Football: Sherwood set to shed tag of nearly man

Adam Szreter meets the former Blackburn captain facing a surprise call-up to England duty on Saturday
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The Independent Online
IT SEEMS harsh to describe anyone who has captained his club to the Premiership title as a nearly man, but as far as Tim Sherwood and England are concerned that is exactly what he is: six times he was called up by his country when Terry Venables was in charge, never making it further than one appearance on the substitutes' bench - and even that was for the ill-fated match in Dublin that was abandoned owing to crowd disturbances.

Now, four years later, having left Blackburn Rovers after seven eventful seasons, Sherwood is back in the reckoning again and, thanks partly to an injury to his former Blackburn club-mate David Batty, he seems as near to getting a taste of the action on Saturday against Poland as he has ever been.

"I haven't really thought about playing," he fibbed earnestly during a 10-minute inquisition at England's training headquarters in Buckinghamshire yesterday. "At the moment I'm just in the squad, and I've been in the squad before. But it was a surprise to be called up.

"I don't think you ever expect it, and the longer it goes you think maybe it has passed by. But a new manager, with new ideas obviously gives you a chance. All you can do is just play well for your club and hope the manager in charge fancies you."

Sherwood, who for the most part looked as though he takes as much pleasure in talking about himself as he does in losing football matches, celebrated his 30th birthday last month, 12 years after turning professional with Graham Taylor's Watford just up the road from his home town of St Albans. From there he moved on to Norwich City before becoming one of Kenny Dalglish's first signings for Blackburn.

Chris Sutton soon followed Sherwood from Carrow Road to Ewood Park and subsequent championship glory, and even though Sherwood is now back home, living with his Italian girlfriend in the house he built and maintained all the way through his time at Blackburn, the two players' paths just seem destined to cross.

Sherwood won one England B cap, against the Republic of Ireland in 1994, in a team that included Sutton, and now that Sherwood has been recalled to the full squad, guess who has been recalled with him? Blackburn fans would shudder at the thought, but what price Sutton joining Sherwood at White Hart Lane before too long?

Sherwood himself claims his move to Tottenham a couple of months ago was not because he was anxious to get away from his former club, despite all the bad blood spilt over Roy Hodgson's departure earlier in the season. Sherwood, like Sutton, has never been one of life's shrinking violets and he was an outspoken critic of Hodgson's regime. Nevertheless, once the manager had left there appeared no reason for Sherwood not to stay.

"I never said I wanted to leave Blackburn," he said yesterday. "I was negotiating a new contract and they decided they wanted to let me go. And the way it's turned out, I can't really complain." Sherwood was cup- tied and had to sit and watch as his new team-mates carried off the Worthington Cup last Sunday, but already he has an FA Cup semi-final to look forward to after six losing quarter-finals.

"Everyone knows what's expected at the club," he said, suggesting that, in George Graham, he has finally found a manager to compare with his idol Dalglish. "The players know what the manager wants. Frightened might be the wrong word, but they know what the manager expects and everyone knows their job."

If Sherwood does play on Saturday he seems likely to occupy the defensive midfield position, normally the domain of Paul Ince or Batty. While it is not exactly Sherwood's forte, given his penchant for getting forward, making chances and scoring important goals, there are plenty of Premiership opponents who would testify to Sherwood's tackling ability and the player himself sees no great problem.

"I don't mind where I play," he said. "At Spurs now we've got Steffen Freund playing that holding role which allows me to go forward a bit more, but if you play in midfield you've got to work hard for the team and if the ball's there to be won you've got to win it. I don't think I can change my game. The manager has picked me on the basis of how I play for my club and I don't think playing international football would change me."

Apart from Sutton, Sherwood has been able to link up with several former and current team-mates, not to mention David Beckham, the other player involved in a controversial incident at Old Trafford earlier in the season which resulted in Sherwood being sent off. Whether those two have followed the lead of Robbie Fowler and Graeme Le Saux by kissing and making up remains unknown, but Sherwood is evidently relishing being back in the international fold.

"The atmosphere is relaxed but I'm sure towards the end of the week it might get a bit more intense. At the moment it's just a question of getting everyone together and getting a bit of spirit.

"You don't want to be too blase straight away," he added in reference to his own comportment. Sherwood is widely perceived as a strong character and an excellent leader. "You've got to get a rapport going with the other players but I'll try to be myself as early as possible and try to enjoy it."

Asked whether it felt strange to be playing as a foot soldier again after spending so long as a captain, Sherwood replied: "I still play the same game whether I'm wearing the armband or not" - but the serious reply only came after he had mischievously misinterpreted a question fully intended to relate to his new club. "It's a bit early for me to captain England," he said, smiling. "But maybe one day."

Whether he does or not, if he wins his first cap on Saturday the convenient "nearly man of England" tag will have to be written out of Sherwood's story forever.