Tim Sherwood is by no means considered one of the icons of English football in the 1990s. Nowadays his playing career is often overshadowed by memories of sketchy managerial tenures at Tottenham and Aston Villa, and more recently his antagonistic attempts at punditry.
However, he retired in 2005 having long since achieved something which many other great captains, such as Steven Gerrard and Ledley King, never managed: leading his side to a Premier League title. Truth be told, during his first three full seasons at Blackburn, when they finished fourth and second before laying claim to the ultimate prize in the summer of 1995, there weren’t many better midfield enforcers in the land than Sherwood.
Born in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, Sherwood made his professional debut playing for his local side Watford in 1987, having come through their youth system. He was relegated from the old First Division of English football in his debut season as part of the Hornets’ senior squad. Thirty-two appearances later, and nearly two years on from his first outing, the St Albans boy moved to Norwich for a fee in the region of £175,000.
Once there, Sherwood began to find his feet as a combative central-midfielder, playing regularly for a Division One side at the age of just 21. However, after making 27 and 37 appearances for Norwich in his first two seasons, netting ten goals in that time, he fell out of favour during the 1991/92 campaign and moved north to join Blackburn in February.
Although he’d previously established himself as a player worthy of English football’s highest tier, Sherwood transferred to a side who were battling for a playoff place in Division Two. And in spite of the apparent step down he’d taken, the Englishman struggled to even justify his fairly modest price tag initially at Blackburn. He was also far from a permanent fixture in the team at this point.
As BRFCS.com’s Ian Herbert recently remarked, when I asked him about Sherwood’s early days with the Lancashire club: “Had the team failed in the playoffs later that year, it’s not inconceivable that Tim might not have survived long at the club, such was the impact of his sub-par performances. His contributions were fleeting, he seemed to need way too much time on the ball, lacking the physical presence to be an enforcer or the guile to be a mercurial playmaker.”
However, Sherwood finally came into his own once Blackburn gained promotion in 1992, arriving just in time for the birth of the Premier League era. The following season – his first full campaign as a Rovers player – Sherwood was no longer dispensable in the middle of the park, featuring 39 times as his side finished up fourth in the table, while also reaching the quarter-finals and semi-finals of the FA and League Cups respectively.
Despite their status as relative top tier newcomers, and, even then, having earned their place in the division by virtue of a playoff triumph begun from the lowest playoff position, Rovers continued to overachieve in the 1993/94 season. The departures of previous skipper Kevin Moran and veteran central-midfielder Gordon Cowans before the start of the campaign aided in clearing the path for Sherwood to gain the captain’s armband and dominion over the heart of the team’s midfield.
Now unrecognisable from the player who had initially struggled upon his arrival at Ewood Park, Sherwood was a commanding figure at the heart of the team, leading by example as Blackburn pushed Manchester United all the way for the Premier League title, only to finish up second and settle for a place in next year’s UEFA Cup; such was the format for qualification to Europe’s elite continental competitions back then.
Typically, it was the 1994/95 campaign, when Blackburn won their first and only Premier League title to date, that would prove Sherwood’s finest playing in the blue and white. Once again, I turned to Ian Herbert for help in recalling just how instrumental Tim Sherwood was in that title-winning side: “Using his strength, eye for a pass and positional sense to good effect, he soon became renowned for his work rate, and led energetically from the front. Sherwood was strong in the tackle, vocal on the field, a serial haranguer of referees, and 1994/95 saw him also chip in with some vital goals.
“His physicality meant that he could compete effectively in the air both defensively and in the opponent’s penalty area. He was strong in possession and at this point was using the ball simply but effectively. His leadership style might be described as “quiet enforcer”, not slow to chide underperforming colleagues, but clearly respected judging by the impact he could have.”
The free-scoring partnership of Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton up front regularly grabbed headlines throughout the season, and have often been accredited with delivering the Premier League title to Ewood Park in the years since. But the togetherness and team spirit, which was also apparent under manager Kenny Dalglish in the mid-90s, was in no small part down to their robust skipper, and Sherwood’s cruciality to the team was recognised as he was included in the 1994/95 PFA Team of the Year, alongside the aforementioned Shearer, and defenders Colin Hendry and Graeme Le Saux.
Such was the midfielder’s stature, for a brief period of time in the 1990s, so the story goes, when Dalglish approached high-rolling owner Jack Walker with hopes of signing a young Zinedine Zidane, the club’s owner replied: “Why do you want to sign Zidane when we have Tim Sherwood?” Of course, refusing to sign one of the greatest midfielders in footballing history due to the presence of Sherwood at Blackburn turned out to be an almost comical oversight on Walker’s part, but it does go to show how highly regarded their captain was during his prime.
This makes it all the more surprising that Sherwood was only capped three times by England, all of which bizarrely came once he had left Ewood Park and was undoubtedly past his best. He also never made the squad for a major international tournament. This was largely due to the presence of fellow central midfielder Paul Ince, who was not dissimilar in terms of his style of play and footballing strengths.
Sherwood remained an integral part of the Blackburn side for a further three full seasons following their Premier League triumph, playing over 30 games in each and chipping in with a handful of goals in every campaign. However, the perceived mediocrity Rovers had become accustomed to in this time – finishing seventh, 13th and sixth in the league, and claiming no further silverware – did not sit well with Sherwood, who became frustrated, and in his latter days at Ewood Park he was more of a disruptive influence in the dressing room than a model captain.
By all accounts, his roots in the south of the country meant it was always likely he’d be drawn away from Lancashire at some point later on in his career and, in January 1999, this proved to be the case. Sherwood moved to Tottenham in a deal worth £3.8m midway through a season in which Blackburn would eventually end up being relegated to the First Division.
Having moved to north London on the eve of his 30th birthday, he was already entering the twilight years of his career and struggled to have a real impact or hold down a place in the side as he had done for several seasons at his previous club. Having said that, Sherwood produced the best goalscoring campaign of his playing career in 1999/2000, netting nine times in 30 appearances in all competitions, as well as reaching the 2002 League Cup final where Tottenham would be bested 2-1 by, of all teams, Blackburn.
Sherwood’s reputation as something of a dressing room agitator was only enhanced by the nature of his exit from White Hart Lane – four years after joining Tottenham and once again midway through the season – when he revealed details of a behind-the-scenes fracas with then-manager Glenn Hoddle to the media, and moved to Portsmouth on a free transfer later that month.
There was one more career highlight remaining for the Englishman once he switched to Pompey. At the not-so-tender age of 34, Sherwood helped them gain promotion to the Premier League as champions of the First Division. After one more season back in the highest tier of English football with Portsmouth, in which he racked up 13 appearances, he then transferred to Coventry for the final 12 months of his career, before retiring in the summer of 2005.
While his legacy at Blackburn, and within the wider context of English footballing folklore, will be forever found in his team’s raising of the Premier League trophy at Anfield in 1995, Sherwood may have left a far more lasting imprint on the whole of English football with the role he undertook as part of that side.
Through the 60s, 70s and 80s, it was more common for the captain, the leader, and the behavioural instigator of the team to be a defender; often centre-backs, and occasionally full-backs or even goalkeepers. Sherwood, however, set the tone for something which has become more prevalent since his prime years in the mid-90s, and throughout the Premier League era, by being an enforcer from the middle of the park. As a midfielder who could seemingly do just about everything and be everywhere – including in the ear of the referee – he paved the way for a handful of other great Premier League captains, like Roy Keane, Steven Gerrard, and Patrick Vieira, who have all done the same for their sides.
A traditional, no-nonsense character who was never afraid to ruffle a few feathers, the Sherwood we see on our TV screens from time to time nowadays almost perfectly mirrors the one who graced the Premier League in the 1990s, and while I doubt the comparisons to Zidane will ever be extended to his managerial exploits, it’s worth remembering that Tim Sherwood was, at his peak, something we very rarely see in the Premier League today: a larger-than-life, blood-and-thunder character, unable to be usurped or replaced, even by the most dazzling of overseas superstars.
By Jamie Bell @JamieBell97