Tony Currie’s life is one of colour, the tales varying. The fractured childhood with an absent father and 12 in a house off Hendon Way, the Cockney taken in by Sheffield United, the memorable Isle of Dogs night with Bobby Moore.
But none of that is where he starts. Where he starts is with Alan Ball, friend and one-time mentor, and an off-the-cuff comment, likely made in jest, on a television programme with Mick Channon dedicated to the greats of 1970s football; a comment has remained with Currie for three decades.
This is an unprompted story told as he discusses how such an extroverted midfielder, one who revelled in playing the showman and once planted a kiss on Alan Birchenall, could co-exist alongside Currie the man.
Tony Currie had a rough time following his retirement from football in 1984
The Sheffield United legend looked back on his career and his biggest memories and regrets
The man who could not sleep, the man who could not hold a conversation with anybody outside of the game, the man not wholly comfortable in his own skin.
‘You get people… do you remember Alan Ball’s programme with Mick? They talked about me on there,’ says Currie. ‘Bally was great. He took me under his wing with England. But they were saying I was lazy. Bally said similar to Mick, “I can see his wife shaking him out of bed saying wake up Tony, you’ve got training”.
‘That was totally not right. It was hurtful to me. They obviously had to make a programme and I wasn’t the only one on it, but it was quite hurtful. How can you be lazy and play more than 600 games? If I didn’t run about then they wouldn’t have picked me. We were good mates and he still owed me £90 from a card game. I never did get that back.’
The footage does not appear to be online yet it plays on a loop in Currie’s mind. This is not a score-settling exercise — he also remembers that Channon compared him to George Best during that very episode — but one Currie uses to explain his mental fragility and how some misunderstood him. Lazy is, after all, a trigger word. It is how Don Revie termed him when effectively jettisoning him from England.
Currie was deemed ‘lazy’ and was a misunderstood figure during his playing days
Channon and Ball had both said such glowing things, but he held on to one remark. ‘Yeah, that.’
It is the sort of incident that the 71-year-old feels ready to detail in his autobiography, Imperfect 10. How it made him feel as someone who silently craved acceptance. The experience of raking over his highs and lows has been cathartic.
‘It’s made me think what a fool I’ve been not to have treatment, the therapy,’ he says. ‘I don’t like those words but to talk to people and have it out. What’s the phrase? A problem shared is a problem halved. This is half the reason why I wanted to do the book.’
Currie has always been grateful to Sheffield United. For the eight revered years spent as a player — during which he turned down Manchester United for fear of ‘meeting new people’ — but perhaps more poignantly, for the community officer job offered to him when he was on his knees, no money or future.
Currie played more than 300 times for Sheffield United and picked up 17 caps for England
That was 33 years ago and he still performs the role. The difference now is that one of Bramall Lane’s stands is named after the club’s greatest player. Was a job in the community — daily dealings with the public — not at odds with his personality? Needs must, comes the answer.
‘I hadn’t had a job for years, I had been back living with my mum. I didn’t have any income other than a bit of taxi driving and working in a video shop for a couple of months apiece. It was a reintroduction to life, it taught me how to talk to people. The coaching at schools, parents, birthday parties twice a week. I was frightened to death of teachers, going into their offices and telling them what we wanted. I was taught the trade.’
Currie, now on his third marriage, had two children by the age of 21 with first wife Linda, but moved back to Yorkshire as a divorcee after his playing career.
Linda grappled with depression when he signed for the Blades in 1968. She and her husband fought the problems alone. So it is little surprise to hear that pitches acted as his escape.
Currie’s eyes light up when it is suggested that in describing his introversion, he does not sound dissimilar to the way Colin Bell spoke about himself in later life. ‘Ah, the memories, a good mate of mine,’ he smiles, agreeing awkwardness can be mistaken for rudeness. ‘I’ve had all that. Belly was lovely.’
The two are intrinsically linked. Both fantastic midfielders in an era full of them. Both with unfulfilled England ambitions. Both painfully shy. Both with turbulent backgrounds. Bell’s mother died before he was one; Currie’s father left when he was four, and he spent his childhood living with grandparents, aunties, uncles, cousins under one roof.
Curie has been the Blades’ community officer for 33 years and he has a stand named after him
Bell said he wished for ‘a better personality like Mike (Summerbee)’ and Currie’s favourite England memory involves the effervescent City legend. ‘You get in with the England boys and…’ Currie trails off and laughs.
‘There was the night after a match when we went to the Isle of Dogs. I got in with the big boys: Bobby Moore, Summerbee, Martin Peters. There were a few of us coming back in Bobby’s Jag and Bobby was laid out in the back on everybody’s laps. There was nothing outside of those England trips. I wasn’t one of them. I was happy at home.’
Then we are back with Ball. ‘There was another one with Bally. We had a few drinks and he took me to a place called the Candy Box around three o’clock. We were there until six, drinking Southern Comfort. They were going down very nicely. I wasn’t very well the next day and haven’t touched it since.
‘Those are the nights that stand out after England games.’
But there should have been more than 17 caps, something he puts down to Revie. The manager infamously told him, Alan Hudson, Stan Bowles, Charlie George, Frank Worthington and Rodney Marsh one day that they were not in his plans. Currie played once in three years. In style, there are similarities between that crop and the flair at Gareth Southgate’s disposal.
‘I can’t see the similarities at all — they get games, we didn’t! Like me under Sir Alf Ramsey. I was in, played six in a row… and then he got the bloody sack. A big mistake. Seventeen caps over seven years isn’t a lot. But look at Alan.
‘Two caps. How must he have felt? Huddy played the Germans on his own in 1975 — taking the mick — and played once after that. I counted it up once. The rest got about 25 caps between them.’
Currie spent time with Brazilian Icon Pele during his three week stay in Sheffield in 2007
Currie’s crowning cap came at Wembley, a televised 1-1 draw with Brazil. The following day’s Daily Mail considered him ‘in eloquent mood’. He still has the pictures of tussles with Zico. Somebody in Sao Paulo took notice.
‘Pele was over in Sheffield for three weeks in 2007,’ says Currie. ‘We spent ages together, had dinner, long photoshoots.
He said, “Yes I remember you, Tony, you were a great player”. Jimmy Greaves was my idol but Pele’s probably the greatest. To hear those words from him was lovely.’
It’s good that Currie also remembers the kind words of his contemporaries.
Imperfect 10, by Tony Currie with Andy Pack, is published by Vertical Editions on November 2, RRP £16.99. Limited signed copies available at verticaleditions.com
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