Graham Stuart on Sheffield United, Chelsea, something out of Apocalypse Now and lifting the FA Cup
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More than two decades have passed since the Londoner, still basking in the glory of helping Everton lift the trophy by beating Manchester United at Wembley, first met them during what became a regular midweek pilgrimage to Owlerton Stadium. But Stuart, whose love of speedway used to see him make the journey into enemy territory every Thursday evening, wants Dave Green and his son - “Thomas, I think he was called” - to know he hasn’t forgotten their get-togethers in a shadow of Hillsborough - the home of United's arch-rivals Sheffield Wednesday.
“Definitely, put them in, make sure they get a mention so they know I still remember,” Stuart insists, as we prepare to pick apart his relationship with both the world’s most prestigious domestic knockout tournament and two of his former clubs, ahead of Sunday’s quarter-final at Stamford Bridge. “I think that would be quite nice, wouldn’t it. It was a long time ago, but I used to love catching up with them. I wonder if they still go?”
Stuart is speaking to The Star from his home in the North-West, where he has settled since a career which also saw him represent Charlton Athletic and Norwich City ended 16 years ago. Now best known for his ambassadorial work in the blue half of Liverpool - a role he performs alongside Graeme Sharp and Ian Snodin - the one-time midfielder, who made 69 appearances during his time in South Yorkshire, nevertheless still harbours a great deal of affection for the team he joined almost by accident after leaving Goodison Park.
“I didn’t know anything about Sheffield when I moved,” Stuart says, picking up the story. “Basically, I got told I was going because Everton wanted to bring Carl Tiler and Mitch Ward and United would only do the deal if I was a part of it. Howard Kendall, who was Everton’s manager at the time, knew he needed to shake things up and because of the money situation, he needed me to agree - I could see it in his eyes and so, because of the respect I had for him, I did.
“I knew United were in the division below and I knew they were a brilliantly supported team. So I thought, ‘Why not?’ That’s how it happened.
“It was an exciting time for the club and I knew Dean Saunders was coming because we had the same agent. Unfortunately, although I loved it and we had some top drawer boys, it just never really happened.”
The sight of bad luck and misguided decision-making stifling a squad’s potential has, unfortunately, become all too familiar at Bramall Lane in past seasons. After finishing ninth in the Premier League last term, only five seasons after finding themselves languishing mid-table in League One, injuries, politics and personalities have combined to see United make the journey to London now cut adrift at the bottom of the table, destined for relegation and without the manager, Chris Wilder, who masterminded their rise up the pyramid.
“I really enjoyed being with United but, for some reason, things never worked out how they should for that team,” Stuart remembers. “There was one match, against Sunderland when I realised it wouldn’t. They were flying, they beat us 4-0, and at half-time Brucey (Steve Bruce) made three changes. Petr Katchuro had done his spleen or something and was bringing up blood everywhere. Chaos.
"Then, right at the start of the second-half, my hamstring went. Not a bit, Properly. I couldn’t move, and had to come off. That was it in a nutshell.”
Despite the frustration and sense of unfulfilled promise - “The boardroom then, they nicknamed it Beirut” - Stuart looks back on his time at United with fondness, and a little regret.
“We should have achieved so much more but I’ll always tell people what a super club it is. The same goes for the city, you can be only 20 minutes from the centre and the countryside.
“I moved into Wardy’s old house, opened my curtains and had cows looking at me.
“It was a brilliant club with brilliant people. And not just in the dressing room, all around the place. Everyone would say ‘hello’ and it costs nothing to be nice. It was a family."
Everton, who face Manchester City in the quarter-finals later tomorrow, last won the trophy in 1995; when Paul Rideout scored the only goal of the game after Stuart’s shot had rebounded off the crossbar.
Now 50, his recollections of that day underline the competition’s importance and how, despite entering the contest as underdogs, United should approach their meeting with Thomas Tuchel’s side.
“Everyone had written us off, they had done in the semi-finals too when we got past Spurs despite everyone getting ready for a Tottenham Manchester United final,” Stuart says. “But we knew we could do it. We had each others’ backs and we were ready to show that.
“There were nerves, yes, because I’d been brought up with FA Cup final day being such a special event - all day long coverage on the television. To actually be a part of that, it was brilliant. I should have scored but Paul spared my blushes. But if you ask would I rather have scored or got the medal, well, the medal’s history.”
Despite possessing different personalities, Stuart believes there are similarities between United, Everton and also Chelsea, where he progressed through the youth system after growing-up in Wimbledon - “That’s where my love of speedway comes from.”
“I was so fortunate at all of them to be in such good dressing rooms, surrounded by strong characters and proper people. That’s what makes a football club - people.”