James Milner and current Leeds United star placed in special category along with legendary trio
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The 75-year-old has more stories than he could fit into a book and, if he gets talking, they naturally come tumbling out.
He’s a talker, so it doesn’t take long before he’s recounting something or other that either made it into his book - My Journey From Pavement to Premier League - or just popped into his mind for the first time in years.
He drops names too, not to make any kind of a point, just because working at Elland Road from 1986 brought him into not only close contact but close friendship with a host of stars.
A recent visit to the stadium brought a catch up with Liam Cooper, whose arrival at the club from Chesterfield in 2014 came not long before Sutton’s departure, and Kalvin Phillips.
When the England midfielder was a teenager, his mum worked in a pizzeria owned by Sutton’s friend and, whenever the physio paid a visit and found Phillips there, he would jokingly accuse him of snaffling the leftovers. Sutton was sitting down for a quick chat with Phillips a couple of weeks ago when new head coach Jesse Marsch spotted him.
“I was sat with the kit man Chris Beasley and Kalvin and then the manager came in and made a beeline for me,” Sutton told the YEP.
“He said he’d heard so much about me and the book and he wanted one, with a message in it from me. My wife and I have done all 50 states of America so we had this great conversation; he was smashing.”
Marsch recently inherited a squad containing players with almost two years of Leeds United experience under their belts but less than a season of football in front of a full Elland Road.
What Sutton could tell the American, who will seek to recruit this summer, is that it takes a different mentality to handle it.
“People don’t realise, you’ve got to be a certain kind of player to play at Elland Road in front of that crowd. Me and others tried to tell managers that. There’s been lads make big mistakes and never be forgiven.
“You have to be a certain kind of person. When Gary McAllister was manager, he said that. When we won the Second Division, we had players from the top level who had dropped down to play for Leeds United but, when Gary was in charge, it was players who had come up from League One or League Two. So, when they got Huddersfield Town at home, 36,000 there, all of a sudden the pressure got to them. Some players got used to it and those ones, like Jonny Howson, would go on to play in the Premiership.
“I’ve seen really good players come to Elland Road and become squad players because of the pressure. You have to be a little bit different, have something different about you.”
One player who fully understood what it meant to play for Leeds and handled everything that went with it was Gordon Strachan, who wrote the foreword for Sutton’s book.
Sutton includes the Scot in a trio of players who put side before self - men he had to fight to try and keep off the pitch at times.
“Gordon - we thought he was finished in ’92 when we won the Championship and we signed David Rocastle from Arsenal to replace him,” Sutton told the YEP.
“But Gordon had an operation and, all of a sudden, he was fit again and went on to be the first player to play in the Premiership at 40.
“There were others and, without a shadow of a doubt, Gary Speed and Gary McAllister were two.
“Gary Speed had problems with an ankle injury and he’d say to me on a Monday: ‘Right, I’m playing on Saturday, how much pain I’m going to play in depends on you so get your finger out and get me sorted out.’ That kind of attitude.
“Gary Mac, I remember once saying: ‘Get me sorted out so I can play for Scotland and there’s a shirt in it for you.’ I got him fit but Wilkinson was not happy and got in touch with the Scotland manager to say if anything happens to him it’s on your head. I think they put Gary on the bench but, when he came back in at Leeds, he opened the treatment room door and said: ‘Here, I was fit,’ and threw me a signed Scotland shirt.”
“The mental attitude and toughness they had played a part in them being in the game for so long. Everyone thought Gary Mac’s career was tapering down at Liverpool, that he went there as a squad player, and he won five trophies.”
Sutton can spot similarities in the attitudes he found in those three men in current and ex-Leeds players.
“Stuart Dallas is the same from what I know because, with the amount of games he’s played, there’s no way he hasn’t had little niggles or something,” said Sutton.
“James Milner is another. We keep in touch. He could have all the money in the world but all he’s bothered about is a chance of getting on that pitch. When I spoke to him a while ago I reminded him, I said: ‘Gary Speed, Gary Mac, Gordon Strachan, you’re up there with them with your fitness.’. There’s no reason why he can’t still be playing at the top level in two years’ time, based on what I know of him and what I know of them.”
Sutton’s book, the proceeds of which will go to charities including Gary Kelly’s Cancer Support Centre, is full of big names and characters. Many of the stories have come from moments shared with footballers and things they shared with him.
“I was originally just doing the book for my grandkids in Australia - I’m 75 now and I wanted them to know a bit about their grandad and family but the publisher said if I make it into a sporting thing they’d publish it,” he said.
“It’s my story from being a flagger and kerber in the building trade to winning titles with Leeds United.
“I was fortunate to be there in four decades. I was the only physio there for both championships, the Second Division and First Division.
“It was a real family club; everyone knew everyone. The day they sacked Billy Bremner the chairman, Mr Silver, the best chairman ever at Leeds, had me in his office to explain why they’d sacked him. At clubs nowadays, chairmen might not know who the physios even are.
“I had a bit of a fall-out over a player with Eddie Gray and he told me it was because I was as passionate about the club as he was. It was only at that point, in 2002, that I realised it had become that special to me.
“Harvey [Sharman, former head physio] is a massive Chelsea supporter but he’ll tell you Leeds United gets under your skin and becomes a part of you. It’s special. I was privileged to work there.”