AS our captain and leader he has been a role model for the younger players coming through our ranks. Off the field he has always been a truly fantastic ambassador for our club.
The words of Everton chairman Bill Kenwright and, in a nutshell, the reason why Phil Jagielka has returned to Bramall Lane. Loved just as much in Sheffield 2 as Liverpool 4, the defender might not now be everyone’s choice. But his second coming at Sheffield United was a no-brainer for club and the former England international, who won 40 caps and played in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. After Everton released him in early June his arrival comes as no surprise to Blades fans either.
Manchester-born Jags, a product of the Blades academy as a 15-year-old, who made 287appearances and scored 22 goals before a £4million move to Goodison Park in 2007, a club record sale at the time, will finish his distinguished career where it all began.
On the eve of what will be United’s first home match in the Premier League since then, the visit of Crystal Palace, the man voted by fans in 2014 as second only to Tony Currie who was names United’s best ever player, will be celebrating his 37th birthday.
In an era when top flight football is performed at breakneck pace and fitness levels have never been higher, or the game under more scrutiny, it would under any other circumstance be no place for a man with a big reputation to put all at risk for one last hurrah. There is good reason why he was limited to just seven appearances for Everton last season, a club where, barring injury, he had been an almost ever-present. Dropping down to the Championship or a switch to the Scottish Premier League where Celtic and Rangers both showed an interest, might be more appropriate.
But this is no ordinary move and sentiment isn’t a factor. Blades boss Chris Wilder is being forced by budget restrictions to target Championship players in his preparations for the huge challenge ahead and is in urgent need of some Premier League know-how.
Jagielka possesses that in abundance having played more than four times as many matches (322) as his four new teammates who have top flight experience put together (77). With it comes a vast knowledge of dealing with some of the world’s top strikers and, just as importantly, game management when under the cosh. Something United are going to have to get used to.
As Kenwright rightly said, Jagielka is a leader. For United the speed of thought in his vastly experienced head rather than a waning athleticism is the most valuable asset. For a man signed for nothing on a year’s contract and a huge reduction in wages, it could prove to be one of the most rewarding of an illustrious career in terms of contribution. It may even lead to a new lease of life in coaching and management.
“To have Phil in and around our changing room in one of the most important seasons in our recent history is going to be invaluable,” said Wilder.
Not one for romanticism the Blades boss hasn’t offered a stage for Jags to simply bask in the heartfelt welcome he will receive. An old-timer returning home for an easy ride. “He’s come to play, he knows he’s got to earn his place but I’m buzzing having spent time with him and seen the desire he’s got to succeed at the back end of his career.”
A quotation of Jagielka’s is displayed on a wall close to the main entrance at the Lane. ‘Sheffield United always has been, and always will be in my blood’.
It says much for his time at United that his decisive part in the downfall of 2006-07, is rarely mentioned. The moment when on that gut-wrenching final day of the season his arm was inexplicably raised high above his head as Kevin Kilbane delivered a free-kick into the box at the Bramall Lane end, resulting in handball and a penalty award to Wigan Athletic. A spot kick tucked away by David Unsworth, the man United had released to the Latics only three months earlier, relegated his former club on goal difference as Wigan survived.
To rub salt into the wound, Carlos Tevez, as we now know was playing illegally for West Ham, ensured an unlikely win at newly-crowned champions Manchester United with the only goal of the match to ensure safety for the Hammers whatever the result at the Lane. “It’s a ruthless, horrible game at times. It could easily have been us,” said a mightily relieved Wigan boss Paul Jewell.
Jags, part of Neil Warnock’s promotion side 12 months earlier and voted Championship Player of the Year, immediately moved on as Everton pounced. But he was never castigated for his decisive part in what cost United £60m on the day and much more in their 12-year absence from the Premier League since.
As catastrophic as that moment of carelessness was, it was completely out of character. Jagielka had done more than enough by then to embed himself as a firm Kop favourite.
A man who started out in midfield but also played right-back, centre-half and, famously as Warnock’s stand-in goalkeeper which enabled him to name an extra outfield player on the bench.
Jags’ performance between the sticks is best remembered for the half-hour he replaced an injured Paddy Kenny with United 1-0 up against Arsenal at the Lane and kept a clean sheet which included a top class save from Robin Van Persie.
“I like having an extra forward on the bench. I didn't panic when he went in goal. He doesn't get worried and neither do I. It's the only chance he's got of being man-of-the-match,” joked Warnock.
Jagielka found himself in goal on four occasions for the Blades, the most memorable for me was at Crystal Palace in 2003, not for Jags’ performance with the gloves – in the end he didn’t have much to do – but the knife-edge circumstances of his arrival in place of Kenny. United were 2-0 up, then had Michael Brown dismissed before Andy Johnson beat Jagielka from the spot, Palace having earlier had a penalty saved by Kenny to deny future Blade Neil Shipperley.
For those old enough, who could forget his 30-yard screamer in added time in front of the Kop which earned United their first Premier League points since being promoted in 2006 after having started the season without a win in six matches. A 3-2 triumph against Gareth Southgate’s Middlesbrough and a goal celebration from me which resulted in my gold wedding ring flying from a finger never to be seen again despite an extensive search aided by stewards afterwards.
During his Championship days at United, teammates joked Jagielka must be boss Warnock’s love child due to the good humoured favouritism shown to him. When training in heavy rain, the manager once pulled Jags aside and the pair watched the session from the sidelines under the shelter of an umbrella held by Warnock.
It says much for Jags character that what made him a favourite at the Lane seamlessly transferred to his 12 years at Everton and where he was captain for six of them. His immense contribution across 358 appearances for the Toffees earned a special place in the blue half of Merseyside and utmost respect from the other side of Stanley Park.
“Jags is quite simply one of our greatest ever servants,” said Kenwright lamenting the inevitable decision not to renew his contract. “From the day he joined us in July 2007, he has epitomised what it is to be an Evertonian and will remain someone who embodies the spirit and values of the Blues.
“Who will ever forget that momentous afternoon at Wembley when he stepped up and slotted home the penalty (against Manchester United in a shoot-out at Wembley) to send us to the (FA) Cup final, or the day he scored one of the best Merseyside derby goals of all time?
“And, of course, every Evertonian shared his pride when he became the first Everton player to lead out an England side back in 2015.
“As our captain and leader he has been a role model for the younger players coming through our ranks. Off the field he has always been a truly fantastic ambassador for our club and a great supporter of our charity.
“I know I speak for all Evertonians when I send Jags our heartfelt thanks for everything he has done for our club, on and off the pitch, and wish him well for the future.”
You really can’t receive a better send-off or character reference than that. He might be almost at the end of his career but horses for courses. United have re-signed a perfect fit and an absolute gem.