In 1994, a Nike ad campaign saw Eric Cantona’s imposing head and shoulders placed in front of a St. George’s Cross, inscribed with the words: ‘66 was a great year for English football, Eric was born’. While it undoubtedly was a year to savour, as King Eric came into the world with the collar of his shirt (probably) already popped, along with England’s lifting of the Jules Rimet trophy at Wembley, English football happened to be treated to another priceless gift in those twelve months: the birth of Teddy Sheringham.
At the dawn of the Premier League, Teddy didn’t take long to establish himself as one of the league’s deadliest English strikers. The country was blessed in this decade by a wealth of quality home-grown goal scorers – take your pick from the likes of Wright, Cole, Fowler, Shearer, Le Tissier, Owen and Ferdinand. Yet for all of the magic those forwards provided, it was Sheringham’s golden grin shining brightest by the century’s end, in the reflection of multiple pieces of silverware.
He announced himself to the Premier League – and the Premier League to the world – by rocketing the division’s first ever televised goal for Nottingham Forest past David James. A strike showing the first early signs that this new league venture was going to provide the Walthamstow-born striker with a home for many years to come. Before his exploits appeared on satellite TV, Sheringham made his mark by firing Millwall into the top tier of English football and regularly finishing the season as their highest goal scorer during the late 80s.
But with respect to Millwall, the 90s represented a huge step up in Sheringham’s career, going from one-club goal machine, to leading and feeding the line at three of England’s footballing giants. German legend Jurgen Klinsmann played for some of Europe’s biggest teams, yet he called Sheringham the most intelligent striker he had ever lined up alongside. Terry Venables, who coached him at both club and international level, called him simply “the best all-round finisher I’ve ever worked with”.
Sheringham’s football education had been vast and cultured early on with loan spells at Aldershot and Swedish side Djurgårde. With no electric pace, it was a striker’s instinct, tactical nouse and ability to make the right pass at the right time which were evident in helping to expand and extend his career at the top level to well beyond the average age for an outfield player in the world’s most physically demanding league.
That first spell at Tottenham Hotspur revealed a man truly enjoying home comforts. A north Londoner regularly hitting double figures for the club he grew up supporting. But what his Spurs goals could not provide were trophies. The fifth season of Teddy’s first Spurs stint returned just eight goals. Worryingly low for the hitman, but even at 31 years of age, this was not the end of his career. Not by a long stretch it turned out, with his greatest moment yet to come.
A move to Old Trafford followed a fallout with Spurs chairman Alan Sugar. Previously described as his ‘nemesis’, the hard-nosed businessman refused Sheringham his desired five-year, higher wage contract that would have also entitled him to a testimonial from his beloved club. He was replaced for a greater fee and higher wages by Les Ferdinand.
Signing for Man United was designed to fill a void left behind by fellow 66’er Cantona. Replacing a club icon is a daunting task for any new signing, and the pair were not exactly like-for-like replacements. Teddy had built his reputation on benevolent playmaking and calm, yet ruthless finishing within the 18-yard-box – 137 of his 146 Premier League goals were scored within that area, whereas Cantona always seemed to destined to provide the moments of genius, spectacle and occasional madness.
The Frenchman’s inspiration may have lit up the Premier League, but it never shone quite as brightly in Europe. Even by the time Sheringham had arrived, Europe’s biggest prize had remained elusive from Man United’s trophy room for three decades. After an underwhelming and empty-handed first season for United, the new number ten found himself frequently rotated in the 1998/99 striker axis. The plaudits of that attacking line were often taken by the electrifying chemistry of Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole, or the super-sub exploits of Ole Gunnar Solskjær. Come what May however, Teddy was the name echoing as loudly as any from Wembley to Barcelona, thanks to one nutmeg, one lay-off, one spinning shot and one glancing header during a remarkable week of glory.
The treble heroics have been written, talked and sung about countlessly since that night at the Nou Camp, but lest we forget Teddy’s influence on those cup final victories – hallmarks of his striking prowess. Throughout his career, he displayed the sharpness of youth combined with the intelligence of a veteran. It was no surprise that he rose with the dawn of Premier League as a youngster, and went on to become the oldest scorer in its history, as well as one of the highest.
Most importantly of all, it was those four touches from the thinking man’s footballer in two cup finals which meant Sheringham came into the new millennium at the pinnacle of club football, and as one of the most accomplished strikers in the world.