Fleetwood Town’s John Sheridan – Ordinary Man, misunderstood, underappreciated

He doesn’t want to be there…in those early post-match interviews. He doesn’t want to be part of the media cabaret.

He looks into the camera as if inconvenienced, as if besmirched by the token, horseshit questions.

It is that flat, bleak indifference that sets Sheridan apart, that says ‘Accept me or walk away, because I’m not gonna adapt to your world, to this charade, this bloody pantomime…’

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The man from the BBC knows what went on on the field. Sheridan knows what went on. So to pick the match apart, to overanalyse, is futile, insufferable.

Do you want me to be cooperative? Sheridan’s ruddy face almost utters. Do you want me in aftershave, smooth as a cat, togged up like a grandmaster?

Disgust would be too strong a word, but Sheridan feels himself in Groundhog Day mode when addressed with flimsy, prosaic probing or debriefs.

I’d like to grip the handle on my fridge door at this very moment, his manner suggests. I’d like to rush out of here and slurp something cool; something much cooler than this mainstream tat.

Sheridan landed on the Fylde coast to cynicism and ire, to fans being underwhelmed by his appointment. Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, Johnny Sher-id-an – as the Leeds fans (myself included) used to chant – seemingly represented gruff inarticulacy, a man that meant nothing to the club, a fleeting saviour but with a pretty sketchy managerial win percentage once the hard work had been done.

‘I’m very pleased with the performance’ were the first words to come out of his mouth after his initial game in charge (1-1 vs MK Dons, 24th February), followed by ‘Another good performance from us’ (1-1 vs Plymouth, 10th March) and ‘It was a good, battling performance’ (0-0 vs Charlton, 17th March).

The word ‘performance’ sits at the roof of Sheridan’s muzzle in a similar fashion to how a Cossack’s tash drips from his upper lip. It is distinctive, yet worn, idiosyncratic, yet prostrate. The Lancashire/Yorkshire hybrid sees it as his way in though, his pass to the players’ souls, his down-to-earth, I kid you not ‘This is how we will win’ navigation.

After Uwe Rosler’s laboratory-run operation with its highs, lows and eventual, stagnant and ruinous ‘uncoordinated mice’ FTFC team (eight consecutive defeats offering testimony), Sheridan’s directness, his unromantic patter, was perhaps needed.

But don’t be fooled by the outer Sheridan, the surface Sheridan, the grey-mopped Sheridan who 15 months ago lavished the word ‘c***’ on match official, Matthew Donohue.

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Sheridan’s own footballing career – largely at Leeds, Sheffield Wednesday and Oldham – was one very much “dripping in sweet honey”. His midfield roaming was exemplary, impeccable, laudable. His grace and fire combined to light up the pitch.

He was the first man – in the late 1980s – to show me what a midfield could be, what a midfield should be. Sheridan, the adored no.8, the free-kick specialist, the penalty taker, the lynchpin and driving force at the heart of Elland Road, mostly did not need power, because he had accuracy and placement.

He could thread the ball into the net like a seamstress on LSD.

‘Listen…listen…’ he has a habit of saying, now stripped of those white-shorts days, now dauntless and pluckier in a different way, now festooned in managerial tracksuit and a creaking face.

It is the language of a godfather, of an insensitive baron, of a man born in Stretford rather than the Shakespearian Stratford-upon-Avon. But underneath that loose-calibre roar is a thinker, a man not completely devoid of his early panache.

Sheridan switched his Fleetwood Town formation on the evening of the 20th March 2018 away to Rochdale. He decided to employ striker, Ashley Hunter as a left-wing back and use three centre-halves. He decided to ditch the 4-4-2 that had earned a point a game and at least stopped the rot.

Such a subtle masterstroke is not always obvious at the time. It does not immediately sing to you. It does not lend itself to the whispering suspicion that a hidden door within the club has been found. And behind that door are the toys that Rosler refused to let the players indulge in.

The body language of the players immediately changed upon John Sheridan entering this club. The latter-day bent backs and gloom – depression at the thought of performing uncomfortable and illogical roles – were straightened out and re-injected with pride and a modicum of flair.

Toumani Diagouraga realised once more that he is an imposing figure to the opposition. Kyle Dempsey had his licence to burst forward renewed. And Jack Sowerby, all of a sudden, was allowed to participate and given proper support by his team mates who now digested the effectiveness of his quick-release, accurate passes.

5-3-2 gave Sheridan four consecutive victories and clean sheets leading into April (vs Rochdale, Northampton, AFC Wimbledon and Bristol Rovers). It re-engineered and re-wired a team on its backside with holes in its socks, unable to barely win a game of marbles, never mind a third tier football match.

The new role of Ashley Hunter, although not fully appreciated by the diminutive player himself, although not fully in keeping with the glory a striker seeks (explicitly and implicitly expressed in the club shop recently while signing shirts) is actually a win/win for the team: 1) Because it cures Fleetwood’s problem at left back; 2) Because such a sacrifice has coincidentally landed Hunter the Sheridan-esque role of set-piece specialist (given the exclusion of midfielder, George Glendon).

It is a trade-off – perhaps not a conscious one, but one that should suit all parties. And this minor, yet significant tweaking of the team (a little like converting Leeds striker, Gary Kelly to right back many years ago) has acted as undoubted catalyst to Fleetwood’s short-term transformation.

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The stats are interesting under Sheridan. 4-4-2 has brought one win, three draws and one loss, whereas 5-3-2 has yielded four wins, no draws and one loss; the latter against a promotion-chasing Rotherham whose New York Stadium has an enviable record.

Fleetwood look their best when the wing-backs (Lewie Coyle, on loan from Leeds and Ashley Hunter) are in play; allowed to gallop, allowed to penetrate deep into opposition territory, yet also bite where necessary when covering back.

Here’s where this story turns though. Because some clown decided to effectively delete this season’s cache by announcing Fleetwood’s next head coach with three games to play.

Some ill-informed, cerebral halfwit decided that it would be a good idea if the shadow of another man hung over John Sheridan while he was still seeing out the 2017/2018 season.

And while the kit men and laundry women were busy enacting such an incredulous, premature plan (secretly unstitching JS for JB), the players, all of a sudden, lost their new-found impetus and drive; they took Sheridan’s very impressive and respectable Won 5, Drawn 3, Lost 2 record and killed it a little, bashed it against a wall; bowed, without effort or guile, to a third defeat under his stewardship.

Watching them in Saturday’s penultimate home game versus Wigan (which ended in a dishevelled and dispiriting 4-0 reversal)…it was as if Rosler had snuck back into the building. It was as if the non-animated, hands in pockets, JS had given up (selecting what seemed to be a fluidless 4-5-1), or the players had already begun to fear the 2018/19 pre-season under JB (best that we don’t say his actual name at this point).

Employee/employer relations are a delicate thing, but while the fans are perhaps looking forward to a likely exodus and influx of players, the existing personnel will be wondering just what chairman Andy Pilley has gone and done this time, what heartache is in store.

Because with Sheridan – as per his initial programme notes – you get “tough love”, but with the other guy (JB) no one is quite sure. No one is entirely sure whether Pilley has even kept the dice on the table this time.

The Author

Jeff Weston

Author of Wagenknecht (ALL MEN crack up at 40) and Pitchside, Ringside and Down in the Table Tennis Dens.

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