For Carl Shutt United’s promotion-clinching win at Bournemouth in 1990 was of his career highlights – but it was a match he wasn’t expecting to play in, Leon Wobschall reports.
LEEDS UNITED’S last promotion from the second tier amid madcap scenes in searingly-hot Bournemouth is something that former striker Carl Shutt is never likely to forget.
While anarchy reigned off the pitch with sections of United’s travelling hordes earning national notoriety after riotous scenes in the south coast resort during an infamous holiday weekend back in May 1990, it was a tumultuous one on it – especially for Shutt.
Unbeknown to him, the former Sheffield Wednesday frontman – on the subs bench that spring afternoon at Dean Court – was pencilled in for a leading role with key forward Bobby Davison struggling badly with a knee problem.
In a bid to conceal the gravity of Davison’s injury in the build-up to the climactic fixture – and to keep the pressure off Shutt – boss Howard Wilkinson, skipper Gordon Strachan, Chris Kamara and Davison himself were party to a cunning charade whereby the latter would start the game, but then depart early on.
Lo and behold, Shutt found himself entering the fray after just six minutes in the baking-hot sun and ran himself into the ground for the cause alongside strike partner Lee Chapman, whose 49th-minute header ultimately ensured the old Division Two title for United and a return to the top-flight after an eight-year exile.
Not that Shutt was in any fit state to wildly celebrate at the final whistle, with the Sheffielder hardly having the strength to take his boots off in the dressing room after his exhaustive shift.
Shutt, who after coming on as a substitute, was brought off for another replacement in David Batty with three minutes to go, recalled: “Wilko used to try mind games all the time! I ended up playing virtually all that game, but I still played a full (reserve) game that week just a few days before.
“One of the things I was thinking when we were going to Bournemouth was that I felt knackered...It wasn’t a case of him looking after me!
“I was just warming up and stretching and remember thinking I was feeling stiff and needed to get it out of my system. Bobby then said: ‘Get a good warm-up, I’m struggling’, so I said: ‘You can sod off, I’m knackered from the other day, last longer!’. I actually swore at him when he came off...
“When you look at the video after the match in the dressing room, some of us were in shock, while others were just knackered and others were ecstatic. It affects you in different ways.
“It was mega hot and you just needed to get fluid inside you. Even in the last five minutes, I ended up being subbed as I said to Wilko that my legs had gone and at 1-0, you didn’t want to be carrying someone.
“I went off and just poured a bucket of water over my head.
“I remember their keeper pulling off a good save when he was diving. I just said: ‘Keep it down and hit the target’ which I did, but he suddenly lifted his leg up and got something on it to lift it over the bar.
“We then should have had a stonewall penalty with the ref only five yards away, but thankfully we got a goal and won.”
The tension ahead of United’s final-day trip to Dorset was palpable and it was a classic case of three-into-two won’t-go with Leeds, Yorkshire rivals Sheffield United and Newcastle United battling it out for two automatic promotion places with the unlucky loser consigned to the play-off lottery.
Leaders United and Dave Bassett’s Blades – level on points but behind them on goal difference ahead of their last-day showdown at Leicester City – were in the box seat, although a slip-up could let in the Magpies, just two points behind the Tyke duo and breathing down their necks while needing a win in their Tyne-Tees derby at Middlesbrough and a favour from elsewhere. Adding to the subplot was the fact that Boro and United’s opponents Bournemouth were in a desperate two-way fight to avoid the final relegation spot, with the Teessiders needing a win, allied to a bit of help from Leeds to survive.
It was a case of all’s well that ends well in God’s Own County, with West and South Yorkshire enjoying a celebratory Saturday in the sun after Leeds and the Blades posted victories, while a few glasses were also raised in the old North Riding as Boro clinched their safety with a 4-1 triumph – which saw ex-Elland Road favourite Ian Baird hit a double – with Newcastle destined for the play-offs (they famously went onto lose in the semi-finals to arch-rivals Sunderland).
But all United were bothered about was negotiating their part of the bargain at Bournemouth with a rollercoaster week ending in silverware.
Shutt said: “I think it was one of those where if we won, we were champions, if we drew, we were runners-up and if we lost, we could have been in the play-offs. It was really tight as we’d had a (points) lead and it was pulled back.
“I remember all the build-up and after the reserve match, I played in, we had a game of non-stop cricket to take a bit of pressure off. Once you are out, you pass the bat to the next player, but if they bowl it before the next man is in, he can be out.
“I whacked a few as did Vinnie (Jones) and when he was out, he chucked the bat back to Andy Williams and it hit him in the face and broke his cheekbone and he was out for Bournemouth!
“When we came back from Bournemouth, we kept ringing him in hospital, because he was injured...” He added: “I also remember going for a walk on the beach ahead of the game which was all pebbles and there were loads of supporters already down there.
“There was a festive spirit then and Leeds fans took over the town. But I remember when the fixtures came out that the club got in touch with the FA and wanted to reverse the game. But some people complained and said it was an unfair advantage....it wasn’t the best decision.”
Being crowned champions rounded off a marvellous season for United and their incomparable ever-present skipper Gordon Strachan and if anyone deserved to celebrate a championship that 1989-90 campaign, it was the flame-haired Scot who was simply magnificent from first minute to last.
The supporting cast was led by Vinnie Jones, Mervyn Day, Chris Fairclough, Mel Sterland and Peter Haddock, who all played 40 games or more, with young guns Gary Speed and David Batty also carving out a big name for themselves.
Shutt, while being second fiddle to the likes of Chapman, Davison and initially Baird, did provide some important contributions, being on target in a pre-Christmas triumph at Middlesbrough with the 2-0 win seeing United go top, a position they never relinquished and a goalscorer in the Boxing Day draw at Bramall Lane.
Shutt, now 49, added: “I remember missing a few weeks of pre-season, which sometimes can be a bit of a nightmare. If you go on a good run, which we did, it was hard to get in.
“I played about 15 games and scored some goals, but you want to be in there nailed on all the time.
“I remember the win at Middlesbrough, I think that took us top of the league and we stayed there. There was a bit of a crush in the away end and it was scary especially after what happened at Hillsborough. We took thousands up there and they were right in the corner at Ayresome Park and it looked congested to every other part of the ground.
“When you saw people coming out, you just thought: ‘I hope it’s not going to happen again...’ I also think we had several thousand at Elland Road because it was screened.
“But it was a terrific season, you always remember the ones where you win something. We had some brilliant characters and players. Gordon (Strachan) was actually my room-mate and he had all the seaweed tablets and everything!
“I wrote to him once when I was manager of Kettering and asked him for a friendly when he was manager (of Coventry). I joked that if he didn’t give me a friendly, I was going to tell the truth about those pills and the bananas!
“We got a friendly and he was quality. He invited me to go and watch some of the training there and he was one of those players who really taught you to look after yourself. Watching his professionalism really helped. I was 40 when I finished playing and I remember playing wing-back at Wembley in the FA Trophy. A lot was due to watching how he managed his life and his body, realising your body is a tool to do a job.”