Peter Geoghegan

Journalist, author, broadcaster

Cillian Sheridan: 'They were probably expecting an unbelievable player, then I turned up'

Just before Christmas, Cillian Sheridan was invited to appear as a pundit on Sportscene, BBC Scotland’s flagship football show.

In studio, the on-loan St Johnstone striker’s analytical skills were more Garth Crooks than Alan Hansen — “I’m rubbish at talking about football,” he says candidly — but it was his sartorial choices that provoked most comment: Sheridan, on his BBC debut, appeared wearing a bright red yuletide pullover, complete with green Christmas trees.

As a consequence, for a brief moment, the Cavan man’s jumper was the hottest property in Scottish football. A tabloid even arranged a photo shoot in which the rangy striker, who was described as being “on trend for 2012”, modelled the finest Christmas knitwear.

Reclining on a wooden chair in a busy café on Woodlands Road, the bustling main artery connecting Glasgow city centre with the bohemian West End, Sheridan smiles as he recollects his first — and possibly last — visit to BBC Scotland: “I brought the jumper with me to the show. I asked (the producers), ‘Can I wear this?’ They said it was okay so I put it on.” The producers, you sense, were less accommodating when the former Celt’s phone rang twice live on air. “It was a shambles. I doubt they’ll ask me back again,” he laughs.

The Sportscene episode epitomises Cillian Sheridan: insouciant, irreverent and imminently likeable. As followers of his refreshingly honest, and often very funny, Twitter feed will testify, this is a man who sports a tattoo of a moustache on the index finger of his left hand and could seldom be accused of taking football, or life, too seriously. As he says himself, “I don’t get worked up about things, it’s not my style.”

In a week dominated by the dyspeptic transfer window — characterised, once again, by average players demanding exorbitant wage — Sheridan feels, in some respects, like the antithesis of the Sky Sports-era footballer. There are no rings on his fingers, he wears a few days’ worth of stubble across his prominent jaw line and speaks with a casual ease seldom evinced amid the media training and PR consultants that are part and parcel of the modern game. Sheridan’s is the relaxed attitude of a young man who practically fell into football. While many of his contemporaries in the current Ireland squad began their careers in the League of Ireland, the Bailieborough man was signed by Celtic as a schoolboy. Sheridan only took up soccer seriously at 16. That year he was also a Cavan minor, where his impressive performances in midfield led the Brisbane Lions Aussie Rules team to offer him a chance to move Down Under.

The financial rewards of football proved too great, however: after a spell at Dublin side Belvedere Boys and breaking into the Ireland under 17 set-up, Sheridan plumped for Celtic Park. But Gaelic football remains his true love: during the summer he is often to be found in the stand at Breffni Park watching Cavan in the Ulster championship. “I see the start and the end of the season. They’re normally out before I go back,” he quips.

Life at Celtic, at least initially, was good. Under former manager Gordon Strachan, he swiftly graduated to the senior side, making his Champions League debut as a substitute against Manchester United in 2008, aged just 18. Two weeks later, Sheridan started the return leg of the same clash. But when Strachan departed in 2009, to be replaced first byTony Mowbray and then Neil Lennon, his first-team options dried up. Neither manager ‘fancied’ the striker, who was farmed out in a succession of loan deals to Motherwell, Plymouth and St Johnstone. In similar situations, ego-driven young footballers are wont to grow restive, but not, it seems, Sheridan: “I was never bitter towards (Mowbray or Lennon). I never said ‘I should be playing’.”

Faced with silently rotting in the reserves at Celtic Park or a merry-go-round of frustrating six-month loan deals, Sheridan made a surprising decision: he joined Bulgarian club CSKA Sofia. It was a brave move that seemed to pay immediate dividends as Sheridan began life in Bulgaria by starting, and scoring, regularly. But when the manager was sacked after two months, the striker found himself out of favour and isolated far away from his friends and family. “When you’re not playing over there it’s hard,” he admits.

Self-deprecating, perhaps to a fault, Sheridan suggests CSKA may have had unrealistic expectations of the young Irish targetman when they signed him two summers ago. “I went over the day after starting against Argentina (in a 1-0 defeat at the Aviva in August 2010), so they were probably expecting an unbelievable player. Then I turned up.”

After the sojourn in Sofia, Sheridan feels at home back in Scotland. He lives near Glasgow University, and commutes to Perth, where St Johnstone are based. Under new managerSteve Lomas, the Saints have maintained their strong early-season form — they currently stand fifth in the SPL — with Sheridan, who has teamed up effectively with co-striker Fran Sandaza, chipping in with some important goals, including the equaliser in Sunday’s draw atHearts in the fifth round of the Scottish Cup.

Despite having three caps to his name, the lanky striker doesn’t talk up his chances of figuring in Giovanni Trapattoni’s plans for the European Championships. “Realistically I’d only (get into the squad) through injuries. And even then when fellas do pull out there are other fellas that are playing in the Premiership who weren’t in the first squad who will be ahead of me.” When it comes to football, Sheridan is nothing if not phlegmatic.

He might not be booking flights to Poland but his performances before Christmas led to paper talk of a move away from McDiarmid Park. Sheridan, who was injured when the transfer window opened, chose to repay St Johnstone’s faith, renewing his loan deal until the end of the season. It was an example of another trait rarely associated with footballers: loyalty.

Such fealty is even more remarkable given that CSKA Sofia — he is still contracted with the Bulgarian club until 2013 — routinely pay his wages over eight weeks late. “It’s a bit unusual alright. I’ll get two months’ wages and then nothing for two months,” Sheridan says in his soft Cavan drawl.

Wages, or more correctly their absence, has been a major issue in Scottish football this year: Edinburgh club Hearts have been sanctioned by the Scottish Premier League for consistent late payments to players, one of whom, Ryan Stevenson, went on a very public strike. Sheridan, in contrast, describes his ambiguous financial situation as simply “annoying”.

The hope now is that St Johnstone will prove a springboard for a permanent move — and a secure pay packet — perhaps elsewhere in the SPL or, his favoured destination, England. After six moves in less than four years, there’s a sense that the peripatetic striker would like to settle down, preferably somewhere a bit closer to Cavan than Eastern Europe.

Sheridan regularly returns home to visit friends and family. Both his parents are teachers in Bailieborough and, if it wasn’t for football, he would have probably followed in their footsteps. One aspect of the profession in particular still appeals: “Teachers have the best holidays you can get! We only get June off, but they get three months for summer as well as Christmas. Pretty nice.”

In the overexcited world of football, Cillian Sheridan is one player who definitely knows how to take it easy.

This piece originally appeared in the Sunday Independent on 12/02/2012.

Cillian Sheridan: 'They were probably expecting an unbelievable player, then I turned up'
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