Retro: Sheffield United’s modest ‘quiet man’ made a big mark

John Harris with Billy Bremner while working for Sheffield Wednesday - 1982
John Harris with Billy Bremner while working for Sheffield Wednesday - 1982
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John Harris would not approve of this article. The former Sheffield United manager refused to bask in the limelight and maintained that headlines and personal glory were ‘not his cup of tea.’

He may have been modest, but Harris’s achievements with the Blades are more than worth placing in the Retro spotlight.

Born in Glasgow on June 30, 1917, Harris was the son of Partick Thistle striker Neil Harris, who later went on to play for Newcastle United and scored one of the goals that led the team to victory in the 1924 FA Cup final.

Harris followed his father into football and was given his break at Swansea Town (later City). Neil Harris signed his son after becoming manager of the Swans in 1934. John played as an inside forward initially, making his league debut against Bradford Park Avenue in this role during April 1935.

During 1939 Harris made two transfers. The first was to Spurs, then to Wolverhampton Wanderers. Few appearances were made for the latter and the majority of the war years were spent on loan at Southampton, then Chelsea, moving position to centre half.

Harris signed permanently for the Blues in 1945 and went on to captain the club, making 326 league appearances.

During his time there, Harris won the southern section of the wartime FA Cup and the Division One title for the 1954-1955 season.

In April 1956 Chester City appointed Harris as player-manager but he soon hung up his boots to focus on managerial matters. T

he first half of the 1958-1959 campaign went well enough for Harris to find himself in contention for the Sheffield United managerial position when it became available in December 1958 following the resignation of Joe Mercer.

However, when his appointment was announced in the Sheffield Telegraph of March 14, 1959, surprise was registered.

The expectation was that Archie Clark, former Gillingham boss and caretaker manager since Mercer’s departure, would be given the job full-time.

The other man on the three-candidate shortlist was Sheffield and Hallamshire County FA secretary Ernest Kangley.

Harris commented after his appointment: “Chester has provided a first-rate grounding. In three years I have learned much. Material success has escaped the club but I feel we have done well”

He added: “When I finished as a Chelsea top-liner to go on for management I set myself a target. It was to be in charge of a big First Division club.

“Now I feel I am nearing that aim, for from what I know of Sheffield United they are ready and due for a return to the top.’

The Blades performed well in their first season under Harris, finishing in fourth place in Division Two and only three points short of the previous season’s points tally and the third place berth.

United were unbeaten at home against the top three sides – Aston Villa, Cardiff City and Liverpool – while champions Aston Villa were beaten 3-1 at Villa Park.

In the following season, Harris guided the Blades back to Division One with a second place finish, only one point behind Alf Ramsey’s Ipswich Town side. United also reached the semi-final of the F.A. Cup, losing to Leicester City in a second replay.

The 1961-1962 campaign proved to be the highlight of the seven seasons spent in Division One as the team ended the season in fifth position, a place above Sheffield Wednesday, who were also beaten home and away. Home wins against champions Ipswich Town and second place Burnley were also recorded. However, the latter knocked the Blades out of the FA Cup in the sixth round.

Club finances were closely monitored during his tenure, meaning Harris had to be smart in his transfer dealings.

He was also often required to sell an important player before buying, as was the case with Mick Jones in 1967 when he was sold by the club to Leeds United.

Harris put his faith in young footballers and local talent. Players such as Len Badger, Alan Woodward, Frank Barlow, Geoff Salmons, John Flynn and Alan Birchenall established themselves, while Tony Currie was also starting his career when he was signed from Watford in 1968.

Experienced players like Gil Reece, Trevor Hockey and Bill Dearden were also brought in.

United were relegated to Division Two at the end of the 1967-1968 season and Harris took the general manager position within the club, allowing Arthur Rowley to take the manager’s role.

Despite a ninth place finish, Rowley left in 1969 and Harris again led the team. He moved the team up to sixth before guiding the Blades back to Division One in the 1970-1971 season as runner-up to Leicester City.

United hit the ground running in their first season back in Division One, winning eight of the first 10 games.

This included triumphs over Leeds, Arsenal, Everton and Chelsea, but George Best was on hand to guide Manchester United to victory and end the winning run.

A disappointing second half of the season followed and Sheffield United finished in ninth position.

The team did not fare any better in the 1972-1973 term, coming 14th, and by Christmas 1973 Harris had resigned, becoming senior executive with the club. He was succeeded as manager by Ken Furphy.

Harris left Bramall Lane by mutual consent in August 1977 and joined city rivals Sheffield Wednesday as chief scout, serving under managers Len Ashurst, Jack Charlton and Howard Wilkinson.

‘The quiet man of football,’ or ‘Gentleman John’ as he was known in football circles, died on July 24, 1988 after a long illness.