Arsenal vs Aston Villa: Gunners snub that redefined Tim Sherwood

How different life could have been for Villa manager had deal gone through to sign for his FA Cup final opponents

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The Independent Football

As a fledgling manager, winning the FA Cup would be a milestone for Tim Sherwood in any circumstances. Given his associations with Tottenham as both player and manager you would expect the prospect of beating Arsenal to win the FA Cup to have special meaning.

Yet there is something else about Sherwood and Arsenal, something about Sherwood and the current  Arsenal manager, his predecessor in the job and a destiny-changing  moment that adds extra piquancy to Saturday’s final at Wembley.

It goes back to the late summer of 1996, when Sherwood was a title-winning midfielder and captain of Blackburn Rovers and Bruce Rioch was in charge at Highbury. The two had a conversation, the outcome of which was already fixed in the player’s mind when Arsenal decided, despite finishing fifth in Rioch’s one season in charge, to entrust their future instead to a little known Frenchman coaching in Japan.

 

“I was living in Harpenden,” Sherwood said. “It was summer and we had been talking. He phones me and I thought he was going to tell me what time to go to London Colney. But he was calling to tell me he’d been sacked.

“I was signing for Arsenal. We never spoke money but it was Arsenal – I think I would have gone and had a chat.”

It would have been a move to  redefine Sherwood’s life. In all probability he would never then have joined Tottenham as a player, perhaps never joined their coaching staff and therefore never been promoted to manager. And never had to deny having been an Arsenal fan, about which he expects to be taunted again at Wembley.

“But they got rid of him [Rioch],” he continued, “and brought in some guy called Arsène Wenger. He signed two midfielders called Vieira and Petit, who no-one had ever heard of, and I was going ‘who are they?’”

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Tim Sherwood has taken Villa away from relegation trouble

He pulls a face of mock bemusement and enjoys the laughter he has provoked. He loves to tell a story, to crack a sharp one-liner, against himself. It is how he has been as far back as he can remember.

The quality Rioch admired was Sherwood’s winning mentality, which also has not left him, given the way he has inspired a Villa side previously barely capable of scoring a goal to find the energy and purpose not only to reach Wembley but to escape relegation from the Premier League too. Fabian Delph, Christian Benteke, Tom Cleverley and others have emerged from the fog of Paul Lambert’s final months to look again like outstanding players; Jack Grealish, a teenager on the fringes of Lambert’s squad, is suddenly a name on the England manager’s lips.

Yet Sherwood is not a hard-nosed winner. When Dick Advocaat could not keep back the tears after Sunderland had ground out the point – at Arsenal – that kept them in the Premier League, Sherwood was crying with him.

“I could feel for him, I knew what a relief that is,” he said. “It’s your life. I’m not complaining about it because it’s my choice to do this job. But it takes over everything.

“I never sleep through the night. I’m all right getting off but when I wake up, that’s it. I see pictures of players. They used to be our players, now I think of the opposition. I think that’s a good thing.”

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Villa were thrashed 6-1 last weekend

Sherwood was at the wheel of his car for his survival moment. Villa’s midday thrashing at Southampton left him shellshocked but later Hull lost at Tottenham and all was well. “I was driving back to my house. I heard the Hull result on the radio. My hands were off the wheel and I was clenching my fists and going ‘yes!’. The other drivers must have been thinking, ‘what’s he doing’.”

The winning mentality has been part of him almost for ever.

“You can play a five-a-side with the players and they all want to win. But it’s how much you want to win. I wanted to kill people to win. I used to cry when I was a kid when I couldn’t win, now I cry to myself when we don’t. It hurts me. It means so much and it’s got to mean that much to [the players].

“Someone made a comment after we got beat at Liverpool, when I was manager of Tottenham, that the players in the tunnel looked like they were waiting for a bus.

“They are different now, with the influx of foreign players. That doesn’t mean they don’t want to win. They still care. But I want them to care more than anything in the world.”

Sherwood talks about the Cup final as Villa’s “bonus ball” but never saw the Cup run as a hindrance to survival. “If you look at those back-to-back wins over West Brom in League and Cup, they were massive, they created momentum,” he said.

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Sherwood goes airborne as he endures the drama from the sideline

So was he ever an Arsenal fan? “No. People think I’ve got a cannon tattoo but I haven’t. Tim Lovejoy on Soccer AM got out this programme from when I was a player at Norwich, It says  favourite ground: Highbury;  favourite player: Liam Brady. I told him that a guy at Norwich changed them because he knew I was a Tottenham fan.

“I grew up in Borehamwood and you either supported Tottenham or Arsenal. I supported football. Can I say that?”

The final, he says, will be an open game. “[Arsenal] have talents all over the field. But we have players who can hurt them. There is no point shackling ours and taking it on the chin until we get knocked out. We’ll go toe-to-toe and see what happens.”

Win or lose, there will be tears. “I’ll cry either way,” he said. “But I’m ready for that. Our blue Paul Smith suits come with a claret handkerchief. So I’m sorted.”

Arsenal v Aston Villa is on BBC1 & BT Sport 1, kick-off Saturday 30 May 5.30pm

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