Kendall finds respite in Wembley dreams

The Blades' manager talks to Glenn Moore about two decades of FA Cup memories
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The Independent Online
The FA Cup third round is one of football's most evocative occasions. In deep mid-winter, with most of autumn's ambitions reduced to fantasy, the season is regenerated. Small clubs scent a giant-killing, big ones are revived by the prospect of another trophy to play for. And everyone remembers the good times past.

Few will recall such a range as Howard Kendall, and few will do so in such an appropriate setting. When Kendall takes his Sheffield United team to face Arsenal at Highbury today he will roll back a dozen years on the clock. Then he might go back 20 more, to 1964, when he was 17.

At an age when most football fans have not even been to Wembley Kendall was out there playing, in the FA Cup final. He was then the youngest-ever Wembley finalist. His Preston team lost - to West Ham. Four years later Kendall was on the losing side again, as Everton lost to West Bromwich Albion. He never did gain a winners' medal, just as, surprisingly, he never won an England cap.

But he did win at Wembley, in 1984, when Everton beat Watford to earn Kendall his first trophy as a manager. Winning the final, with Watford overawed, was the easy part. It is the semi-final, which was played at Highbury, which sticks in Kendall's mind and is the reason today will be replete with memories.

Everton, who had not been to an FA Cup final since that 1968 defeat, met Southampton. No one scored until, with three minutes of extra time left, 5ft 6in Adrian Heath rose in front of the North Bank to head the only goal.

Four months earlier Everton fans had been calling for Kendall's dismissal. In the next three years they went on to win that year's FA Cup, two League titles, and the European Cup-Winners' Cup.

Heath is now assistant manager at Sheffield United and Kendall said, "going back to Highbury will be special for me and Adrian. That was my first trophy and you always remember the first one. It was very important to me. They cannot take it away from you if you are manager of a club which won the FA Cup final.

"It was also the first trophy for Everton for a long time [14 years], and it meant European football again, which was so important to the club." Everton went on to reach the next two finals and Kendall added: "Experiencing three finals in a row was unbelievable. To win three semi-finals on the trot is a tremendous feeling."

Back in 1964 Kendall had not played in the semi-final and did not expect to play in the final. Then Ian Davison, the regular half-back, was suspended by the club. Davison had been given permission to take the previous match off to attend a funeral in Edinburgh, instead he had assisted a family friend with personal problems. Jimmy Milne, the manager, objected to being misled and Kendall was in.

He recently saw the game on video but admitted: "I remember very little of it. I think the other players shielded me from it. They were more concerned that I settled than with being nervous themselves. My main aim was not to make any horrific mistakes which would cost us on the day. Thankfully I played quite well."

A contemporary newspaper report said of Kendall: "The Sunday school organist... defying the label of 'youngest-ever Cup finalist', hit another long one which [Bobby] Moore cleared edgily away. Not a trace of nerves in this boy."

As that report suggests, at the time Kendall, at 17 years, 345 days, was thought to be the youngest FA Cup finalist ever. Thus, when Paul Allen played for West Ham in 1980, at 17 years, 256 days, it was thought that honour passed to him.

However, while researching his comprehensive The Guinness Record of the FA Cup Mike Collett found that Indian-born James Prinsep, of 1879 finalists Clapham Rovers, was 11 days younger than Allen. The most recent teenager was Chris Bart-Williams, who was 18 when playing for Sheffield Wednesday in 1993.

Kendall still was - and Allen is - the youngest Wembley finalist. Kendall, displaying an unexpected interest in numerology, added: "Paul was 16 years after me, and that was 16 years ago, so if it goes in sequence maybe the record will be broken this year. It was a long time ago. Someone said to me the other day: 'Wasn't that the Cup final when the white horse came on?'"

At which point Heath, coming into Kendall's spacious office with a cup of coffee, interjects, "no, it was the year before".

Heath, 35 next Thursday, may play today. "There is more than a possibility that he will be involved, but he is unlikely to start" Kendall said yesterday. "Even if he just sits with me it will be special for both of us."

As Kendall has been in charge at Sheffield United for only 23 days the match represents a daunting test of his early rebuilding.

"It is nice to get a big game," he said, "but we could have done with an easier one. It is a tremendous opportunity, I have made a few changes since I came here. I believe I have brought in some Premier League players, and inherited some.They will have the chance on Saturday to prove it to me."

So far Kendall has brought in six players - David White (Leeds), Michel Vonk (Manchester City), Gordon Cowans (Wolves), Mark Patterson (Bolton), Chris Short (Notts County, and brother of Everton's Craig) and Heath (Burnley). Viv Busby, who regularly reminds Kendall about the 1975 FA Cup semi-final, when his Fulham side beat Kendall's Birmingham, has joined as coach.

Three players, including Nathan Blake, have left. The deals have realised pounds 500,000 profit. According to reports, which Kendall will not comment on, that could be earmarked for Niall Quinn or Ian Rush.

It is not just the team which needs rebuilding. Viewed from the touchline on the John Street side Bramall Lane looks an impressive, if dated, arena by First Division standards. From the other touchline there is a very different vista, that of the roofs and spires of Sheffield - the John Street stand was demolished in mid-1994 and is yet to be replaced. Bramall Lane has thus, inadvertently, reverted to the three-sided look of its cricket days. The result, said previous manager Dave Bassett, "is a poxy atmosphere."

Bassett left the Blades, exhausted, in early December. Having taken United from Third Division to First/Premier, and kept them there for four years, he was shattered when they were relegated by the last goal of the season in May 1994. Last season was disappointing and now they are one from bottom in the First Division. Years of under-investment, in ground and team, have taken their toll.

Leaving with Bassett was the man he had been battling with for more funds for years, Reg Brealey. The unpopular chairman has been replaced by Mike McDonald and the ground should now be restored to four sides. Money, however, remains tight, a large notice by the franking machine orders: "Only essential post to go first-class". The club have to train on the Bramall Lane pitch and this interview is interrupted while Kendall haggles about a few thousand pounds on a transfer deal.

Kendall has been in management for 17 years, from Everton and Notts County to Spain and Greece. "The demands have grown. It is more of a financial disaster if clubs are relegated. Every chairman is saying the same thing: 'We want you to come in and do a long-term job. We have great plans. And, by the way, we cannot go down.' Somebody has to."

Kendall's brief is to ensure that it is not Sheffield United. Today, though, he and his team can forget about the league struggles and dream of Wembley. It may be 60 years since Sheffield United have played in an FA Cup final, but somebody has to get there.

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