Leeds United's 100 Greatest Players #38: John 'The Messiah' Sheridan
The player who summed up a generation: After the ‘Glory Years’ the ‘Wilderness Years’. A time to re-address our standards and tolerate the mediocre, to accept we had lost what was once so magical; a time of acute financial thrift, empty terraces, barbed wire, cold winds, crumbling concrete, brutal policing and repellent hostility. Amongst that, rising from the wreckage of the stark reality, a truculent antidote to the forgettable functionality of those around him, stood John Sheridan.
He sounds like the Messiah? He was more than that. Sheridan offered hope, he gave us a reason to believe. He took our hand and showed us what was possible. We had forgotten what alluring splendour and stimulating intoxication football could provide, and it would be some time before it would illuminate us again, but Sheridan had a vision and a will to rise above the conventional and be exceptional. He reminded us what Leeds United are, he maintained that spirit throughout the dark tunnel of the 1980s, when all aspiration was gone, and he lead us out the other side.
David Batty, recalling his apprentice days, on John Sheridan “Often, the first thing you would do upon arriving at the ground would be to leg it straight back outside to the little café across the road with an order for bacon & egg and sausage sandwiches for our seniors. We were simply lackeys. I didn’t mind, it was an honour to fetch that sublime midfielder and playmaker John Sheridan a bacon butty!”
In essence, a great player then? And the rest; an inspiration to his team mates and the fans, and as big an individual influence on the Leeds United team as I have ever known. Everything went through Sheridan, he was at the centre of anything positive that happened on the field. Whilst he was ably assisted by the likes of Sellars, Stiles, Ritchie, Aizlewood, Snodin and latterly Batty, Sheridan shone like a beacon in a white shirt. He had the poise and skill to put his foot on the ball, and always had time and space, he could look up and see a pass when all around him were running breathlessly and hacking at the ball like a frustrated golfer. Sheridan would dictate play with a nonchalant cool, he was a showman, prompting and attacking with a range of long or short passes. But it wasn’t all just delicate furnishing, Sheridan knew that Leeds were in a hole and what was required. As if to re-focus on the reality, and to remind us that he was as ‘Leeds’ as anybody, Sheridan mixed the aesthetically-pleasing ball-play with a caustic aggressive streak that curried favour with the fans as much as his incisive passing and match-winning goals.
He nearly ended up on the scrapheap didn’t he? Sheridan was discarded as a youngster by his hometown club Manchester City, and signed professional forms with Leeds in March 1982. Within six months, Sheridan made his debut under Eddie Gray, amongst a collection of other fresh-faced youngsters, and despite suffering a broken leg in October 1983 against Barnsley, he prospered. Whilst the Leeds board were accepting of the financial reality and cut their cloth accordingly, they retained a perhaps unrealistic ambition, and Eddie Gray’s encouraging progress was abruptly halted when he was sacked and replaced by Billy Bremner in October 1985. Bremner trusted only in experience and felt Leeds’ plight was too perilous to rely on youth and sold a number of young players, but he saw something special in Sheridan and made him the lynchpin of his side.
So to 1986/87: The zenith of Sheridan’s Leeds career, and certainly the point at which he was most valuable to the team. He had started the season in a formidable tandem with Ian Snodin, but the Leeds board couldn’t resist the overtures from Merseyside and Snodin reluctantly transferred to Everton in January 1987. Leeds’ league form was up and down amidst a barnstorming run to the FA Cup Semi-Finals as Bremner’s team re-ignited Leeds’ dormant fan-base, but by the season’s end Leeds reached the very first Play-Off Final, losing tragically to Charlton. However, the season is best remembered for Sheridan’s omni-present contribution. Whilst he had always been a dead-ball specialist, responsible for all corners, free-kicks and penalties, in 1986/87 Sheridan was the fulcrum of literally everything in a nine-month exhibition in the art of taking a game, a team and a season by the scruff of the neck.
He scored his most fondly remembered goals in that season too: He scored 16 goals from midfield in the season and whilst his Leeds career was littered with great strikes, that period in particular was special. At home against Derby, a free-kick was rolled back for him to chip the ball up on his toe and with the same foot, and in the same movement, volley it into the roof of the net at the South Stand end. A run and dipping shot at the Kop end did for Brighton in December, and another direct free-kick from 30 yards contributed to a 4-0 home win over Birmingham. His best remembered goal, however, came in that shattering defeat to Charlton. With the game locked at 0-0 Sheridan stood over a free-kick in extra-time like a conductor. He walked forward pointing to the wall as if asking the ref to move it back, then he just casually walked another two steps and with virtually no back-lift chipped the ball exquisitely into the top corner. In typical Leeds and Sheridan fashion, we had seen the Promised Land, but it ultimately counted for nothing.
How did it end for him then? Sheridan was instrumental in bedding David Batty into the first team, but Bremner ultimately couldn’t deliver. Whilst Sheridan remained loyal to the club, was hugely popular and rarely out of the side, Howard Wilkinson regarded him as part of the ‘old guard’ and after a fall-out, sold him to Nottingham Forest for £650,000 in August 1989. Sheridan would later admit to regret not having played in the top division with Leeds, but his role in steering the club through a precarious period was absolutely pivotal to its long term health.
What if he had never signed for Leeds? The ‘Sheridan Dictates’ generation of Leeds fans would have lost a hero and role model, and goodness only knows what would have happened to the club.
In a nutshell: There is a God.
Date of birth: 01/10/64
Signed from: Apprentice
Leeds United Debut: Middlesbrough (H) 20/11/82
Left Leeds for: Nottingham Forest
Leeds United appearances and goals
Season Apps Goals
1982-83 29 3
1983-84 11 1
1984-85 46 6
1985-86 37 (1) 4
1986-87 53 16
1987-88 42 (2) 14
1988-89 44 (2) 8
TOTAL 262 (5) 52
*Substitute appearances in brackets
Honours with Leeds United
1986-87 Named in the Second Division Team of the Year
1986-87 Named Leeds United Player of the Year
1987-88 Named in the Second Division Team of the Year
1988-89 Named in the Second Division Team of the Year
Republic of Ireland Caps 34
Republic of Ireland Goals 5
Strange but true
• With Ian Snodin out, Billy Bremner, in only his third game in charge of Leeds United, turned to Sheridan to captain the side in the home game versus Portsmouth on November 2nd 1985.
• John’s brother Darren had a brief spell on the Whites books as a Junior in 1984, but he never made the grade at Elland Road.