Sheffield United: Rangers and Scotland legends Stuart McCall reveals why he feared he'd made a mistake by joining The Blades
The ink had yet to dry on his Sheffield United contract. But as he watched two of his new team mates prove they really did like to be by the seaside, Stuart McCall was already convinced he had made a big mistake.
Around three hours later, after watching him labour through what should have been a routine pre-season friendly, Neil Warnock and Kevin Blackwell were of the same opinion.
“I’d just come in, we had a warm-up against Scarborough and earlier that morning, I found myself standing there watching Rob Kozluk drive around on some go-karts and Michael Brown eating candyfloss,” McCall remembers, describing his unusual introduction to life at Bramall Lane. “I was thinking ‘I’ve made the biggest mistake of my life here. I’m 38 and what am I doing?’ I played an absolute stinker too and was convinced my legs had gone. It was only a couple of months on, when I’d really got settled in, that I discovered Neil and Blacky were having exactly the same conversation too.”
A five time title winner with Glaswegian giants Rangers and capped 40 times by his adopted Scotland, McCall might have been 38 when he pitched up at Bramall Lane. But as his reaction to United’s warm-up for their match on Yorkshire’s picturesque east coast proved, he was still used to adhering to the highest possible standards. What McCall didn’t know though, as he spent the two hour drive home wondering how he could extricate himself from the move, was that the match would mark the start of a beautiful relationship. One which would see him play 89 competitive games for the club before becoming its assistant manager. It was a role he reprised last week when, following Slavisa Jokanovic’s departure after only five months in charge, Paul Heckingbottom invited him to leave Blackpool and join his backroom staff.
“I didn’t expect the call. It came out of the blue. Yes, he’d asked me a while earlier if I’d ever be interested in working with him. But I didn’t expect that to happen so soon.”
Saturday’s visit to Cardiff City, Heckingbottom’s second match in permanent charge, will be a poignant occasion for McCall and everyone else who followed United during the Warnock era. The Welsh capital has staged some of the most important fixtures in their recent history. When the team coach snakes through its streets on the way to the ground, McCall will peer through the window and stare at the Principality Stadium - which sits like a giant UFO on the eastern bank of the River Taff - and remember the pain of defeat in the 2003 play-off final. Five minutesor so later, as the driver prepares to turn into City’s new’ish ground, Heckingbottom’s squad will pass the site of their old home Ninian Park. That was where, three years after losing to Wolverhampton Wanderers in the Championship showpiece, McCall helped Warnock seal a Premier League promotion.
“We had so many great times back then and it’s strange how lots of them took place there, so it’ll be good to go back,” McCall says, casting his mind back to that match against Wolves and refuting the theory that his absence from the starting eleven cost United victory. “We were 3-0 down at half-time, nothing had gone right, and I was having a cup of tea when the gaffer told me I was coming on.
“I’d missed the semi-finals against (Nottingham) Forest through injury and Ranks (Mark Rankine) had played a blinder so he deserved to stay in. I’d had a pain killing injection and I think I had another one to get me through when I knew I was going out there.
“We got a penalty right at the very start of the second-half and we missed it. If that had gone in then, who knows?”
McCall had hung up his boots and joined Warnock’s brains trust when United achieved a much better result against one of Dave Jones’ sides. Having been dragged into a dogfight with Leeds towards the end of the season, they faced City knowing that a win would see them return home with one foot in the top-flight. Twenty-four hours later, when their neighbours could only draw with Reading, it was two; sparking memorable scenes at United’s training complex in Shirecliffe.
“When Danny Webber scored the only goal, we knew we were nearly there but there was still work to do,” McCall continues, picking up the story. “So we all got together and watching the action on television. The place went barmy when Leeds were held. We all had a few shandys. And if you believe that, well, then you’ll believe anything.”
“The group we had back then, it was brilliant looking back,” he adds. “There were some great young players - Phil Jagielka, Michael Tonge and Monty (Nick Montgomery) - and some really good older ones as well. But most of all, we had some brilliant characters. Pagey (Robert Page) had gone, but he’d been a massive part of it when I was still playing and it was the culmination of all of that. And of course there were people like Morgs (Chris Morgan), Shorty (Craig Short) and Neil Shipperley. That was the thing about it - big personalities and characters right through.”
Heckingbottom, McCall and Jack Lester, appointed head of player development as part of the recent reshuffle, are hoping to recreate something similar now after accepting the challenge of helping United shake-off the hangover of last season’s relegation. Beginning life under the new regime with 2-0 victory over Bristol City, they travel south 13th in the table; seven places and four points above their latest opponents.
“When I turned up, people thought I was there to clean Neil’s car,” McCall admits. “But look at what happened. That’s something I’ve been reminding the older lads here now, like Billy (Sharp) and Didzy (David McGoldrick) about every time we have a training session.”