First, before he begins discussing another landmark moment in his remarkable career, Tony Currie wants to make a confession.
It relates not to anything he did while playing for Sheffield United. Or during a recent dinner designed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his arrival in South Yorkshire.
Instead, a recent interview is the source of Currie’s consternation. It captured the imagination of the public but, nearly two weeks later, is still causing him considerable distress.
“I went on the radio to talk about the club and I forgot to mention some guys who are like brothers to me,” he says. “The minute it was over, I knew something wasn’t right.
“I got quite emotional but there’s really no excuse. So I want to say sorry. Sorry to Len Badger and Ted Hemsley. Sorry to Billy Dearden, Geoff Salmons and Frank Barlow. Sorry to Keith Edwards and Eddie Colquhoun.”
Once Currie finishes apologising to his friends and former teammates – “They came along and sharing the best night of my life with them honestly meant the world” – conversation turns to the matter in hand.
Exactly half a century ago – February 26 1968 – Currie made his senior debut in a United jersey. The match, against a star-studded Tottenham Hotspur side, came a little over three weeks after they had signed him from Watford for a paltry £26,500.
“Unfortunately, I really can’t remember anything about it other than my goal,” Currie, who scored during the 3-2 victory, admits.
“That was a header past Pat Jennings from a cross by David Munks, although what he was doing so far forward I’ll never quite know. They also had people like Alan Gilzean, Mike England and Dave Mackay in their line-up together with my hero, the brilliant Jimmy Greaves.”
That fixture marked the start of a beautiful friendship which continues to this day. The former England midfielder, officially the greatest player ever to wear their famous red and white stripes, went on to make another 376 appearances for United before being sold, in 1976, to Yorkshire rivals Leeds. Spells with Queens Park Rangers, Toronto Nationals and Torquay United followed, but the lure of Bramall Lane proved too strong. So, when retirement beckoned, he eventually returned to the club as its Football in the Community coordinator.
“Sheffield United has been my life,” he says. “It has been since I was 18. I spent a while away but I always looked for their results, well ‘our’ results really, when I was at other clubs because that’s what it meant to me.
“When I got that job, I started in the same month I’d come all those years back. It was like it was meant to be.”
Currie enjoyed some of his finest footballing moments with United, including reaching the top flight in 1971. But, he explains, it is people rather than promotions which cemented this love affair.
“Those lads I mentioned earlier, we didn’t just play together, we were pals,” he says. “I see them all the time now and that tells you all you need to know. It was a dream to play at Bramall Lane and, whenever I got the opportunity, I was always itching to get out there. I wasn’t nervous, not even for that first one, because I just loved being out there.”
The United fans idolised Currie and, as he continues his journey down memory lane, Currie makes no attempt to disguise the fact he idolises them.
“The supporters took me to their hearts and they’ve been fantastic to me all the way through,” he says. “Seriously, it’s worth a medal. That’s how much that love is worth. The United crowd, they’re just a different breed.”
Currie, with his flicks, tricks and kisses, was a different breed too.
“What a team we had back in those days,” he continues. “When you look at the talent, really we should have achieved a lot more than we actually did. The only thing that stopped us, in my eyes at least, was squad size. It wasn’t the biggest and that probably cost us.”
The whys and wherefores were debated long into the night when, earlier this month, United held a gala event in Currie’s honour.
“To see so many faces was brilliant,” he says. “There were some touching tributes from people who couldn’t make it as well. There are too many to mention individually but I want to thank them all.
“One of the things we were talking about was how a club like this, given its size, stature and following, hasn’t spent nearly enough time as it should have done in the top flight. I mean that the right way. Like everyone else, I just want it to be the best it can.”
Which brings Currie to another subject close to his heart:manager Chris Wilder and this United side.
“It’s a special team and a special squad with a special manager,” he says. “I really do mean that. Some of the football they play, well, it’s just a joy to watch. It’s the best I’ve seen here for years.
“They got promoted from League One last season and ran away with it. They’ve carried that on this season too. We had a little blip over Christmas but everyone has one of those and we’re still on course for the play-offs. There’s no reason why we won’t get there because, now the rhythm is back, you know we’ll win a lot more than we’ll lose.”
“These players deserve to do something special,” he adds. “And I really hope that happens because the supporters deserve it as well. We’ve been through some bad times here in the past. They’ve suffered, really suffered at times, and yet they still turn up in droves.”
TONY CURRIE FACTFILE:
Date of birth: January 1 1950
Clubs: Watford (1967), Sheffield United (1968-76), Leeds United (1976-79), Queens Park Rangers (1979-82), Toronto Nationals (1983), Southend United (1983-84), Torquay United (1984)
England under-23 caps/goals: 13 (4)
England caps/goals: 17 (3)
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