Sky Sports' Johnny Phillips: Sheridan was there in Gazza’s time of need

Stood on the steps of the Princess Grace Hospital in central London, physiotherapist John Sheridan faced a swarm of reporters, cameras and microphones as he prepared to read a statement about the future prospects of England’s greatest footballer of his generation.

Tottenham Hotspur's Paul Gascoigne injuring his knee during a heavy tackle on Nottingham Forest's Gary Charles
Tottenham Hotspur's Paul Gascoigne injuring his knee during a heavy tackle on Nottingham Forest's Gary Charles

It is a scene etched in the memory. “I’ll remember standing on those steps until the day I die. When I got home to see my wife, we turned on the television and there I was, on the Nine O’Clock News.”

It is 30 years since the 1991 FA Cup Final, when Paul Gascoigne left an indelible mark on the Wembley occasion, as well as the knee of Nottingham Forest defender Gary Charles. The country was at the peak of Gazza-mania. He had made a tearful and triumphant return from the World Cup in Italy a year earlier, lifting England to new heights on foreign soil with his fearless and mesmeric displays.

Back home the following season he became the talisman in Terry Venables’ Spurs side. “We wouldn’t have got to the cup final without him, he was taking games by the scruff of the neck,” Sheridan recalls. The Wembley semi-final against arch-rivals Arsenal went down in folklore, with Gascoigne’s 30-yard free-kick struck past David Seaman one of the finest goals the old stadium ever witnessed.

“I’m off to get ma suit measured!” he announced in a famous televised post-match interview, perhaps hinting at the heightened sense of emotion he would take into the final against Nottingham Forest, a game that would mark his final appearance in England before a £5.5million transfer to Serie A giants Lazio.

“I think everyone is hyped up for a Cup final,” Sheridan recalls. “Maybe because it was his last game, his swansong before leaving for Lazio, he wanted to give the Spurs supporters something to remember. I don’t know what it’s like as a player but, as a physio, walking out of the tunnel at Wembley made my hair stand on end.”

An early studs-up challenge on Garry Parker could have drawn a red card, but referee Roger Milford showed leniency that would end up costing Gascoigne in the long-term. Minutes later, a knee-high challenge on Charles left the perpetrator with a torn cruciate knee ligament. To compound the incident, Stuart Pearce put Forest ahead, from the resulting free-kick. Gascoigne tried to play on but, after initial treatment, he fell to the turf in agony.

“Dave Butler (first team physio) went on first of all,” Sheridan continues. “I was consultant physio, so I only went on second time to examine him and take him off,” said Sheridan. “We went into the medical room and I knew he had a bad injury. When the doctor looked at him, I said I would go to hospital with Gazza. I remember telling Paul I’d get him fit. We both had tears in our eyes.”

Spurs went on to win the match 2-1, but the day changed for Sheridan the moment Gascoigne made that tackle.

“I went back to Wembley after the hospital, but the game had lost its zest for me. I knew we had to sort Paul out. That day was my wedding anniversary, so the rest of the weekend plans went up in smoke. I remember on the Saturday night I couldn’t drink at the celebration party as I always watched the players’ operations. I knew I had to be up at 6:30am on Sunday morning to be in the operating theatre with him.”

By Sunday afternoon, the Princess Grace Hospital was besieged with journalists.

“The press were gathering outside, hundreds of them from all over the world, with television cameras,” Sheridan continues. “I remember after the operation, the police superintendent at the hospital said, ‘John you’ll have to get someone down from the club to make a statement as this is disturbing all the patients’. Nobody was at the club as they were all enjoying the Cup celebrations, so I was there holding the baby. I wrote up a statement and went out to be greeted by a multitude of press, media and cameras. It was funny, I remember trying to get away from them afterwards when they were chasing me with questions. I knew a couple of them and I said, ‘Look, give us a bit of a head-start will you!’”

Gascoigne’s move to Italy was held up by a year, with both clubs agreeing that Sheridan should oversee his rehabilitation. The physio formed a strong bond with Lazio’s own medical department, spending time in Rome when Gascoigne was fit enough to meet up with his new club and even treating Lazio’s own players during his stay in the country.

“Paul was very easy to work with, he was an inspiration and his dedication to get fit was brilliant,” Sheridan explains. “I couldn’t fault him, he just wanted to play again. Sometimes he spurred us on. I’m sure he had times when he was down, but very rarely, and I think we picked each other up.”

Over a year later, in September 1992, Gascoigne made his Lazio debut against Genoa, in a game televised live in the UK on Channel 4. Sheridan had kept his promise. Perhaps there was nobody better placed to help, because the physio’s story involved overcoming a life-changing injury of his own.

As a teenager, Sheridan fractured his femur in three places and caught osteomyelitis – an infection of the bone– in hospital. It left him with a limp for the rest of his life. “It was really tough to overcome, mentally and physically, as I was in hospital for a year. You go from being someone really positive to being a bit negative. It taught me so much psychologically and helped me later on in life with the players. It gave me an edge because you understood what they were feeling, you’d experienced something that had changed your life.”

Sheridan began his football physio career in the non-league arena with Luton Vauxhall Motors and Tring Town, before David Pleat offered him a role at Luton Town.

“I’ll always owe him a debt of gratitude,” Sheridan adds. “David was a brilliant manager, very astute. When he left Luton he asked me to go with him to Tottenham, he was instrumental in my football career.” Professional football was not something I’d ever thought about because of my disability, as I had a limp. When David called me, I wasn’t sure how the crowds would react. I thought they’d take the mickey. I actually tried to put him off hiring me, but he was convinced I could do the job as he could see beyond my disability. I went from running on in front of a hundred people in non-league football to a Wembley Cup final in front of millions around the world.”

John Sheridan’s autobiography, ‘The Limping Physio’, is out in September with Pitch Publishing.

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