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the unloved

The Cult: Teddy Sheringham

In the nineties and early noughties, Teddy Sheringham was one of the most effective strikers in the Premier League. Despite all those goals, however, he remains somehow unloved.

by Will Magee
11 October 2016, 12:35pm

Illustration by Dan Evans

This week's inductee to The Cult is a man who made a name for himself as one of the most prolific strikers of the Premier League era, though certainly not the most popular. You can read the rest of our Cult series here.

Cult Grade: The Unloved

Barring the generous handful of spectacular strikes he scored in his career, there's a certain sort of goal which epitomises Teddy Sheringham. Whether it be a snap shot that's leathered from inside the box, a clever toe poke or a stooping header, Sheringham was calculating and cunning far more than he was elegant and full of flair. He was a striker who built his game on well-timed runs and perfect placement, on knowing where to be in the box and how to quietly lose his marker. The opposition would only have to lose concentration for a moment and there he was, at the near post, catching the defence and the goalkeeper cold.

Sheringham was a trap setter, an ambusher, a striker who could poke home in that slither of space that someone had assumed he wouldn't be able to exploit. He was never the most cultured, never the most stylish, but he knew how to get the goals his team needed, and he had no pretences when it came to aesthetics, ethics and playing football the beautiful way. He was relentlessly effective, persistently prolific, and able to capitalise on even the smallest of errors. For opposition fans, he was an intolerable player, a thorn in the side the discomfort of which would reduce them to tears of frustration and grimaces of pain.

READ MORE: The Cult – Robbie Savage

Usually, when a player is detested by the opposition in such a fashion, he earns eternal 'fan favourite' status amongst his own supporters. Sheringham, however, is a man who remains somehow unloved. With 355 goals across a 25-year club career to his name, his efforts are appreciated, applauded, lauded even. Nonetheless, praise of Sheringham as a man comes with a few caveats, even at the clubs where he scored his greatest ever goals.

Sheringham first burst into the national consciousness during a short spell with Nottingham Forest, a club still in the top flight when he joined in 1991. Having fired Forest to eighth in the table, he was snapped up by Tottenham Hotspur, where he made a name for himself as one of the most effective strikers in the Premier League. It was at Spurs that he really started to inspire acrimony amongst opposition fans, not helped by liberal use of his needle-like elbows and a tendency to take a tactical tumble. There was something else about Sheringham, though. Maybe it was his vulpine good looks, self-assuredness and cut-glass cheekbones, maybe his air of semi-permanent snark, but he had a way of getting to people; a way of converting footballing rivalries into a tangible sense of deep dislike.

This was doubtlessly a part of what made Sheringham so effective, in that he provided a constant distraction on the pitch. He could divert opposition defenders, leaving his teammates with room to score, through what felt like a magnetic field of genuine loathing. When, at the age of 31, he secured an ill-tempered move to Manchester United, he sealed his place as one of the great pantomime villains of the Premier League era. It was 1997, the 'ABU' ('Anyone But United') trend was at its height, and Sheringham became a lightning rod for everything people disliked about Alex Ferguson's side. Naturally, to the sound of hisses and boos, he thrived.

Having been hugely popular at Tottenham prior to his transfer, he was roundly jeered on his return to White Hart Lane. The boyhood Spurs fan had accused the club of lacking ambition upon his departure and, unsurprisingly, his former supporters were less than pleased. Sheringham was never afraid of giving his opinion, another attribute which earned him his fair share of public animosity. He widened the rift with Tottenham by scoring against them on multiple occasions during his time in Manchester, winning a raft of the trophies they so ardently coveted. While he would return to have another (albeit less prolific) spell at Spurs between 2001 and 2003, the unadulterated hero worship of the nineties would be forever qualified by his abandonment.

Manchester United fans have no such cause for resentment when it comes to Sheringham, who helped them to win three consecutive league titles between 1998 and 2001, the first of which came as part of their famous Treble. That said, he was never beloved of all his United teammates, and had a notoriously bad relationship with Andy Cole. Supposedly started by a snide but innocuous handshake snub while the pair were on England duty together, their mutual dislike was kept under wraps for the duration of their fruitful partnership. Once Cole left United, however, he was quick to state his contempt for Sheringham. The two barely spoke off the pitch, according to Cole; if Sheringham left a growing number of irate football fans in his wake, he was hardly a universal favourite in the dressing room, either.

READ MORE: The Cult – Fabrizio Ravanelli

On top of all that, it didn't help that Sheringham's private life was a tabloid godsend. He dated a string of models, he was snapped stumbling out of nightclubs, and he generally fitted the mould of the semi-monstrous conspicuous consumer that the Premier League era had begun to produce. With a relatively modest England record to his name, his international exploits weren't enough to redeem him. He was liked well enough on the terraces at Old Trafford, and disliked pretty much everywhere else.

If Sheringham was unloved amongst fans and teammates, however, he at least learned not to heed the winds of popular acclaim. He took pleasure in frustrating his bitterest detractors, as his goalscoring record against Tottenham and arch-nemeses Arsenal can attest. He remained an effective top-flight striker, even in his later years with Portsmouth and West Ham. The fact that he remains the oldest Premier League goalscorer (at 40 years and 266 days) says a lot about Sheringham's approach to the game; he was ghosting in at the near post long after most of his contemporaries had hung up their boots, which suggests he either didn't notice the distaste he inspired, or didn't give a solitary shit about it.

Entry Point: Low, Then Late

When Sheringham secured his transfer to United, there were many who already thought he was past his best. To join one of the top clubs in the country at the age of 31 is a rarity, though it's easy to forget just how late Sheringham burst onto the scene. Having signed up at Millwall in 1982, he spent nine years at the Den, making just under 250 appearances for the club before he got his big move to Nottingham Forest. When he made his Millwall debut, the Lions were still in the old Third Division. Towards the end of his time there, they became one of the most formidable sides in the Second Division, and even managed to secure two seasons in the top tier.

Sheringham might have come from humble beginnings, but he was a huge part of Millwall's rise up the divisions. He was the club's top goalscorer for four seasons between 1986 and 1991, and twice played in every single fixture of the campaign. He smashed all of the club's goal records, scoring 111 times in all competitions and so securing his status as a Millwall legend. Then he went on to play for West Ham between 2004 and 2007. Typical Teddy, blotting the copybook.

The Moment: Sealing The Treble

If there is an exploit for which Sheringham is truly beloved, it is his goal against Bayern Munich in the Champions League final of 1999. It was a trademark Sheringham strike: a hopeful ball was pinged into the box, before he turned on his heel and scuffed it in at the near post. It was the first minute of time added on, and he had saved Manchester United from runners-up status. Two minutes later, his glancing header fell at the feet of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and United were the champions of Europe.

Prior to moving to United, many thought that Sheringham's career would end without silverware. Two seasons later, he had lifted every trophy worth winning. His intervention in that Champions League final ensured that he would go down in the history books, and that he would have an iconic achievement to call his own. That at least leaves him with a moment of unspoilt adulation amongst Manchester United supporters, a moment of immaculate gratitude, even if it only made other fans resent him all the more.

Closing Statements

"I would rather sit down and have a cuppa with Neil Ruddock, who broke my leg in two places in 1996, than with Teddy Sheringham, who I've pretty much detested for the past 15 years."

– Andy Cole, writing for The Independent in 2010.

Words: @W_F_Magee // Illustration: @Dan_Draws