Every club needs a player who can make a positive impact from the bench and Carl Shutt was just that man for Leeds United. Phil Hay reports.
What Brian McDermott would have given these past few weeks for a player or two like Carl Shutt, the game-changer who sits patiently in the background waiting for moments like this.
Every club has a hierarchy of preferred professionals but the most durable are blessed with sharp, selfless reserves; men who nail their colours to the mast while regular appearances elude them. Shutt was the opposite of everything Howard Wilkinson despised – unruly players with no greater priority than their own interests.
Wilkinson used Shutt as his trump card on the night when Leeds United settled their long, complicated and rule-breaking struggle with Stuttgart in the first round of the European Cup in 1992.
Thrown on in the 76th minute, he took Tony Dorigo’s pass, drifted left and rattled a shot under Eike Immel, Stuttgart’s international goalkeeper. This in the Nou Camp and scored by a player who made fewer than 10 starts in the title-winning year which carried Leeds into Europe’s biggest competition. Stuttgart lost 2-1.
On that occasion Shutt was Wilkinson’s alternative to Eric Cantona who, for all of his brilliance, had one of those evenings with flicks, feints and tricks that came to nothing. An answer was found in Spain as it needs to be found by Leeds and their manager in Sheffield this weekend.
Shutt will be at Saturday’s derby between United and Sheffield Wednesday with a foot in each camp. Last time they shared a pitch, both clubs were fighting relegation and Leeds were under McDermott’s wing for the first time. The weight of this occasion feels similarly crucial, from Leeds’ perspective anyway.
Embarrassed by Rochdale six days ago and battered by their own support at full-time, United go to South Yorkshire in search of redemption; redemption and points to halt the malaise which set in quickly after Christmas. McDermott called the loss at Rochdale his “worst moment in football” and his players faced up to the most brutal of reactions after the final whistle, forced to confront a livid crowd.
“Nobody gives it to you like a supporter,” Shutt said, “but sometimes hearing it from the crowd is better than hearing it from your manager. It’s more painful, more personal.
“That wasn’t Leeds’ first bad result so McDermott’s probably had his say in private before. He’ll have had a go. The players won’t be ignoring him but you expect your gaffer to tear off a few strips when things go wrong. You’re never really prepared for the crowd turning on you. It’s like a different voice.
“Saturday was a kick up the backside, big time, and it might do McDermott’s team-talk for him. It lays everything on the line. If you think that’s good enough, think again. And don’t forget you’ll have another 3,000-odd watching at Hillsborough on Saturday.”
Shutt was a Wednesday player before he found his way to Leeds and the similarities between the clubs depress him. Back in the early ’90s, they were ambitious, optimistic sides. “That made for right juicy derbies,” he said. More recently, Leeds and Wednesday have been beset by stagnation, most of it caused by financial mismanagement. Neither team has played in the Premier League since 2004.
United at least have a chance of getting there. Their form since Christmas leaves them no further back than eighth, a point below the play-offs. Wednesday on the other hand are fighting relegation again, though with more vigour under caretaker Stuart Gray than they did under Dave Jones. Still they have won only four of their 23 games.
“I’ve had the same issue with Wednesday for a few years now,” Shutt said. “Whenever I watch them, I don’t see the passion. There’s no passion in their football.
“The attendances both clubs pull in, home and away, stagger me. I look at them and think ‘at most other clubs, these supporters would have packed it all in years ago.’ It’s tough year after tough year and although Leeds are having a pretty good season, I know why the crowd got stuck into them at Rochdale. It must feel like they’re reading from the same script yet again.
“Yorkshire football generally, it’s been in the doldrums. It saddens me. I’m like any northerner – I’d prefer to see the southern clubs getting stuffed. But you always have that hope don’t you? So you keep on going back.
“For Wednesday, it’s all about staying up again and I don’t think a win on Saturday would change the fact that they’ll have it hard for the rest of the season. They’re stuck in that mindset I think. But a win for Leeds might make them turn the corner.”
Even McDermott accepts that a corner needs to be turned. “We’re in a rut and we need to get out of it,” he said during a shocked but honest press conference after the Rochdale defeat. Shutt agrees. “To be honest if they don’t respond to the tongue lashing they got on Saturday then something’s not right,” he said. “If there’s no reaction then I’d be asking questions.
“That’s more about the performance than the result. Derbies are notoriously unpredictable. If both teams show up on Saturday then I’ll be optimistic about where they’re going this season. But if one or other doesn’t, I think that’ll tell us something.”
Shutt will maintain a level of neutrality at Hillsborough, unwilling to take sides. “It’s like asking you to decide which of your children is your favourite,” he said. “The answer’s always the same. I’d upset a lot of people by picking one way or the other.
“I won trophies at Leeds but Wednesday gave me my break in the game so I owe them both in different ways. I was lucky to play for them. You’d hope that every player feels the same now because for all the trouble they’ve had, Leeds and Wednesday are still names that make you think ‘big club’.”