Theatre of dreams: Sean Bean at Bramall Lane. Picture: Jim Moran
Never mind Hollywood, give me Bramall Lane
Sean Bean has helped launch a new biography about his beloved Sheffield United. Chris Bond talked football with the Hollywood star.
THE staircase leading to the plush restaurant in Bramall Lane's south stand is lined with photographs of famous Blades.
Former England captain Ernest Needham sits alongside Alan Woodward and the much-loved Tony Currie, names etched into footballing folklore here.
Upstairs is a man you feel would happily swap his fame and fortune just to have his picture next to theirs.
Sean Bean has been a Sheffield United fan for more than 40 years and, for good measure, has "100% Blade" tattooed on his left shoulder.
The 47-year-old actor is here to talk about Sheffield United FC The Biography, a new book for which he has contributed a foreword.
Wearing a pair of jeans and scruffy trainers and wrapped in a sports jacket, he looks more like a regular at the nearby Cricketers Arms, than a Hollywood film star.
But a man who has appeared alongside screen legends like Robert de Niro and Harrison Ford, is in his element.
He's got a cigarette in one hand and a bottle of beer in the other, and he's talking about football.
The new book tells the social history of the Blades and has been superbly pieced together by John Garrett, the club's Hall of Fame manager, and sports lecturer and writer Gary Armstrong.
Bean grew up with Armstrong in Sheffield's Handsworth suburb, and the pair remained friends over the years.
So when Armstrong asked him to contribute to the book, he was happy to oblige.
"I think he's come up with something that an ordinary fan can identify with. It's not dour, it's not all about dates, it's got humour in it and you can trace back the history of the club and you can see how it has evolved and why Sheffield United is here.
"And I think that's important whether you're an elderly fan or a young kid just starting to follow football," says Bean.
It is, indeed, a fine book and one that most football fans, except perhaps those of a blue and white persuasion, can appreciate.
It combines an anorak's attention to detail with a football fan's innate love of gossip did you know that Italian legend Franco Baresi nearly became United's manager?
Like many supporters, Bean was hooked from the very beginning.
"I was six or seven and I don't remember a great deal except the atmosphere; it was that drama of being at a football ground. I'd never seen anything like it.
"It just happened to be a night match in winter and the floodlights were on; everybody was shouting and we were winning, which was important, and it's stayed with me forever. My family were from that side of town and my dad and granddad were United fans, so I carried it on."
Bean, of course, realised a boyhood dream of playing for Sheffield United in the fictional film, When Saturday Comes. But he reckons nothing quite matches the emotion, camaraderie and rivalry of being a football supporter.
"Anybody can enjoy it and there's no political correctness, thank God. It's still one of the few arenas where you can go and express yourself and you're not reprimanded for it. I think it's the most vibrant, magnetic, piece of theatre and drama there is. You can go to the cinema, you can go to the opera, but you can't shout and scream like you can at a football match, and you form a bond with the people around you."
Unlike some celebrities who often seem embarrassed of their roots, Bean embraces his wholeheartedly.
"I'm proud of this place, it's where I was born," he says.
"I went into the steel industry which was thriving, and it was good, it was strong, it was doing something. The people here manufactured and created things. Sheffield has this rich history of industry and steel and coal and you could see that through the football and the way the players expressed themselves."
He's equally proud to be able to call himself a Yorkshireman.
"I can't think of another county in the country that has quite the same pride and loyalty, and there's a kind of stubbornness there, it's almost like a separate republic.
"That's something we should hold on to, it's a tradition and it's a good tradition, it's optimistic."
Even though he is now a club director, he admits that work commitments mean he doesn't get to watch as many games as he would like. So, sometimes he just has to improvise. "A memorable match day for me was in Rajasthan, India, when I had to buy four pairs of sandals from a bloke in a cobbler's shop before he would switch on his internet access and let me listen to the Radio Sheffield match commentary," he says.
Although Bean's delighted that United are back in the Premiership, he is worried about the amount of money being spent by the elite clubs. "I was reading about Chelsea the other day and, apparently, Shevchenko is a bit of a flop, it seems, and they're thinking about spending £20m on someone else. What chance has anyone else got in that league to compete and where do you draw the line? People are making a lot of money somewhere so there's no reason why there shouldn't be a ceiling or a restriction on how much you can pay for a player or how much you can spend in a season on players."
He fears the cost of watching football nowadays is changing the face of the game, and not for the better.
"The real fans are being out-priced and they are the lifeblood of your team and you're changing the clientele and you're seeing an atmosphere in the Premier League that is boring."
Which is not a word you would use to describe some of the footballers Bean, and millions of other fans, grew up watching.
The mercurial talents of players like Tony Currie, Stan Bowles, Frank Worthington and Alan Hudson brought a swagger and a sprinkling of stardust to English football during the '70s. So who is his favourite player? Perhaps surprisingly, it isn't Currie, or Alan Woodward, or even Keith Edwards.
"I liked Alan Hodgkinson. He was only a shortish, stocky little fella, but he was very athletic and I met him a couple of years ago and he was a real gentleman.
"It's always pleasant when you meet one of your heroes and they turn out to be quite decent people," he says.
"I've always had a bit of a soft spot for goalies because they're all a bit potty, I mean look at Paddy Kenny and the Coventry goalie, David Icke.
"I think they've got a bit of individuality, whereas a lot of footballers now are into the same things, the same music, the same cars and the same girlfriends."
Despite his reservations about the modern game he is ever the optimist when it comes to United.
"We've got a good fan base and it's just a matter of getting it right. We've got the structure and our chairman has come along and realised that you've got to build other things around the club that sustain it on the pitch, that you can't just rely on getting the money coming in through the turnstiles.
"Financially, we're in a good place, all it is at the
end of the day is you've just got to win and you've just got to stay up," he says, pausing to light another cigarette.
"And I think we will."