Shep: The bag man with the Jules Rimet
It wasn’t until 2009 that the full World Cup 1966 winning squad and staff received their medals. A day in the sunshine at 10 Downing Street saw England players and staff receive their dues from Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Originally the XI players on the pitch at the end of the game received winners medals, but the rest of the squad and staff were finally given more recognition.
Over 40 years had passed since the iconographic game at Wembley and time had not been kind to those lucky men. Alf Ramsey, England’s stern manager in chief had passed away in 1999 - his medal was collected by George Cohen. Amongst the sea of aging men, stood Peggy Shepherdson. She collected the medal, with her daughter Linda, on behalf of her late husband, Harold. It was Harold’s unassuming nature and steady demeanour which offered England so much and helped it achieve so greatly. Harold was the quiet hand behind the throne to Alf Ramsey’s tight, professional grip. He was the mediator, the confidant, the motivator and Middlesbrough Football Club’s everyman.
Harold Shepherdson, or Shep as he was known, began his life like many footballers of his day working through the junior ranks of local teams. A competent yet commanding centre half, Shep spent his early days with junior side East End. They were a strong side who reached the North Riding Junior Cup Final and were due to face South Bank’s St Peter’s. East End were stewarded by Shep’s presence and ability to read the game while St Peter’s had the lethal threat of a young Wilf Mannion. Shep’s task was to keep the young Golden Boy quiet and he did so with aplomb.
Many years later Shep told Nick Varley, “First time there was a challenge I whacked him, accidentally on purpose if you know what I mean. We knew full well that the only player we had to stop was Wilf. After that my team went on to win and Wilf was very quiet...As I went up to get my medal I got hit on the back of the head by this big umbrella and the woman with it was calling me an animal.” Wilf also remembered the encounter “I was about two yards away and he thumped this ball and it hit me in the privates. Good gosh. That was me finished.”
The animosity was quickly subsided as Wilf joined Shep as a professional at Middlesbrough FC. The pair would go on to be lifelong friends, whose careers and lives weaved and diverged at numerous points in their lives. Shepherdson signed his professional deal in 1936 but had to wait until 1937 to make his debut in the final game of the 1936/37 season against West Bromwich Albion - the match ended 3-1 to the Baggies.
The following season Shepherdson struggled to establish a starting position as manager Wilf Gallow preferred to play full backs George Laking, Bobby Stewart and Billy Brown. Shep finished the season with just 9 appearances as Boro were competing at the top end of Division One - finishing in fifth place. Boro’s trajectory was continuing and, while Shep was relegated to watching from the stands he was a part of the team, he soaked up as much as he could and stepped up when he was called upon - a trait that would typify his career.
Unfortunately, as it did in 1914, the steam train of history drove through Boro’s hopes of reaching their full potential. It was a given that Boro would have won the 1939/40 season had it been played in full, but the sound of artillery fire from the continent made Shepherdson and the other young players on Teesside face up to the consequences of a different world emerging, a world where football would play no part. Football was quickly halted after war was declared and players faced a choice, sign up or wait to be conscripted. For Shep, it was easy, and his choice would dictate the rest of his life.
With World War II beginning to rage on the continent and move closer to home, many signed up in their droves. Barrack life allowed many footballing stars to play for the local team, and such teams like Aldershot Town were able to boast such stars as Wolves’s Stan Cullis and Everton’s Tommy Lawton and Joe Mercer during the war. Many players managed to find solace in the way they boosted morale, while others wanted to be just like every other soldier.
Shepherdson joined the Green Howards. He was not the only representative from Middlesbrough FC at the Richmond headquarters of the Green Howards, as once again Shep’s path crossed with Mannion’s. The Ayresome pair were called to a meeting with Sergeant Major “Squeaker” Bennett and the outcome would alter the rest of their lives. Sergeant Major Bennett tried to persuade the pair to use their expertise and join the Physical Training Corp, but both only one could be persuaded.
Wilf remarked many years later to Nick Varley “It was okay for Shep, he had the brains...I was happy being a normal soldier.” WhileShep saw an opportunity and a way to put his skills to the best possible use. He also told Varley “To be honest I didn’t realise how much it would change my life. When I look back on it now, it was the best thing that could have happened to me. There I was going into the Army as a young man with no skills other than football. I got the opportunity to develop in a different area. Six and a half years later I came out with training I had never even considered otherwise and a new direction. I benefited more than anyone else I knew from the army training.”
As the war progressed, Wilf’s choice to join the infantry saw him shipped around the world to bear witness to the horrors of Dunkirk and the Italian campaign while Shep’s good war at home was underway. Even though Shep was just 21 when war broke out, he was tasked with building up young men due to fight both physically and mentally. It was his duty to prepare and motivate young men of all backgrounds before they were mobilised and to sooth and rehabilitate when they returned.
After World War II ended, Boro’s players began to return to Ayresome Park - all changed men and robbed of their prime years as sportsmen. Shep would play just three more games for his hometown club in 1946 before moving Southend United. While with the Essex club, and on a training course for an FA qualification, Shep suffered a severe knee injury which ended his career. He had made 17 senior top flight appearances for Boro and was retired by the age of 28.
Boro Trainer, Charlie Cole, offered Shep a lifeline. Cole asked Shep if he wanted to put his Physical Training Corp experience to work back at his old club. Excited by the opportunity, Shep re-joined his old hometown club as an Assistant Trainer. The role of Trainer in modern football has become obsolete as the number of backroom staff increased in recent years.
A Trainer’s responsibilities were broad and included everything from attending to a player’s injuries on the pitch, organising coaching sessions, organising luggage and logistics for away games, managing kits and even entertainment for the squad. Combining a moderate knowledge of first aid, physiology, physiotherapy, tactics and coaching. The best trainers would act as mentors to the players, confidants to the manager and were able to balance both roles without causing friction and animosity amongst their squad of players. They must live and breathe the team and understand its pulse, its practices and be able to help lead in a positive direction.
Shepherdson learned much from Cole, including how not to handle himself amongst the players. Cole was a long-serving figure at the club but lacked the steel to be an effective trainer. Captain of the team George Hardwick once remarked “He had little or no authority. The players ruled him rather than him ruling the players. Poor Charlie, he had a hell of a time because everyone was taking the piss out of him.”
Cole retired in 1948 and his successor Tom Mayson also retired the year after, leaving Shep as lead Trainer at just 30 years old. But the club’s successes at the time, while still in the top flight, were wavering. The Mannion-saga had rocked the club and brought unnecessary headlines and discontent among the fans, and their league positions faltered. In the 1948-49 season, the club narrowly avoided the drop by just one point under the stewardship of David Jack.
These formative years of Shepherdson’s career did not go unnoticed by those beyond Teesside’s boundaries. His quiet determination and affable nature led to The Football Association requesting Harold Shepherdson act as Trainer for the England National Team in 1957. At the time, England operated with Trainers on a rotational basis with each Trainer from different clubs rotating to serve the national side. England manager, Walter Winterbottom, took a shine to Shepherdson and kept him on as a permanent Trainer - a duty he could balance with his work at Boro.
Winterbottom’s tenure as England manager is often disregarded as a failure, however, he was the last manager to be hamstrung by a national board of selectors who called up players and influenced the way England played. Winterbottom would later outline what made Shep different to the other Trainers who preceded him.
“He was a first class coach and Physiotherapist, very efficient in his Trainer’s duties and unflappable in emergencies,” Winterbottom said. “But more than that, he had the right personality, sense of humour and tact to handle players, and attract their confidence and trust. They liked him and responded readily to his instructions in training and day to day arrangements.”
“As time went by I was greatly appreciative of the tasks which Harold undertook and carried out on his own initiative such as travel, luggage, meals and training arrangements. The team party was always prompt in departure and the fact that luggage was seldom mislaid was a tribute to his organisational skills. Then too he developed a keen analytical mind about a football game - its strategy, and could point out key points of success or weakness of the team and each player.”
At England, Shepherdson’s personality was infectious and he quickly became a welcome face to players arriving for international duty. Former Chief Football Reporter for the Daily Express and friend to Harold Shepherdson, Norman Giller, remembers first meeting the man during his early days on the beat.
“I first met Shep at England's regular training camp at the Bank of England ground in Roehampton in the early 1960s,” Giller recalls. “I had gone there to interview Jimmy Greaves for my local newspaper. Shep saw this nervous young reporter wandering around looking lost and went out of his way to steer me to manager Walter Winterbottom to get his blessing to talk to Jimmy.”
“I was to find out over the next dozen years that this typified Shep, and the way he was always going out of his way to help others.
“He was out of the old school of trainers, more concerned with the fitness both physically and mentally of the players. He left the playing tactics to first Walter and then Alf Ramsey. During his countless matches he eased dozens of players through the ordeal of making their debut on the international stage.”
Despite Shepherdson’s dedication to the England side and force of personality, the 1962 World Cup in Chile signalled the end of Walter Winterbottom after England were eliminated by Garrincha’s Brazil. A new wind of change arrived in the shape of a stocky Alf Ramsey. He had just led Ipswich to consecutive championships of the Second and First divisions, Ramsey would transform the England team from a middling national side to world champions, and could not have done so without Harold Shepherdson.
The Football Association had reluctantly relinquished control to Ramsey and he had full autonomy of selection, tactics and style of play. Ramsey, aided by Shepherdson, added professionalism to a focused and proven tactical style. In 1962, when Ramsey was appointed, he boldly claimed that “England will win the World Cup” - he was not wrong.
To this day, the 1966 World Cup remains a glimmering high point of English sport. The summer marked a renaissance in English history, beyond just football, and Bobby Moore lifting the coveted Jules Rimet trophy was a notable high moment in 20th Century Britain.
England’s squad for the tournament had a flexible mix of youth and experience. Seasoned pros like Bobby Charlton, Jimmy Greaves and Bobby Moore all boasted over 40 caps each but none were older than 28 and some of the senior players, such as Jack Charlton, had little international experience. It was up to Ramsey and Shepherdson to make this team work. Norman Giller thinks the combination of the two personalities was a main contributor to success.
“What Harold had in spades was an ability to make players feel comfortable and welcome in the England set-up. He was the perfect foil for the cold and distant Ramsey, and you could almost warm your hands on his friendliness.”
“Gordon Banks once said to me: 'I always relaxed the moment I saw Harold. He was like part of the furniture, and throughout my career with England he made me feel at home. You could talk to him like a favourite uncle, and he always had encouraging words of good advice to give you.'”
Shep’s loyalty to Ramsey, and vice versa, was indisputable - and this fostered the same among the players. Shep was aware of how Charlie Cole was ridiculed at Middlesbrough, and was not afraid to stamp his authority for the sake of the whole team. Nobby Stiles, quoted by FIFA.com, indicated how much it meant to all of them.
“It worked both ways,” Stiles said. “Because he was loyal to you, you'd run through brick walls for him. And it wasn't just the players. Everyone concerned with England was doing it for Alf. Before the Argentina game I was in the bathroom putting my contacts in when Harold Shepherdson came in. He grabs me by the throat, pushes me against the wall and says, 'Don't you let Alf down'."
As Trainer, it also fell to Shep to ensure morale was high and players were relaxed so they could fulfill Ramsey’s prophecy. As well as arranging a team trip to Pinewood Studios to visit the set of the latest James Bond, You Only Live Twice, Shep wasn’t afraid to join in with the jokes and fall victim to one or two pranks.
“Another huge plus for Shep is that he could take a joke, because players – particularly Alan Ball and Nobby Stiles – were always playing tricks on him,” Giller recalled. “I remember once during the build-up to the World Cup final at their Hendon Hall Hotel headquarters, Ballie nailed a pair of his trainers to the floor. Harold laughed along with everybody else because he knew laughter at the right time was good for team spirit.”
As England progressed through the tournament at an encouraging pace, the pressure grew on Ramsey, Shep and the rest of the staff to keep pace after overcoming Eusebio’s Portugal in the semi finals. The prime example was the tough question about whether to stick with Geoff Hurst or opt for the experienced Jimmy Greaves in the final. Ramsey always knew he could turn to Shep.
“One of Shep's great assets was knowing when to keep silent. Ramsey knew he could trust him with confidential facts about the fitness of players, and he never ever let him down,” Giller said. “He was a born diplomat, always dignified and balanced in thought and deed.”
On that fateful July afternoon, once Hurst had completed his hattrick and England had put the game beyond doubt, a photographer captured the elation etched in Shepherdson’s face as he leapt into the air - still holding on to his trusty bag of tricks. Giller believes the team knew how much quiet Shep had contributed to this moment of glory.
“The measure of how much the England players thought of him is that Captain Bobby Moore presented him with his prized No 6 shirt at the end of the final. 'Shep is a vital part of the team,' Bobby said. 'He carries out Alf's orders to the "t" and makes sure the whole operation runs smoothly. He never seeks the limelight and just gets on and does his job, and he is great at it.'”
Prior to attending to England duty for the summer of 1966, Shepherdson had been made Assistant Manager to Stan Anderson back at Middlesbrough. Northern Ireland goalkeeper, Jim Platt, joined early into Stan Anderson’s reign and remembers first coming into contact with the Shepherdson in 1971.
“It was Harold who came over to Northern Ireland and watched me play,” Platt told Boro Mag. “It was in the Irish Cup semi-final at Windsor Park. I was playing for Ballymena and we won 2-0. I can’t remember much about the game but I must’ve impressed Harold because Stan Anderson rang me that night to ask me to sign. Shep later became caretaker manager when Stan resigned and before Jack Charlton took over.”
“Harold was an invaluable member of the backroom staff at Boro for many years. A gentleman who you could go to any time if you had any problems.”
Shep’s tentative appointment as Caretaker Manager was not entirely welcomed by Boro’s Board of Directors. Dr Neil Philips, a Redcar GP who worked with England and Boro, wrote about the mistrust in his book Doctor to the World Champions and their reaction when he suggested Shepherdson be given the job permanently.
“Shep had many enemies amongst the Directors. There were certain Directors who disliked his association with the national team. They were envious, and jealous of, the success Shep had enjoyed with England,” Dr Phillips wrote. “They intensely disliked his involvement with The Football Association.”
“Those Directors openly stated to Shep and myself, on several occasions, how they deplored the way England played under Ramsey. I knew they would not be supportive of Shep taking charge. The silence around the table was unbearable.”
The Board eventually reached out to Don Revie who allowed them to speak to the late Jack Charlton and he joined shortly after. Shepherdson had overseen, coincidently, 17 games as manager - exactly the same amount as he played.
England’s next World Cup adventure saw the Three Lions travel to Mexico. More than willing to chat to Boro Mag, Sir Geoff Hurst remembers Shep well, and specifically the myriad of jobs he undertook for the greater good of the team.
“When we were In Guadalajara, Harold was assigned one of his duties which was to sit outside the lift on the floor where our bedrooms were. This was to ensure we came back to the hotel at the appropriate time. He would record on paper if anyone transgressed,” Hurst told Boro Mag.
“On another occasion, He was also given the duty to blow a whistle to illustrate when it was time to finish sunbathing as the heat in Guadalajara was overbearing. We had 5 minutes on our front, 5 minutes on our backs and 5 minutes in the pool at the sound of the whistle! There was one player, I’m mentioning no names, who obviously did some secret sunbathing as he always turned up for training with a very red face.”
Shep’s time with England was also beginning to wind down after the 1970 World Cup. The England team had not managed to repeat their winning formula in the Mexican heat. Shep, with the addition of Redcar’s Dr Philips had overseen further improvements to the England set up. Margaret Philips, a qualified midwife and Neil’s wife, began to write diet plans for the players, however, this improvement soon went up in flames as the imported food was seized by Mexican Border Control and incinerated.
Ramsey and Shep’s relationship and understanding between the two endured throughout the years. Malcolm ‘SuperMac’ MacDonald, also keen to speak to Boro Mag about Shep, said their understanding was alive and well in the 1972 Home Championships.
“I was on the bench that day and Rodney Marsh was playing. The match had been going for a little over an hour, England had a slender 1-0 lead and things were exceedingly tense throughout the whole stadium that was packed to the gunwales with rather boozy Scottish supporters. Rodney for some while was doing his on the ball tricks, over-egging everything and getting quite carried away with his own ball-tricks.”
“Alf Ramsey was becoming quite angry with Marshy’s antics and suddenly turned to me and in quite a guttural tone said “Get yourself warmed up”. He then turned to Harold Shepherdson and loudly growled, ‘Get that fucking clown off!’.”
MacDonald continued “I quickly warmed up and joined Harold at the sideline where he was to get Marshy off the pitch. He turned to me and said, “You’ve seen how not to do it, now do it right, get the ball into the corners and waste as much time as you possibly can.”
“I did just that, and after the match, which remained 0-1, as I was coming off the pitch Harold sidled up to me and said, “Well done, you got Alf calm again!” He couldn’t have painted me a more descriptive picture. He knew just what to say and when to say it, no wonder he was invaluable to Alf Ramsey.”
Mexico would prove to be Shepherdson’s last international tournament. He retired from England set up in 1974 and made way for fellow Teessider Don Revie. He attended over 170 international matches, from the decline of Tom Finney to the emergence of Kevin Keegan. On his departure from England, both he and Neil Philips were awarded gifts by the FA. Dr Philips received a £500 cheque for his hard work over the years. Shepherdson, on the other hand, received a watch bought for £39.50. Shepherdson was rightly outraged and insulted. He returned the watch.
The quiet influence and impact of Shepherdson was not just limited to glittering international football. Gavin Blackwell, Physio at Stourbridge FC and Wolves Academy, wrote to Shepherdson in 1987 and Shep’s reply is one of Gavin’s most treasured items to this day. Blackwell still finds encouragement and practical advice imparted by Shepherdson as an inspiration.
Shep continued to assist first Jack Charlton, and his replacements, throughout the 70’s, eventually assuming the role of Chief Executive (Football). But, as financial hardship struck, Shepherdson was nudged to retire from Middlesbrough FC in 1983, bringing an end to nearly 50 years of association. Shepherdson’s career can be summed up by BBC’s legendary football correspondent Bryon Butler, a testament to an unsung hero who served Middlesbrough and England with passion and loyalty.
“He’s contributed nothing of himself, of course, unless one is prepared to take into account he is a psychiatrist, con-man, health-fiend, witch-doctor, alarm clock, baggage man, father figure, dietician and personal officer all rolled into one.