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Interviews

Phil Jagielka - full circle

21 August 2019

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For United's first game back in the Premier League, UTB, United's matchday programme, caught up with a familiar face, who returned to the club in the summer after 12 years away.

Phil Jagielka spoke exclusively and in-depth about his first spell with the Blades and how his subsequent return came about.

The near 3,000 word piece was the 'big interview' in the Palace issue and that will be a reoccurring trend throughout the coming weeks and month, with Luke Freeman's thoughts set to go to print ahead of the weekend.

At just £3.50, following a first price rise in 15 years, UTB will now be a 100-page publication for every Premier League fixture this season and it packed full of other intriguing content from the players and management, in addition to former favourites of previous eras.

United are currently selling subscriptions to UTB which will ensure a copy delivered to your door on the morning of every game.

Priced at £99 for a season to a UK address; £149 to an EU address or £199 to anywhere else and all can be ordered through our design partners Ignition Sports Media at ignitionsportsmedia.com


The big interview with... Phil Jagielka

Ahead of the Premier League season, UTB caught up with returning hero Phil Jagielka for an in depth chat on his first spell with the club, and the 2019/20 season.

One promotion, three Player of the Year awards and 287 games across seven years as a professional - no wonder it took Phil Jagielka less than 15 minutes to decide on a return to Bramall Lane.

It is almost 20 years since he first donned the red and white of Sheffield United, and after a career which has taken him to World Cups, European Championships and FA Cup finals, he is back in S2 with a burning desire to make an impact at the club which gave him the platform for his glittering career.

In the modern day era where players move every couple of years, 'Jags' is one of a dying breed who have shown loyalty to just two clubs - after spending the last 12 years with Everton - before returning to the Steel City to add to the seven years already served in his first stint.

Now 36, Phil is in the twilight of his career, and admitted at the end of last season he faced a big decision over his next career move. He needn't have worried. Within a quarter-of-an-hour of receiving a phone call from Blades boss Chris Wilder, his mind was made up.

Phil told UTB: "With not getting an extension and being a free agent, it was decision time for me about whether I wanted to continue and where. There was only going to be a certain place I could have gone which ticked all those boxes, and when the manager rang me that was the first box ticked. After speaking to him for 15 minutes, pretty much all of the other boxes were ticked as well.

"You always keep looking at situations at clubs, and obviously seeing how well United were doing and with my situation at Everton, you're never sure what might happen. The call came, and it was just what I wanted to hear.

"I know I have a role to play, I'll need to prove things to people. I'm sure one of the questions will be about my age, but I can't change my birthday, it is up to me to prove I can still play to the level at my age. There is only one way to do that which is going out there and performing. I am excited about the challenge ahead."

A modern-day United legend, after breaking into the first team at the turn of the century, Phil was one of a clutch of youth graduates who would provide the bedrock of our success under Neil Warnock.

During his first spell he was seen predominantly as one of the younger pros, being guided by a sprinkling of experienced heads who helped spearhead promotion to the top flight in 2006.

Fast forward 13 years, and Phil is now the elder statesmen, as he looks to imprint some of the values laid down to him during his formative years, to the current crop in the Bramall Lane dressing room.

Phil explained: "As a young lad at the time perhaps I didn't understand it as much, but some of the experienced heads - our success really was down to them.

"Sometimes even if they didn't play all the time, they were always there, and they really brought something to the squad. At the time, you don't see it as much until obviously now I'm the senior pro with that mind set and thought process. Having those type of lads around to guide the dressing room, the likes of Craig Short, you couldn't put a price on that kind of knowledge."

There is no doubting Phil's credentials as one of our greatest success stories. After serving the Blades with distinction, his form for Everton earned him similar cult status amongst the Goodison Park faithful. His progress earned him 40 caps for England, whilst he also played in the FA Cup final for the Toffees which ended in defeat to Chelsea.

It is fair to say the Sale-born ace has made the most of his career - a career which began as substitute back in 2000 as United hosted Swindon Town on the final day of the 1999/2000 campaign.

"I remember it well," Phil recalls. "I came on at right-back and just ran up and down like an idiot. I remember being super excited to just be on the bench, and just to be involved in the squad. I then came off the bench and to be honest I forgot really what I was supposed to do, and I ended up just running around for a few minutes at right-back.

"The following season I was included in the training squad for the first-team, and whilst I didn't play too many games, I was always in and around the squad and that was a great experience for me. It was quite difficult because I still had commitments to my studies and everything else around it, but it was just a fantastic feeling to have made the grade if you like so early.

"The 2001/2 season I started the first game away at Nottingham Forest. Ever since then I was in the squad, if not playing, for the next six years."

After gaining valuable experience with increasing opportunities, mainly in a midfield role, Phil firmly put himself on the map during the 2002/03 'triple assault' season. United, under Neil Warnock, would make both domestic cup semi-finals, finish third in the Championship and qualify for the play-off final in Cardiff after an unforgettable second-leg success against Nottingham Forest.

United would eventually be defeated on all fronts, but now in reflective mood, Phil, who played 54 times in all competitions, does look back on the campaign with great fondness as a career defining season in his then fledgling career.

He said: "I remember sitting down on the coach with Wayne Allison afterwards and he said to me it would be the best season we'll ever remember. I looked at him and thought he must be joking because we lost both cup semi-finals and the play-off final, but in a strange way he was right. It taught me how to handle disappointment, and mentally it did toughen me up to deal with the kind of scenarios which football puts your way.

"It was just an incredible ride and the success was just down to the momentum we picked up. We took all the cup games seriously, we had some legendary comebacks and we just kept the momentum flowing. The cup games that were midweek, if we produced a victory, the good feeling would transfer into the league game on the Saturday. The manager was able to change things up with the squad going forward to help, but thankfully for me I was able to play in virtually every game.

"After losing the final, the parade was a little surreal because when I was making my way up through the ranks as a YTS, the stands were a little empty at that time, the club were stuck in the middle of the league. So to turn it around so quickly was amazing. The stadium was upgraded with the corner stand being constructed, crowds increased and there were so many ridiculously noisy night games that season, the transformation was incredible. The whole city had been flipped upside down in a matter of two to three seasons. To see so many turn out in the city centre despite not going up and achieving what everyone was desperate for was incredible. You don't really understand it at the time but looking back you know you realise it was a special season."

After narrowly missing out on the play-offs in the next two seasons, despite being well placed at times, promotion was secured in 2005/6.

'Jags' was a constant throughout the period clocking up a healthy number of appearances as United secured a top flight return for the first time since 1994.

After seeing his side fall just short over the past three seasons, boss Warnock brought quality and experience during the close season, bringing the likes of Paul Ifill, Craig Short, David Unsworth and Neil Shipperley to the club, and their impact was immediate as the Blades started the season like a train.

Despite a mid-season dip, United virtually secured promotion with a victory at Cardiff to take us over the line with a handful of games remaining - removing the necessity of another nervous play-off campaign.

"With the majority of the squad still there from 2003, we were desperate to avoid the play-offs because our history wasn't that great," Phil remembers.

"When it got a little close, the thought of avoiding a play-off campaign spurred us on again. Don't get me wrong we would have taken a play-off win, but ideally it was about making sure it didn't come down to that. Thankfully after a fantastic start, we were off and running and we managed to secure it with a few games remaining.

"The senior players dragged us through one or two tricky moments. Having them around, you have to put that down to great management from Neil Warnock. He knew how to get teams up, he's a promotion specialist. He knew there would be a period where it might get tricky, and he just knew how to deal with it.

"The promotion was quite similar to the one the lads have had here. I remember the draw at Cardiff pretty much guaranteed us promotion if Leeds didn't win by so many. I remember being up at Shirecliffe and experiencing similar scenes to what happened last season. We had to wait on a result, pretty much knowing it was done and then the champagne was flowing, and I think I ended up going in person to BBC Radio Sheffield to do an interview. It was a little hazy, but it was just amazing. For it to happen here, in a team where three or four of us had come through the system, to be together with the likes of Monty (Nick Montgomery) and Tongey (Michael Tonge) - it was special. We have a bond for life, we still talk now and that was purely down to the experiences we had together."

After arriving on the scene as a midfielder, there was change in the air between 2002 and 2006 as Phil was switched initially to right-back, before finding a permanent home as a central-defender - a move which eventually would see the versatile operator carve out a lengthy career in the Premier League and on the international scene.

But it was the changing nature of the English game, coupled with our first Premier League campaign in 12 years, which finally convinced the future Everton skipper that playing in central-defence was going to be a permanent switch.

He said: "Back in 2001-2 you had to earn your stripes, so I played predominantly at right-back. I could play in a number of positions, so I was very handy to have around, but sometimes you would get shifted from midfield to right-back etc.

"I think the only previous time I played in the middle of defence was maybe in a youth cup game where we had no fit centre-halves. I didn't play there again for a couple of years.

"The game changed slightly, and I think going up to the Premier League someone believed that I would be better in there. Shorty (Craig Short) arrived the season before and as soon as he saw me, him, Morgs (Chris Morgan) and others said I would end up playing centre-half permanently. I almost had a bet with them saying, no chance. It wasn't really a position I saw myself playing in because most of the centre-halves at that time were six foot plus and they were bigger and stronger than I was. I was smaller in stature, but a lot quicker and I played the game in a slightly different way. As we all know with the way the game has developed, there was a period when defenders were becoming more mobile and less physical. The change suited me, and playing alongside Morgs and Claude Davis in the Premier League, those lads offered the physicality when needed. My role slightly differed to theirs."

There would be no fairy-tale ending for Phil, despite again being a mainstay for the Blades in the top flight. No fan needs reminding of the circumstances behind our relegation on the final day of the season, and it is a feeling that still renders a bitter taste for Phil.

"Going down on goal difference on the final day of the season. It couldn't get much worse," he recollects.

"With the points we accumulated, if you look at the next five or six seasons that would have been plenty to keep us up. With the Tevez and Mascherano scandal as well, for whatever reason everything just seemed to go against us.

"After I left, the years that followed, well, it was hard to watch at times with what happened to the club, especially dropping down another division.

"But it is amazing to see how well the staff, players and everyone at the club have done in the last three years. The supporters have really got behind the club, and the effort of everyone to get us back to where we belong has been immense. It is definitely a Premier League club, and it is up to us as a group to go one better than when I was here before.

"I've had so many good luck messages since I signed, it has been really nice to see that. The whole atmosphere of the stadium, in a good way, does feel slightly different because it is a long time since I've been here. The training ground hasn't changed a tremendous amount, the pitches are much better than I remember, and the facilities have improved. I wouldn't say it was night and day, there are some slight tweaks here and there, but it did really feel like I was coming back home. I am really looking forward to the season."


Jags... his early influences

Who had the biggest impact on a young Phil Jagielka back in the day? Here, 'Jags' gives a rundown on those who helped him onto the lengthy path of success.

Curtis Woodhouse

"He was a big influence when I first broke into the first-team environment, and he is someone I still speak to. He was the first person I came into contact with at first-team level, and straight away he told me that we didn't need another central midfielder! That was his opening line, which half scared me senseless. After that he was definitely someone you could go to for advice."

Bobby Ford

"Like Curtis, Bobby Ford was another really good professional. I cleaned his boots before I became involved in the first-team, that's something that doesn't happen anymore. He was good to me."

Rob Kozluk

"I also cleaned Kozzy's boots for a time, and every Sheffield United fan will know what he was like. He was an absolute lunatic, in a good way with the things he did, so he made you feel right at home straight away."

Shaun Murphy

"Shaun Murphy was my first central defensive partner. He quite enjoyed the fact that he could go up and head everything and allow me to run around and do everything else. That was the start of an interesting relationship when I had a stint alongside him at centre-back."

Michael Brown

"Michael Brown was also good in the dressing room, and he lived near Manchester where my parents were so he was very good to me with lifts and advice. I still speak to him regularly."

Stuart McCall and Wayne Allison

"Stuart McCall and Wayne Allison were two older pros, and for me looking at them for the age they were at that time - they were great examples. They were still playing to a very good standard late in their career, and still performing consistently."

Craig Short

"Craig Short was another who came in and was a great example to me. These guys carried on playing into their late 30s and that gives me the knowledge that if I am mentally strong enough I could try and do the same."


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