Sheffield United: How Man Utd tried to tap up Tony Currie in the 70s before bizarre Leeds United move
In modern-day football it wouldn’t constitute tapping-up as much as outright harassment, but the story of how Manchester United targeted Sheffield United’s Tony Currie with incessant phone calls in a bid to persuade him to move to Old Trafford shows how different football was in the 1970s.
Currie had signed a seven-year deal at Bramall Lane and wanted to finish his career at the Blades, before relegation in 1975/76 – and the financial burden of the newly-build south stand – saw him depart for Leeds.
Currie discusses the episodes in his newly-released autobiography, Imperfect 10, which The Star is exclusively serialising…
At the end of that second season in the First Division we finished 14th, but – completely unexpectedly – I had been given something to think about. Almost straight after that Manchester United fixture at the end of April, I started getting telephone calls sounding me out about a possible move there.
The basis of what they were saying was that they wanted me to replace Bobby Charlton and in doing so I would secure my financial future. It was the summer of 1973, I was 23 years old and I have to admit that I was honoured – who wouldn’t have been? Half of me thought it would be a great move, but me being me off the field, I just wasn’t confident enough to deal with all that it would entail.
I was basically afraid of change and worried about the fact I might be walking into a Manchester United dressing-room as one of them. It wasn’t that I lacked ambition: it was just my personality. It wasn’t as if I was unhappy at the Lane, either. I adored it there, loved the blokes I played with and we were doing all right.
I had no doubt that I could compete and handle the football side but my response, as soon as they came on the phone, was to get rid of them as soon as possible. I’m sure my nervousness about the situation must have been pretty evident. The Reds had long been the club everyone looked up to and it was still an exciting prospect, but Bobby was going and George Best and
Denis Law had already gone so they were a team undergoing a transition. Linda had been suffering from depression since 1971 and wouldn’t have been excited about the prospect, so there was no pressure from there. But I didn’t tell anybody, apart from her, because the calls would have been interpreted as ‘tapping up.’
What I had not known was that Manchester United had already sounded out Sheffield United about whether or not they would be prepared to sell me. They made probably 10 calls in a couple of weeks, never mentioning figures and just talking in general about finance and the move on a simple level. It didn’t do my state of mind any good. The insecure introvert off the field that I was probably made me different from other players who would just have jumped at the chance. The Reds were relegated a season later.
A year after we nearly qualified for Europe, the Blades suffered the same fate and dropping out of the First Division remains my biggest disappointment in football for a number of reasons.
Jimmy Sirrell spoke to me during our post-season tour in Gibraltar and as conversations go, it was pretty innocuous.
“Oi, TC … when you get back to the ground, go and see John Harris.”
Since relegation was confirmed so early, we’d all had a lot of time to think about the consequences. And although most of them could be predicted, my mind couldn’t find the clarity to address them and face up to what would happen.
I didn’t want to. The thought of perhaps leaving and seeing my friendship group break up scared me. Should I request a move? Being a born worrier like mum dictated that I wouldn’t do that and I wasn’t looking forward to making any decision, particularly because there hadn’t been any inkling about anyone wanting to buy me. Maybe that was because we had lost so many matches and I hadn’t been at my best either?
On the other hand I was in the England squad and wanted to stay in the top-flight, play big games and maintain my profile to be considered for selection. I desperately didn’t want to leave, but felt I had to and in the end I made my mind up without being influenced by anyone else. I didn’t even talk to Ted Hemsley and Len Badger.
I did as I was told by Sirrel, going to see John Harris, and John simply told me to get in his car. We set off, without him ever telling me why or where we were going. There was no conversation about what was to happen and I was certainly too damn scared to ask. Believe me, it dawned on me only when I saw the Elland Road ground come into view.
Harris pulled into the car-park. “Go and talk to Jimmy Armfield,” he said.
Armfield was the Leeds United manager and when I returned to the car a short time afterwards, John asked: “What have you done, son?”
“I’ve signed,” I told him. John’s head dropped forward on to the steering wheel in disappointment. He obviously didn’t want me to go.
There was a lot of talent in the squad, which was very tempting to me, and I did remember the chairman Manny Cussins talking on radio long before I joined, saying he wanted me at Leeds. The only stumbling-blocks I could see were all off the pitch: leaving my mates, moving further away from London and the effect it would have on Sheffield United supporters. In their eyes Leeds were still big rivals and they had never forgiven the club for selling their then-hero Mick Jones to them 10 years previously. It would hurt them massively.
I was on the spot, with my mind racing and unable to handle it all in a detached and professional way. Priorities and emotions all over the place. I didn’t want to leave Sheffield, I was worried about what people might think and I didn’t want to be badly thought of for leaving. That office, alone with someone I had only just met, feeling nervous and under pressure to make a decision, was the last place I wanted to be. But I was there. Gullible. Fretting about going for it, fretting about not going for it.
After I’d returned to the car and told John Harris my decision, the drive back was filled with more silence than chat. The clubs must have already agreed a fee in advance of £245,000, plus tax, but I gauged from John’s reaction that he disagreed with the club’s decision – or at least hoped I would turn the move down.
He had been caring towards me during the years without ever saying much and he had the dignity to wish me luck – which I really appreciated amid the turmoil I was feeling inside. Relegation and debts related to the new stand would be weighing heavily on the board’s mind at that point and presumably selling me must have seemed a good idea in the circumstances.
Imperfect 10, by Tony Currie and Andy Pack, is out now, in all good book shops and online via publishers Vertical Editions at www.verticaleditions.com, RRP £16.99