Football: New horizons for Hutchison

Simon Turnbull hears that Sheffield has been the making of a troubled striker
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Don Hutchison has spent his football life following in the studmarks of Paul Gascoigne. At 15 he followed the podgy prodigy as the bright new thing in the Redheugh Boys' Club team in Gateshead. At 19 he followed Gascoigne into the then First Division, after crossing his path in Hartlepool United's League Cup meeting with Tottenham. And at 22 he followed the clowning prince on to the front pages of the tabloids. Now, it seems, the boots could be on the other feet.

At 25 Hutchison is Sheffield United's record signing. But that is likely to change if the Blades prove a cut above the rest in the First Division play-offs. Gascoigne's cutting edge may have been blunted in his two years north of Hadrian's Wall but Howard Kendall sees him as the ideal swashbuckler to lead his team into battle next season - assuming, of course, they can fight their way through to the Premiership.

"I know him a little bit but I really don't know if it's paper talk," Hutchison said. "But it would be unbelievable if he did come here. We're all geared up to go into the Premiership. We've got the stadium and the support. We're on the stock market. And we've got Premiership players. We've got so much going for us."

It has taken nigh on three years for Hutchison to get his career going in a forward direction again after his laddish exuberance was exposed, for the second time, on the front page of a tabloid. "Kop My Tackle!" was the headline which accompanied revealing snaps taken on an end-of- season holiday in Cyprus with Jamie Redknapp and Michael Thomas. The Geordie midfielder certainly copped it from Roy Evans. He was placed on the transfer list, dropped from Liverpool's pre-season tour of Germany and fined two weeks' wages.

His subsequent pounds 1.5m move to West Ham United was only a limited success. More often than not pressed into attacking service by Harry Redknapp, he never reproduced the scheming guile and goalscoring touch he displayed alongside Redknapp-the-younger in Liverpool's midfield department in the autumn of 1992. Now, 16 months after moving to Bramall Lane for pounds 1.2m, another chance on the big stage is beckoning Hutchison. Carl Tiler's winner against Stoke City in front of a 25,596 home crowd nine days ago secured United's play-off place and rendered today's trip to Charlton Athletic of significance merely in determining whether Kendall's men will face Ipswich Town or Wolverhampton Wanderers in the semi-finals.

Hutchison will be behind a Radio Sheffield microphone at The Valley, serving a one-match ban. "There are four good sides in the play-offs," he said. "We've beaten Wolves and Crystal Palace away and we were hammered at Ipswich. We've got to beat two of them to get up. It really doesn't matter who we play in the semi-finals next week.

"It would be massive for me if I did get back in the Premiership. I had my bad times at Liverpool. If you ask anyone, `Who's Don Hutchison?' they'll say, `He was that lad in Cyprus'. They won't say, `He's a good footballer'.

"It was my fault. I was a young lad. I went straight from Hartlepool into the limelight at Liverpool. But those days have gone. I've had a steady girlfriend for some time now. I've settled down. I have changed.

"I've probably taken a couple of steps back to go forward again. I'm trying to catch up to where I was when I broke into the Liverpool team with Jamie. All I want to do is play in the Premiership again. I want to prove to the managers who've let me go that I can play there."

There was a time when Hutchison was deemed good enough to play on the international stage. Andy Roxburgh wanted him to play for the land of his forefathers. Graeme Souness, needing English players for Europe, did not. Hutchison played for Scotland's B team but his international ambitions were cut short of a full cap.

His football ambitions were very nearly severed close to their roots after a Tyneside schoolteacher, Peter Flaherty, spotted the trainee forklift- truck driver pulling up trees in the Redheugh team and recommended him to Bob Moncur, Hartlepool's manager at the time. Hutchison was sacked by Moncur's successor, the late Cyril Knowles, when he missed the team bus to Colchester on New Year's Day in 1990. But his plea for a second chance was successful and 11 months later the teenager Hartlepool signed from Redheugh in exchange for a match ball (the limit of Moncur's budget) was sold to Liverpool for pounds 175,000.

Redheugh's previous blue-eyed boy gave him his big break, in an indirect manner. Being drawn against Spurs, and England's star of Italia 90, in a League Cup tie was Hartlepool's chance to cash in and stave off the tax demands. Garry Gibson, their enterprising chairman, sent videos of the second leg to 50 clubs, in the hope of selling left-back Rob McKinnon. Instead, Kenny Dalglish responded with an offer for the midfielder who shone in the Hartlepool lights that night - more brightly, even, than the dazzling Gazza.