Kevin Sheedy: Two Fingers, One Foot, and a Flirt With Paradise
Most of the Kop-faithful could be forgiven for not remembering that Kevin Sheedy was ever more than a Merseyside blue. Having made only 3 senior appearances in 4 years for Liverpool in an era when they bragged about having potentially the best midfield in Europe, Sheedy was a backup - at times, to a backup. However, the Kop still plays a strangely central role throughout Sheedy’s career. First, there was his Liverpool debut: from 25 yards, Kop-end, he rattled the post and bar with a screamer. “What might have been had that gone in?” he often ponders. At 22, that’s the kind of thing that earns you the badge of boy-wonder. Literally, centimeters.
Another such Kop-incident ironically came in an Irish U-18 game against England, at Anfield, where a bad tackle led to him “doing his ankle”, right in front of the famous stand. And adding further irony, it was that injury, without which, Ronnie Whelan may never have got his chance at Liverpool either. Whelan, also a frustrated figure at Liverpool at the time, fought it out with Sheedy for a place that Ray Kennedy owned, and had no intention of giving up. It just so happens that this particular Sheedy injury, also coincided with one of Kennedy’s - very rare - ones. And, with that, Whelan strutted in and never looked back.
And finally, whilst at Everton, Sheedy’s infamous/famous two-fingered salute to the Kop after thunder-bolting a phenomenal free kick into the roof of their net at the ‘86/’87 Merseyside Derby. For such a normally reserved and humble enough guy one asks why he did it? Not even Sheedy knows himself: “It was a spur of the moment reaction. To this day, I still don’t know what made me do it”. And having been the first player in 20 years to cross the Merseyside divide, from red to blue, if he wasn’t already on thin ice with the Liverpool fans, he certainly was now.
"Anything, just to play"
Sheedy was born in Builth Wells, Wales. The son of an Ennis football-man, who also dabbled with GAA. They lived in, and owned, a pub in the Welsh countryside. This is where Sheedy bred what would soon become a lethal left peg. Day and night, punting the ball off its numerous walls – miraculously, only breaking one window in that time (accuracy not many kids could brag). Sheedy was a self-taught, street footballer – or at least as much street as the Welsh countryside would allow for.
His first dabble in the team-game came in a local six-a-side team, not much older than 10, where he agreed with the older kids to be goalie - “anything, just to be able to play” was his approach. And it was this same cold desire that left so many people baffled when years later, just weeks after witnessing Liverpool win the European Cup, he initially turned down a move to join them – telling Hereford United Chairman, Peter Hill, that he “didn’t want to sign for them as they had the best midfield in Europe” – namely, Graeme Souness, Terry McDermott, Jimmy Case and Ray Kennedy. It’s hard to put that sort of mentality into perspective in today’s world, but perhaps it’s like Seani Maguire turning down a move to Real Madrid!
Sheedy was really in it for the love of playing. His character is but a fossil in todays game.
Ultimately, Hereford desperately needed the cash though, and Peter Hill pleaded with Sheedy to agree to joining the European Champions. Sheedy felt he owed it to the club who had nurtured him as a boy, and he eventually agreed to the £100,000 transfer.
In many ways, Sheedy’s hesitancies in joining Liverpool played out exactly as he’d thought. He barely played, and spent the bones of his 4-year deal winning reserve-team ‘titles’. He cut a frustrated figure, and with that, his fitness suffered. One such injury saw him suffer from back pain for 5 months, which the medical team (if that’s what they were called back then) struggled to diagnose – and as with most undiagnosed issues back then, Sheedy was categorised as ‘mentally weak’ by the Anfield hierarchy. A label he feels he never shook off at Anfield, thereafter.
Ironically, mental strength is another recurring theme with Sheedy. A subject extremely close to his heart. For a guy who has battled, and overcame cancer, alone, he points to his inner toughness being the key attribute that got him through. On the pitch, he also spent much of his career being the chosen penalty taker. Remembering our penalty shoot-out at Italia ‘90 in an interview with Emmet Malone, Sheedy recounts:
“.. as an experienced penalty taker I didn’t want to leave it to the last one in case the other lads didn’t score. I felt that it was important for us to get off to a good start, so as soon as the whistle went I said to the lads, I’ll take the first one..”
No mental strength you say?
Sheedy also cites a tough character being the stand-out trait young players must possess to make the grade in today’s game. Having spent a decade at Everton’s academy (he left last year), and bringing through the likes of Ross Barkley and, more recently, Tom Davies, Sheedy says “the players that don’t have that mental strength can be really talented, but can’t make it because they can’t handle that side of the game.”
So, whilst it’s reasonable to argue that Sheedy learnt the importance of mental toughness only after all his setbacks at Liverpool, there’s ample evidence to suggest this man cajones were inate. But, whatever the case, Sheedy’s career took off from the moment he swapped the red for blue, and in doing so (he would argue), “given a chance”. At Everton he won 2 league titles, an FA Cup, a European Cup Winners Cup, 4 Charity Shields, and became one of the most deadliest free-kick and dead-ball specialists in Europe. An accolade best illustrated in a game against Ipswich where he tucked a 20 yard free kick into one corner of the net, only for it to be called back by the referee. He reset the ball, stepped up, and deftly dinked it into the opposite corner - and hence the title of his autobiography: “So Good I Did It Twice”.
“Imagine if Maradona did it..” they say.
Under Eoin Hand, Sheedy made his Irish debut in ’83 against Malta, in a game that still to this day remains our biggest victory: 8 – 0. Sheedy scored the fifth that day, his first of nine goals for Ireland. Sheedy was amongst a long list of players in the 80’s, particularly under Jack Charlton, that were foreign born and eligible to also play through parents or grandparents. However, Sheedy made the call much earlier than most. At 16, when still at Hereford United, he received a letter from the FAI saying he’d been selected in the youth team. From there, he called the Welsh FA to see if he had too made their squad. Sheedy recalls:
“They said they were not in the business of announcing the squad before it was officially done, so I said ‘okay, thanks very much’, I then called the FAI to say I would be delighted to play for Ireland”
“I was always opting for Ireland and it turned out to be the best decision I ever made”
After his first cap, it took some time for Sheedy to find himself a regular in the Irish side – it took a year for his second cap to arrive - and it really wasn’t until qualification for Italia ’90 that he became a key figure in the side. He cites one of the real disappointments of his career not making the team to play England in Euro ’88 – Jack giving Tony Galvin the nod ahead of him – but it’s his position on the bench that day that unearths a story that allows him to look back fondly on the moment:
Playing cards with Tony Cascarino and John Aldridge (“Aldo”) prior to the game, Jack – who Sheedy remembers being “tight… unbelievably tight” – joined in. The game was “Hearts”, and there were a few coppers on the line. As the game develops, Sheedy eventually drops a card down that leaves Jack snookered. Sheedy describes:
“So he (Jack) tells me “pick that up”…. “Pick it up!”…. I’m still fuming that I’ve been left on the bench, and I say “no”… It goes on... And in the end, he’s deadly serious and he says “pick that card up or you don’t sub today!”. I didn’t pick the card up – I’m stubborn as well – and he said “right, you’re not on the bench”. And he’s deadly serious….. Anyways, we get to the game, and I don’t know now whether I’m sub or not, and it was only when the team sheet came in, Mick Byrne came in and said “you’re ok, you’re on the bench””
Just over an hour later, Sheedy found Jack in an even more forgiving mood and he togged off and made his major tournament debut.
"I'd do exactly the same"
Beyond the jokes, Sheedy speaks very highly of Jack. Consistently saying he was ahead of his time, even if it were “a long ball game” that they played. “When you had players of the quality of Denis Irwin, Chris Hughton and Steve Staunton, it was a long ball with accuracy game”. He also gives Jack credit for being the first coach in international football to press teams high up the pitch – and suggests it’s one of the big reasons why teams found it so hard against them “back then, in international football, you just didn’t do that”.
His insight into Jack’s philosophy is possibly most colourful when he talks about our date with destiny against the Italians at the quarter finals of Italia ’90, and how he found himself on the back of an unlikely verbal attack from Charlton after the infamous Schillaci goal:
“Jack’s philosophy was not to put the ball at risk. I got the ball in a good position. Aldo was an experienced striker and I played the ball into his feet but Baresi, the quality defender he was, just put his tow between Aldo’s legs and nicked the ball. It went to Donadoni, who ran half the length of the pitch then shot, and the ball broke to the last person you’d want it to break to, Schillaci. The rest is history.
“Jack was complaining to me that he thought I should have put the ball in behind, but in my view, that would have been just giving it straight back to them. Certainly, if I was in that position again I’d do exactly the same because I was a footballer that wanted to keep the ball. I’d do exactly the same ball and hope that John would do a little bit better in the situation.”
Cutting of Jack. Cutting of Aldo. And perhaps further insight into the street-footballing and stubborn man, he, often-time, describes.
The Promised Land
His goal against England – the cleanest strike of a ball you’ll ever see - in the group stages of Italia ’90 was the first ever scored by an Irishman at a World Cup (take note table quiz aficionados). Sheedy will forever recall it “the greatest goal I ever scored” - not having a moment to gather his emotions before Steve Staunton had him in a stranglehold-cum-headlock. That was the goal that crystalised the first of three draws that qualified us for the knock-out phases, and in turn, that penalty shoot-out against the Romanians and the moment he took responsibility for his team, and the Nations dreams.
Of all the quotes and stories Sheedy tells, though, the one that hits me the most is how Jack addressed them, right after the 1-0 loss to the Italians:
“You’ll never how close you’ve come to getting to a World Cup Final”
Jack was so convinced this Irish side had it in them to beat Maradona and his “aging Argentinian side” in the semi’s. Sadly, he, nor we, will ever know. But it still remains beautiful to dream.
Today, Kevin Sheedy plies his coaching trade in Saudi Arabia, where he manages the youths at Al-Shabab. They gave him an “irresistible offer” to leave Everton, something he claims happened very amicably - although many media reports in Merseyside suggested otherwise. Regardless, Sheedy finds plenty of cause for positivity in his new country, and it fills an ambition he had “to play abroad” that never materialised in his playing days.
Just like Paul McGrath, “the best defender” he’s ever seen, his knees are also ruined, and he’s had replacements in both. Thankfully, he’s had a full recovery from his bowel cancer – the same disease that hit both his parents, and ultimately took the life of his mother – and he remains an active ambassador with Beating Bowel Cancer.
"And Sheedy Shoots"
Say the name Kevin Sheedy, and what jumps to mind? Perhaps it's George Hamilton’s “and a nation holds it breath”, that Adidas Opel Jersey, Bill O’Herlihy’s “Ciao Roma” with the hand-clapping hat, the Walkinstown Roundabout celebrations, the “put em under pressure” song? Or maybe it’s the innocence of having zero expectation, with a nation-wide buy-in on what the simple power of ‘hope’ can deliver.
Sure, these aren’t all solely attributable to Kevin Sheedy alone. But he certainly was one of the crowned kings that helped deliver them. And if in his latest Kingdom they don’t have a retro king of football amongst their ranks;
They certainly do now.