John Sheridan: Doing it his way
John Sheridan's stylish Chesterfield side have turned heads in their march to the League Two title, but the former Ireland star's learning curve has only just begun, he tells Daniel McDonnell
Published 14/05/2011 | 05:00
JOHN SHERIDAN wasn't expecting the photographer to show up. His discomfort is obvious.
"I'm not into all of that," he explains, before politely agreeing to the request. Some subjects enjoy that kind of attention, but Sheridan has little time for those who like to strike the pose. He'd prefer for his image to be crafted by his football teams.
At this moment in time, it's a pretty picture. The snappers were out in force last Saturday as his Chesterfield side were crowned League Two champions, the icing on the cake after promotion was secured with four games to spare.
Around east Derbyshire, the football fraternity have a spring in their step. Sheridan's free-scoring, free-flowing side are the reason. The talented playmaker who was central to Ireland's 1994 World Cup adventure is the latest member of that generation to make his mark in a different sphere. And he's doing it his way.
Think Chesterfield, and you probably think lower leagues. That's where the club has spent its existence. A member of the Football League since 1899, they have never tasted the top flight. Save for a cup run here and there, the Spireites have operated in relative obscurity.
When Sheridan arrived the summer before last, they were pottering around League Two and welcoming opposing teams to Saltergate, the kind of venue that an estate agent would praise for its character rather than its amenities.
But the job had a big selling point and, on this sunny afternoon, we are standing in it. The brand new B2Net Stadium is a £13m all-seater venue with the facilities to match. In every sense, Chesterfield have adopted a new identity.
"It doesn't look as though it's lower league does it?" says Sheridan, surveying his surroundings. "I'm very fortunate. Everything about this club now, it's like it should be in a higher league. And that's how the owners and the people at the club are thinking."
The ambition comes from the top of the dressing-room. Sheridan spent the majority of his career scheming in the upper echelons, but his management education has taken place away from the limelight.
That said, the Mancunian ended up in the headlines for all the wrong reasons before his first managerial job at Oldham was brought to an abrupt halt in March of 2009. Oldham were on course for the play-offs but going through a bad patch when it was reported that Sheridan had got controversial recruit Lee Hughes in a headlock after a team bonding session at the dogs developed into a session of a different kind.
Hughes, the former West Brom striker who was jailed for killing another motorist, had the kind of profile which gave the story a selling point.
One thrashing to MK Dons later, Sheridan was sacked and, to this day, he believes that the social incident was used as an excuse -- a particular annoyance given that he completely disputes the allegations.
He is asked if he was worried that it might have left a cloud over his name in the eyes of potential employers.
"It didn't," he replies. "Because I didn't do anything. Lee Hughes was the lad who was supposedly involved but he didn't do anything. He was just a target because of his name.
"I've never really said anything about it. I could come out and say what happened, because myself and Lee didn't actually do a thing. It was nothing to do with us.
"My conscience is totally clear. I left them when we were fifth in the league. I'm happy with the job I did there. The main thing is that I know what happened, and the people that matter know. I felt I was a scapegoat but, listen, I still talk to everyone at Oldham. I've good friends there."
His next chairman didn't need to do much research on Sheridan's background. The happiest days of his playing career were at Sheffield Wednesday, and Steel City businessman Dave Allen -- who spent a period running the show with the Owls -- ploughed his money into Chesterfield and went after the man he wanted.
It has worked spectacularly. Crowds have trebled, Sheridan has cobbled together a bunch of pros with varying backgrounds and favoured an expansive style of play in keeping with his playing reputation as a stylish footballer with a crowd-pleasing touch.
"We're not all stupid and naive," he stresses. "Ultimately, it's about winning. But I do like us to try and be positive and play in the so-called right way.
"The players go out with the mindset that we will hopefully score more than the opposition. I feel that's the best way for us to play, because we have attack-minded players in the side. I think we've four players in double figures (of goals this season) now. We can score from different areas. We're entertaining and we're winning."
Success has mellowed his touchline demeanour. One of his former players, the storied Carrickmacross-born character that is Barry Conlon, recalls a brief stint at Chesterfield last year with a manager who was great to work with on Monday to Friday but a different animal on Saturday if things weren't going well.
"I think I've calmed down a lot," adds Sheridan. "I was lucky to play for a long time and when you come straight into management, you get caught up in things a bit when you're on the sideline. And at Oldham, when I lost games, I was letting it get it to me.
"I feel I did a good job but you do things and then when you sit back later, you realise that you've made one or two rash decisions."
Studying other managers is part of the learning process. Not their approach to games, more so the approach to the fanfare around it. When Sheridan was away from the game, he was interested to see how certain managers fronted up after defeats, how they handled the questions and presented a suitable response.
His old Irish skipper Mick McCarthy is someone that stood out.
"I like Mick when he talks. He was always someone I respected anyway, but now, when he speaks, I take on board what he's saying.
"Even though I don't speak to him too often, I wouldn't ever be frightened to pick up the phone and ask for advice off him. I just like watching from afar how he goes about things. Paul Jewell is another as well. Iain Dowie is someone who I think is a very good coach.
"I'm lucky to have played with some good people who've gone into management.
"I listen to most Premier League managers and Championship managers and if you want to learn, you've got to listen and not always think you're right because we all make mistakes -- not that we own up to them -- but we make mistakes and sometimes you can watch different personnel and take note."
Sheridan rarely visits Ireland these days. Work doesn't allow him. "Unfortunately, the only time I usually do go is for funerals and you're usually there for three or four days, aren't you?" he says, with a knowing smile.
The memories of the glory days are fresh. Proudly, he recounts his part in the famous victory over Italy at the Giants Stadium in USA 94. Now and again, he bumps into Jack Charlton on the dinner function circuit, and that brings it all back. He is aware of Charlton's pride in his former players who have graduated to the dugout.
"The thing with Jack," he says, "is that he was well known for getting names wrong, but he was very knowledgeable. He always knew plenty about the opposition and I don't think he ever got credit for that.
"One or two had doubts about how we played, but we were very effective."
Considering that Sheridan's preferred style would appeal more to the purist, it seems like a stretch to suggest that Charlton could be a managerial influence.
Nevertheless, in one sense, there is commonality: a certainty about what they want from their team and the conviction to enforce it, even if the orders are contrasting.
"I wouldn't say I model myself on Jack," he continues. "But he was very successful in what he did. You knew what your job in hand was. He felt he did what was best with the players he had. And you can't argue with a manager when he does that. Now, I play the way I want to play because it's the way I feel suits my players best.
"That's the great thing about management. Everyone is different. They have their own ideas about players. It's all about having an opinion."
The aim is to reach the top, so he is grounded about the achievements of the past nine months. It is no time for resting on laurels. In his mind, the road is only just beginning.
"I'm only 46," he stresses. "I'm still very young in management, and I've got to learn my trade. I'm one of them people who realises that.
"I definitely don't think I've done this, that or the other. I've done nothing so far. All I want to do is get the team and myself as far as possible, and to manage as high as possible."
Right now, that's the only focus he is interested in.