was really just starting to get huge at that time.

“It was in America and they were really going for it and that was the start of what they have built now in the MLS.

“For me personally, yes I did think I would find it hard to get playing because ‘Packie’ (Bonner) was established as first choice, but to be there was amazing.

Roland Nilsson-Shefield Wednesday.

Roland Nilsson-Shefield Wednesday.

“We had a terrific squad, loads of experience and loads of major honours in it, but as a small nation there still wasn’t a lot expected of us.

“Then of course we went and beat Italy, which was phenomenal for us because everyone expected them to beat us easily.”

Kelly has watched with interest how England’s players have been preparing for the conditions they will face when in Brazil and 20 years on, it’s a world away from how the Irish boys got ready.

“The heat then is something that will be similar to what England will be up against,” he said.

“We had our preparation in Orlando to get used to the heat and it was almost unbearable.

“I had to laugh though when I saw the England players wearing these special vests to make them warmer while they were in Portugal because it wasn’t as hot as what they will experience.

Jostein Flo

Jostein Flo

“When we on our build up, Jack (Charlton) made us wear woolly jumpers to get used to the heat and wouldn’t let us drink during training.

“We didn’t have nutritionists in those days, there were no shakes or anything like that, just water at the end.

“I’ve heard it said that the England players were losing 2-3kgs in the training, well Packie and I were losing at least 5-7 every session.

“I sometimes wonder how well we would have done had we been equipped the same way as players are these days.”

Having been a part of the squad and stayed on the bench throughout, it would be easy to think of what might have been, but Kelly doesn’t look at it that way.

“I was still a relatively young player, and of course it would have been nice to have been involved in some of the games or even one, but that’s football.

“Jack had to pick a team and all I could do was make sure Packie was ready for each game. There was no goalkeeper coach at the time so we worked each other.”

While the Irish will rightly remember USA ‘94 for Houghton’s exquisite goal, for many others, the sight of John Aldridge and Jack Charlton literally losing their cool on the touchline with a Fifa official as the striker was delayed comimg off the bench in the game against Mexico by a bumbling piece of Fifa beaureucracy, is what stands out.

With cameras on top of the action off the pitch, a global audience of millions were greeted with a Scouse volley of four-letter words, aimed at the official who wouldn’t let him on.

“I was about 10ft from it,” recalls Kelly. “We had never seen ‘Aldo’ like that before. He was always the one cracking jokes and having a laugh and here he was losing it on the touchline and in front of the cameras. It was incredible really.

“In the end ‘Aldo’ got on the pitch, but Jack kept arguing and he was fined by FIFA. I think he was fined 15,000 dollars and the Irish public back home ended up raising 150,000 to cover the fine.”

Another major difference that the modern era of football has in comparison to Kelly’s experience is security and the link between fans and players.

Yesterday England arrived in Brazil to the sight of hundreds of armed guards. They will be followed everywhere by frankly frightening Brazilian security, which is a far cry from 20 years ago.

“I think we were probably the bridge between the old days and the modern era,” admits Kelly. “Football was beginning to change, footballers were becoming global superstars but we hadn’t reached that point where you lose touch with the fans.

“We would regularly walk around the foyer and there would be fans there, standing talking with players or coaches, that’s just the way it was.

“After we beat Italy, the hotel was packed but the players were standing and chatting...fans were there just having a normal conversation, asking Ray (Houghton) or ‘Packie’ about the game.

“We always had that affinity with the Irish supporters anyway, but that side of things has changed a lot since then.”

That tournament in the US actually featured the most Sheffield-based players of any World Cup.

As well as Sheridan and Kelly for the Republic, United pair Roger Nilsen and Jostein Flo were in the Norway squad,

In fact the Scandinavians were in the same group, with a Steel City battle going on between Sheridan and Flo in the final game, which would finish in a scoreless draw.

Flo played every minute of every game for Norway, however, the forward failed to score and that ultimately proved to be their undoing - with Italy, the Republic of Ireland, Mexico and Norway all locked on four points each, Flo and his team mates failed to progress, due to their inferior goal record.

Nilsen, though, like Kelly watched the tournament from the sidelines, failing to get any game time. Also that year, Roland Nilsson was in the Sweden squad, however he had just left Wednesday after a five-year spell at Hillsborough and had returned home to Helsingborg

But like Sheridan, Nilsson, was an Owl when he represented his country during Italia 90, four years previous.

The defender was ever-present in a nightmare tournament for the Swedes in Italy, where they lost all three of their games 2-1 - against Brazil, Scotland and Costa Rica. Future Sheffeld United player Stuart McCall scored for the Scots in their game; his only international goal.

Sheridan meanwhile, played just once that year, coming off the bench and replacing Aldridge in the quarter final defeat to the home nation in Rome.

In 1986, just one player made the trip from Sheffield to Mexico. Nigel Worthington, the Sheffield Wednesday left back (he played in midfield for his country at the time), had been an integral part of Billy Bingham’s Northern Ireland squad, two years after making his debut which came following a move to Hillsborough from Notts County.

The Ballymena man played in the 1-1 draw with Algeria, but was brought off and replaced by Billy Hamilton in the defeat to Spain in their next game. Worthington then missed the final match against Brazil, which Northern Ireland lost 3-0..

Going back to the start, the very first players from Sheffield to feature in a World Cup squad were Ted Burgin, the United goalkeeper, and Wednesday midfielder Albert Quixall, in 1954 in Switzerland.

Neither, however, featured in the tournament which saw England knocked out at the quarter-final stage after a 4-2 defeat to Uruguay.

After that, Alan Hodgkinson, another Blades goalkeeper, was in the initial squad in Sweden in 1958, but again, he played no part.

In Chile, four years later we finally saw our first Sheffield-based player take part in the World Cup finals. Sheffield Wednesday keeper Ron Springett played all four games in the competition, with England losing to Hungary in their opening encounter, before beating Argentina 3-1 and drawing 0-0 with Bulgaria to book their place in the last eight.

From there Walter Winterbottom’s side would lose to eventual champions Brazil, 3-1.

Also in the squad in Chile were Peter Swan and Alan Hodgkinson, but neither played a part.Back home in 1966, only Springett made the squad, but he was now playing second fiddle to Sheffield-born Gordon Banks, then of Leicester.

SO CLOSE

There could have been more players from the Steel City represented throughout the years, but these, having been named in provisional squads, failed to make the final cut:

1950: Redfern Froggatt, Sheffield Wednesday

1954: Jackie Sewell, Sheffield Wednesday

1958: Tony Kay, Sheffield Wednesday

Alan Finney, Sheffield Wednesday

1986: Martin Hodge, Sheffield Wednesday

1998: Andy Hinchcliffe, Sheffield Wednesday

Nigel Worthington.

Nigel Worthington.

Alan Hodgkinson

Alan Hodgkinson

Peter Swan and Ron Springett

Peter Swan and Ron Springett