Football is full of sliding doors moments – and former Leeds United midfielder Paul Shepherd was a victim of circumstance.
Shepherd, who came up through the ranks at Elland Road, represented his country alongside the likes of Michael Owen, Frank Lampard and Rio Ferdinand, and looked sure to go on and establish himself in the first team at Leeds.
Then, early in the 1996-97 season, Howard Wilkinson left and was replaced by George Graham. It all went wrong from there.
“When I left school to go into that youth team set-up, everything was going perfectly,” Shepherd says. “At Leeds then we had some really good players, my age group was the one above the one that won the FA Youth Cup.
“At Under-18 level I got into the England squad. Everything was going rosy. I played at Under-18 and Under-20 that included many that smashed the Premier League: Lampard, Owen, Ferdinand, Heskey, it was a ridiculous squad.
“The difference for those guys was that when they went back from the European Championship and World Cup we played in, they were getting the chances and it just wasn’t happening for me.”
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Shepherd was expected to get his chance before long, however, and when Wilkinson departed, it looked as though youth team coach Paul Hart would step up to take charge of the first team alongside Eddie Gray. Shepherd’s chance was set to come sooner than expected.
“Paul Hart was working underneath [Wilkinson], moving us all forward, but once Howard Wilkinson was taken out of the equation, Paul had no influence at the club and left pretty much straight away.
“Paul and Eddie thought they’d be getting the job; they came to me on the Wednesday and told me I’d be playing on the Saturday , but the board did a U-turn and brought in George Graham, which shaped my career totally.”
Initially it looked as though Shepherd would make the breakthrough under Graham anyway as he was handed his debut by the Scot against Arsenal at Highbury in October 1996. Unfortunately, all was not how it might have appeared from the outside.
“George came into the club, by then I was a professional, and he literally never said two words to me,” Shepherd says. “As a young kid, you just think ‘he doesn’t like me’. It was really hard to deal with.
“He [Graham] gave me my debut at Arsenal, but he never spoke to me once during the time I was there, before, during or after that game. Literally nothing. As an 18-year-old kid, I had no idea how to handle it, to be honest. It was a real shock to the system.”
Shepherd actually played the full 90 minutes of that game against Arsenal, but that 3-0 defeat would prove to be his one and only first-team appearance for the club as he spent the next three years on the fringes without ever being given another opportunity.
On the Arsenal game, Shepherd says: “He (Graham) said nothing to me. He read out the team, then we did an hour and a half of shape.
“He told us we’d be man-marking as a three. It was very defensive, so in the pre-match speech he said I’d be one-to-one with David Platt, and that was it. That was as far as the instructions went.
“I still fully expected him to come and have a word with me before the game, whether that be on the coach down to London, or in the evening, or at Highbury.
“But he said nothing at half-time, he said nothing after the game, so I really was just baffled by it. It struck me that he seemed to really dislike me and I couldn’t get my head around it.”
Shepherd certainly didn’t feel as though he had blown his chance on the day, however, despite a disappointing day for the team as a whole.
“The worst thing was we were 2-0 down within 15 minutes and I’d touched the ball once or twice. Arsenal were just steamrolling over us.
“At the time Leeds were really struggling and it wasn’t a great team to be thrown into, to be honest, so it wasn’t the debut I’d been picturing.
“The game flattened out a bit and we got away with being beaten 3-0. I had stitches during the game after clashing heads with Mark Ford from my own team when defending a corner.
“Afterwards, it was really mixed emotions, I was completely deflated due to the result, the atmosphere at the club was pretty bad at the time, but I’d come through my first game and I was thinking about the next game and how I’d be able to get more involved, have greater influence and kick on.
“Another midfielder who played alongside me was Andy Couzens, who was a couple of years older than me, but he was dragged off at half-time as he was having a poor game.
“He was marking Vieira, and I was on Platt, but he didn’t do much during the game. Nor did I, we cancelled each other out. If you played for George Graham, that’s what he wants you to do.”
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Shepherd was not selected for the next game, however, and would spend most of the next three years ostracised by the manager, training with a group of six or seven away from the first team.
“The following week, with Andy being brought off, I expected to start again or be on the bench,” Shepherd says, “but Andy was on the bench and I didn’t even make the squad, without explanation.
“So that was pretty devastating, as I felt it was harsh, especially as he didn’t say anything. It just made me become a bit bitter.
“As a young guy, I was just finishing training and couldn’t wait to get away from there, as it just felt like there was a personal vendetta against me.
“The biggest case of that under George Graham was when we played against Huddersfield in a behind-closed-doors friendly. They were near enough top in what is now the Championship, afterwards I was walking off the pitch, and Terry Yorath, who I knew as I went to school with his son Daniel who tragically died, came over asked if I would fancy going on loan.
“I’d never really got any closer (to the first team), so I was desperate to go and they were flying so I had an agent at the time and he said it should work well, but he came back and George Graham said I couldn’t go, without explanation.
“Then a week later the chief scout came in and said the manager is sending you up to Ayr United on loan. There was just no sense in it, it was just as if the guy didn’t like me and I couldn’t work it out.”
Graham left for Spurs in 1998, but things didn’t change under his replacement David O’Leary, with Shepherd eventually departing for Ayr on a permanent basis in 1999.
“My levels and a lot of self-belief and confidence by then had been damaged,” he says. “When I was 16, 17, 18, I was playing for England, playing for Leeds’ youth teams, playing for Paul and Eddie, when I scored in 10 or 11 consecutive games from midfield, breaking Gary Speed’s records.
“Then you go to training with two or three people and are just being made to run, it’s demoralising. These people were playing with my life and were seemingly out to ruin it.
“I am sure they had reasons for what they were doing, but they didn’t make sense to me or anyone around me. They just looked like spiteful decisions, especially the Huddersfield one, which I could never understand.”
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After spells in Iceland and at Luton, which soured when a two-year contract offer from Joe Kinnear was reneged on, Shepherd finally found at home at Scarborough, even if it was a tough time at the club ahead of their extinction.
“At the time Scarborough were literally bankrupt. We had to race home from training to try to get your cheques cashed. It was by no means a great time in that respect, but turning up with the lads and the manager, it was nice to be part of that again.
“By then, I knew it was too late, I was 24 or 25 and I knew I was going to be doing something different. It’s a bit sad as I was playing for England at 18. I knew there were no guarantees, but I never envisaged falling right out of the game.”
Shepherd dropped into non-league and spent seven years living in Spain working as an estate agent but is now back in his native Yorkshire where he runs his own locksmith business.
He has found contentment in family life and work, but the regrets from his time at Leeds still weigh heavy on his mind.
“How I didn’t knock on George Graham’s door, to ask why he didn’t let me go to Huddersfield, how I didn’t get the chance to play, why he dropped me, why he didn’t like me…
“As a man, looking back, I was a boy, I didn’t do it as he was George Graham and he’d won the title and I was just a kid, so I couldn’t question him, as I’d been brought up that way. Being older and wiser I should have been banging on his door.”
By Will Unwin