By Jon Griffin, published in last night's programme.
Every so often in life, we are all reminded that nothing lasts forever, that death, still a taboo subject in many ways, awaits us all.
I was recently reminded of that certainty when I heard the desperately sad news that Nick Sharkey had died at the age of 71, still relatively young by today’s standards. His passing hit me harder than most, even though I never met the man, because the diminutive striker was, quite simply, my favourite Mansfield Town player of all-time.
Nick is irreplaceable in my memory bank. He boasted such a towering presence in my Stags’ all-time ‘Hall of Fame’ that a year ago I wanted to name our most recent cat Sharkey, because we welcomed her to the household on Wednesday 26 February 2014 – the 45th anniversary of the greatest night in the Stags’ history; the 3-0 FA Cup fifth round win over West Ham United.
My wife said it would be rather silly to name a female cat Sharkey, so she became Sara instead. Naming pet cats after ex-footballers from the best part of half a century ago may seem a little obsessive (or weird), but Nick Sharkey had that effect on me. I never forgot him, even though I last saw him play in 1970.
It’s difficult to explain exactly why Nick was the Number One ex-Stag in my eyes. Maybe it was my age when he arrived at Field Mill from Leicester City on transfer deadline day in March 1968, along with Phil Waller and Dudley Roberts. Back then, I was a 12-year-old, obsessed with football and the Stags in particular, although Arsenal also came calling around that time.
But Mansfield Town was my first sporting love and they always will be, and Nick struck a chord with me as adolescence beckoned. He had a low centre of gravity, could turn on a sixpence, and was stocky and powerful, virtually impossible to shake off the ball when the mood took him. He could turn a game in an instant with a slide, pass or a jinking run past a helpless defender.
Nick was only at Field Mill for a couple of years before leaving to return to the North-East with Hartlepool United. He scored 17 goals for the Stags, hardly up in the Ken Wagstaff or Roy Chapman league, but that never mattered to me, because Sharkey was responsible for the single greatest moment in a life-time of watching football.
Early in the second half of the aforementioned West Ham classic, Nick tricked his way through on the left-hand side of the goal towards the Quarry Lane End, leaving First Division defenders, including England’s only World Cup winning captain Bobby Moore, trailing in his wake.
It’s very nearly 46 years ago now, and the game, sadly, wasn’t televised, so I have only my memory and a few black and white photographs to remind me of the greatest football match I ever saw. But I can instantly become that joyous 13-year-old boy again on the tiny terrace at the front of the Bishop Street Stand, as I still see in my mind's eye Nick skipping over the Field Mill mud, whilst being roared on by more than 21,000 fans (with the exception of a few hundred horrified Hammers supporters packed into the Quarry Lane terrace) and bearing down on Bobby Ferguson’s goal.
We were already 2-0 up thanks to first-half goals from Dudley Roberts and Ray Keeley. Surely a third would leave West Ham and their World Cup winners at the point of no return? Nick kept his cool marvellously and flicked the ball over Ferguson into the Quarry Lane End net. The Stags, my beloved hometown club, were two games away from the FA Cup Final.
It later transpired that Stags’ manager Tommy Eggleston had told Nick to man-mark Bobby Moore, quite possibly England’s greatest-ever central defender, to stop him launching attacks. Nick did his job perfectly, as well as scoring that crucial third goal. Of course we didn’t make it to Wembley Stadium, but it was a close-run thing, losing in the quarter-final by a solitary Rodney Fern goal to the eventual beaten finalists, Leicester City, Nick’s former club. In the first half of that tie, before Fern broke Field Mill hearts, Nick was through one on one with a young Peter Shilton, who was to become England’s record appearance holder.
In that game, there were so many people crammed into the ground – probably a lot more than the official 23,500 attendance – that the crowd had spilled out onto the track perimeter at the North Stand end. I was amongst them and as Shilton palmed Nick’s shot past his left-hand post, the ball flew straight to me near the corner flag. I even caught a sight of myself on the Match of the Day cameras that night – the game was on for a pitiful five minutes or so, the Stags’ first ever national TV coverage, as far as I am aware. If Nick had scored, we might have been on our way to a winnable FA Cup semi-final against West Bromwich Albion. But that’s football, as they say.
When the West Ham heroes’ 40th anniversary dinner was held in the Kevin Bird Suite six years ago, I was fervently hoping that Nick was going to be there. They say you should never meet your heroes, but I can’t imagine I would have been disappointed, judging by some of last week’s online comments to mark Nick’s tragic passing.
Sunderland supporter Simon Crabtree said: “I’m truly saddened to hear about Nick Sharkey. It was always great to chat with him. He’ll be greatly missed from the Sunderland family.” Fellow Black Cats’ fan Tony Grey added: “A boyhood hero of mine.” Allan Davis said: “RIP Nick Sharkey, a Sunderland great.”
Even the late, great, Eusebio, who was Europe’s ‘Pele’ in his day, had fond memories of Nick. Sunderland beat Benfica, 5-3, at Roker Park in a friendly in 1963, with Nick scoring a hat-trick while Eusebio scored twice for Benfica. The Portuguese legend, reminded of the game some years later, said: “Sunderland, yes, Sharkey – he was good, Hurley too.”
That’s how good Nick was in his prime, scoring 62 goals for the Black Cats between 1959 and 1966, including five in a game against Norwich City in a 7-1 win.
Recalling his Roker Park days, Nick later said in an interview: “Of course I have millions of memories and scoring five goals in one game was very special. I think I’m most fond of beating Benfica in a pre-season game in November 1963. I scored three goals and played against the famous Eusebio in front of more than 45,000 spectators at Roker Park.”
He said his understanding with legendary defender Charlie Hurley led to most of his goals: “I used to be able to read Charlie’s headers from corners. When we had a corner, ‘keepers wouldn’t know where Charlie was going to head it, but I did, and I used to be in the right place at the right time.”
Until last year, Nick had been Chairman of the Sunderland Former Players’ Association, and was described as a hugely popular figure with everybody connected with the Black Cats.
Ironically, I had been hoping to interview my ultimate Field Mill hero when the desperately sad news came through that he had died of pancreatic cancer, just two weeks after going into hospital with a back complaint.
A precious part of my youth has now gone for good, with Nick joining Johnny Quigley and Jimmy Goodfellow as deceased members from the Stags’ greatest ever heroes.
Former Stags’ players from that era I have interviewed – Dave Hollins, Dai Jones and Dudley Roberts – had all remembered Nick with great affection as a man, and as a highly-valued playing colleague. People loved the guy.
Although I never got to meet or speak to Nick, he will always be the Number One Stag for me – a diminutive bundle of tricks who could outwit the likes of all-time world greats such as Bobby Moore and Eusebio.
So rest in peace the great Nick Sharkey, from a life-long Stags’ fan. It was one of the lasting footballing memories of my life to see you play in the colours of Mansfield Town all those years ago.