Joe Shaw: Sheffield United stalwart


Joseph Shaw, footballer and manager: born Murton, Co Durham 23 June 1928; played for Sheffield United 1945-66; managed York City 1967-68, Chesterfield 1973-76; married (two daughters); died Sheffield 18 November 2007.

If an unwary historian, researching the life and times of the footballer Joe Shaw, were to scan the record books, he or she might conclude that the stalwart Sheffield United stopper, whose total of some 700 senior outings for the Blades is a club record, was a giant of a man.

In fairness, it would be an understandable assumption. In the 1950s and early 1960s, when Shaw was the trusty bulwark at the core of the United rearguard, a typical centre-half would be of behemoth proportions, relying mainly on brawn to police the vulnerable area immediately in front of his goal.

But if that same seeker after enlightenment were to look beyond the dry statistics, and chatted instead to one or two of the long-serving Shaw's Bramall Lane comrades, a serious misconception would be avoided. In fact, Joe Shaw stood a mere 5ft 8in in his football socks, no more than average height for any Englishman of his generation and notably diminutive for a professional central defender.

However, in the case of the intelligent, ultra-competitive north-easterner, it didn't matter, at least in terms of the efficiency with which he mopped up attacks for his regular employers. Where it might have made a difference was in the eyes of the widely ridiculed Football Association selection committee, which used to pick England teams in the days before Alf Ramsey rendered that anachronism redundant by insisting that he, as manager, would certainly make up his own mind about who should wear the three lions on their chests.

Perhaps Shaw would have struggled to amass an extensive collective of international caps due to the longevity of Billy Wright, but surely had he been several inches taller he would have escaped the complimentary but unwanted tag of the best uncapped English defender of his day.

An exceptional natural athlete as a boy, the teenaged Shaw played for Durham at county level but did not graduate straight into the professional game from school, instead working as a coalminer and playing his football for fun with Upton Colliery, near Doncaster.

Soon, though, he was spotted by Sheffield United, for whom he played briefly as a 16-year-old in unofficial wartime competition in 1944, then started earning his living with the Blades a year later. He made his senior entrance as an inside-forward at home to Liverpool in August 1948, but switched almost immediately to left-half. However, United were a poor side that term and they were relegated from the top flight as bottom club.

Clearly, though, Shaw was a key buttress on which to build the club's future and in 1949/50 he made the number-six shirt his own, as United finished level on points with their local rivals Sheffield Wednesday, but suffered the excruciating fate of missing out on promotion by 0.008 of a goal, as dictated by the archaic goal-average system.

There followed a mid-table interlude of team reconstruction during which the Blades were described slightingly as "brilliant inside-forward Jimmy Hagan and 10 others", but that did less than justice to Shaw, who had forced himself to the fringe of international recognition and toured Australia with the FA in the summer of 1952.

His first tangible honour arrived at the end of the following season, which United finished as Division Two champions, and he was prominent in their narrow escape from instant demotion from the top tier in 1953/54, but it was in 1954/55 that he reached the turning point of his career.

After crushing defeats in their first two games of the new campaign, the manager Reg Freeman shifted Shaw to centre-half and made him captain, and before long it became clear that the former pitman had found his true niche.

Though he was dwarfed by many of his immediate opponents, Shaw compensated amply by his canny positional sense and shrewd reading of the unfolding action, which enabled him to make timely interceptions, snuffing out attacks before his goal was threatened. Also, he was quick over short distances, and agile enough to recover in a trice if a striker momentarily gave him the slip.

Crucially, too, he was not over-ambitious with his passing, invariably preferring the safe, short option, whereas during his wing-half days he had needed a wider range of distribution, which was not his forte.

As one long-time observer of the Bramall Lane scene put it: "Joe made his new job look as easy as shelling peas. He was brainier than most of the centre-forwards he faced and he outwitted them, made a lot of them look slow and stupid."

In the April of that term Shaw was picked as England's one reserve for the side to face Scotland at Wembley, but when the right-half Len Phillips pulled out with injury, he was replaced not by the Sheffield United man now viewed as a specialist centre-half but by Chelsea's Ken Armstrong. It seemed inconceivable at the time, but that was the nearest Shaw was ever to come to winning a full cap.

After that international setback, there followed a period of uncertainty at club level. Following United's patchy start to 1955/56, the new manager Joe Mercer announced that he wanted a more physical presence at the heart of defence, but his drafting in of big Howard Johnson failed to achieve an improvement and, with Shaw on the sidelines, the Blades were relegated in the spring.

Early in the next campaign Mercer recruited the ageing Malcolm Barrass from Bolton Wanderers and it was only after the newcomer had struggled that the patient Shaw was recalled. Soon he was excelling as never before. Mercer apologised for ever doubting him, and he emerged as the trusty marshal of what became the most settled and revered rearguard in United's history.

To this day, Blades fans of a certain age recite the names lovingly: Alan Hodgkinson in goal, full-backs Cec Coldwell and Graham Shaw (no relation), wing-halves Brian Richardson and Gerry Summers, with Joe Shaw as the calm, unobtrusively competent pivot and organiser-in-chief.

Due to the centre-half's lack of inches, the splendid Hodgkinson covered more ground than most custodians, becoming a "sweeper-keeper" before the phrase was in vogue. The understanding between all members of the unit was marked, a benefit heightened by the circumstance that they were nearly all local lads who enjoyed a close camaraderie both on and off the pitch.

For the next few campaigns, a United side based on this solid foundation remained in the higher reaches of the Second Division, and in 1959 Shaw's immense input was recognised by two appearances for the Football League. However, promotion did not arrive until 1960/61 when the Blades, now bossed by John Harris, also reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup, only losing to Leicester City after three games this was long before the introduction of penalty shoot-outs.

Some outsiders believed they were not equipped for the top flight, but their critics were confounded as they finished fifth among the lite in 1961/62, with their 33-year-old stopper performing majestically.

Thereafter, Shaw remained a bastion of a side invigorated by the introduction of talented youngsters such as Len Badger and Mick Jones, enjoying a second stint as skipper, and scoring an astonishing goal he didn't get many at Highbury in March 1964, when an optimistic punt from his own half caught the wind and sailed into the Arsenal net. It wasn't until February 1966, in his 38th year, that he took a step back, dropping into the reserves, where he helped emerging rookies with characteristic generosity.

Thereafter Shaw, a quiet and unassuming individual, coached briefly at Bramall Lane before sampling management, first with York City, who had to apply for re-election to the Fourth Division following his six months in charge.

Then, after a spell as Fulham's chief scout, he spent three years with Third Division Chesterfield, whom he almost led to promotion in his first term before two seasons of mid-table mediocrity preceded dismissal following a poor start to 1976/77. It seemed an inappropriately anti-climactic way for such a staunch football man to exit the game he had served so nobly.

Ivan Ponting

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