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Have you heard the one about the striker who put himself in danger of receiving a club fine – even before he had actually signed for the club?
Step forward Stephen Elliott, or ‘Sleeves’ as he is universally known in footballing circles.
Because, when joining Wolves, Elliott was in danger of losing a few quid even before the paperwork had been completed on his move from Sunderland.
But it wasn’t for anything too serious or a sign of or a troublesome character or difficult times to come.
Completely the opposite, in fact.
Elliott had checked in with Wolves on their 2007 pre-season in Ireland, ready to put pen to paper and wrap up the switch from Sunderland to link up with his former boss Mick McCarthy.
McCarthy had a fairly standard approach to pre-season trips.
The players would work damned hard, each and every day, usually at least two sessions, but there was always one night out, possibly two, to boost team morale and give any new faces a good opportunity to settle.
Very often he and his staff would attend for part of it. And very often the curfew for the players would gradually get put back, sometimes as a result of a co-ordinated flurry of text messages from the entire squad, on other occasions due to a rousing rendition of ‘Super Mick’.
Once that curfew was granted however, woe betide anyone who was late, and in the world of McCarthy, being ten seconds late was as much of an aberration as being ten minutes late.
And that was how Elliott came into jovial conflict with the boss within very quick order of joining Wolves back in 2007.
“I met up with the squad at Portmarnock Hotel after the trip had started and the lads had already been given one night out in Dublin,” the affable former striker recalls.
“Most managers will work you very hard during pre-season but also give you a night or two to go for a few pints and let your hair down.
“After I arrived, we went up to a pub in Malahide, where a fair few pints of Guinness were taken on board along with a bit of a sing-song and an initiation.
“Myself and a couple of others left the pub only a couple of minutes too late and Mick was actually stood there waiting when we got back.
“We weren’t falling over drunk or anything but we’d had a good night with a few beers and the craic and I remember him saying as I walked up, in that unmistakeable Yorkshire accent: ‘I’ve got to fine you and you’ve not even bloody signed for us yet.’
“I don’t think he was massively bothered, he was laughing about it more than anything and I’m not even sure if I would have been fined, but you certainly knew you have to follow the rules when you worked with Mick.”
Unfortunately, Elliott’s final act in a Wolves shirt was slightly less entertaining than his first.
Just over a year into his Molineux career, he missed a penalty in a League Cup shootout when Wolves were knocked out of the competition at the Don Valley Stadium by Rotherham.
“I was desperate to score but that penalty probably summed up how things went for me at Wolves,” Elliott recalls ruefully.
A few days later he had moved on, to Preston, and a Wolves career which had kicked off with such promise and anticipation was at an end. More on that later.
For now though, it is worth remembering that it all began for a teenage Elliott at Wolves’ next opponents, Manchester City.
Like many talented young Dubliners, he attracted the attention of a number of UK-based scouts, and City took particular interest when he notched five goals in the space of half an hour during an appearance for Stella Maris, based in Drumcondra in Dublin.
Heading over alongside young compatriots Glenn Whelan, Patrick McCarthy and Willo Flood, Elliott quickly felt comfortable in Manchester, spending several years as an apprentice before turning professional.
It was a very different Manchester City to today’s equivalent, but the finances-fuelled transformation was just about kicking off under Kevin Keegan by the time Elliott moved on.
“I had been over to several clubs but felt really settled at City, there was a good atmosphere at the club,” he recalls.
“They had just been relegated to League One when I signed my first contract, and I actually did that at McDonalds on Wilmslow Road!
“By the time I left they had got themselves back to the Championship and then the Premier League and, while they weren’t the powerhouse that they are now, they were a big club and starting to bring in big players.
“I did my apprenticeship there and it was a really good grounding for the rest of my football career.
“There were some really good players at the club and even as a young lad, just to be around those names and training with them was brilliant.
“I was a Liverpool fan growing up, and all of a sudden I was training with Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman and Nicolas Anelka – who went on to Liverpool later – as well as others like Richard Dunne and Sylvain Distin.
“Training with those guys every day could only help me get better and gave me the belief that I could hold my own in that situation.”
Elliott actually came off the bench to replace Fowler for his City debut in February 2004, and Paulo Wanchope for his second and final appearance three months later.
Eventually though, having turned 20, Elliott felt there was more chance of regular football elsewhere, and turned down the offer of a new contract at Maine Road to join McCarthy at Sunderland.
That brought him two Championship titles – under McCarthy in 2004/05 and Roy Keane in 2006/07 – either side of a difficult Premier League bow where Elliott scored excellent goals against Manchester United and Newcastle but endured a long spell on the sidelines due to a fractured back.
“I built up a great affection for Sunderland once I was there but originally it was more to do with signing for Mick,” he says.
“He had been the Ireland manager not long beforehand and, as a young Irish player, signing for him was a big motivation.
“It was a great time for me to go and play at a huge football club with a huge fanbase, to score some goals and get promoted.
“That first season couldn’t have gone much better and was a really enjoyable time.
“The Premier League was obviously far tougher, and while you can never pick when you get promoted, maybe it was just a season too early.
“We were a young group and Mick’s hands were tied in terms of not being able to bring in more quality and experience, and while you would never take anything away from the great season of promotion, maybe we’d have been in a better place a year later.
“From a personal point of view, I think I did alright in the Premier League.
“I felt I was able to play at that level, scored a couple of goals, but then I fractured my back and missed a lot of football.
“I’m not saying for a minute I could have made a massive difference but, when it happened, I was one of the players in form and would like to think I could have helped the team.
“As it was, we were relegated, but came back up the following season, and while the Premier League was difficult, it was still good experience and an important learning curve.”
It was after the second promotion that Elliott, who had to undergo ankle surgery during that season, made the move to a Wolves side rebuilding under McCarthy having enjoyed an unlikely run to the play-offs the previous year.
He joined a striker department including the likes of Jay Bothroyd, Andy Keogh and Freddy Eastwood – Sylvan Ebanks-Blake arrived in the January – but Wolves struggled to score enough goals and eventually missed out on the play-offs on goal difference.
With his talent and track record, there was plenty of excitement and optimism around Elliott’s capture but, as he explains, it never quite worked out.
“I really enjoyed my time at Wolves and met some great people but things didn’t work out as well as anyone would have hoped,” he explains.
“It is strange in football sometimes that things work at some clubs and not others, and I wasn’t Lionel Messi who was going to be a success everywhere I went.
“But it certainly wasn’t for the want of trying.
“You always look back and wonder why things don’t work out and I’d come in off the back of injury the previous season and maybe wasn’t completely fit at the start.
“Myself and my partner – now my wife – had moved down from the North-East with three young kids and maybe that was also difficult, more so for my wife but perhaps subconsciously with me as well.
“With hindsight maybe that played a part but I was so pleased to join another big club and work for Mick again and was desperate to succeed.
“I don’t think I was terrible, but I never did enough to get a run and get going, and sometimes I was played out wide as well.
“It just felt like a very stop-start season, but with Mick there, and so many talented players, there was a good atmosphere and a buzz around the club.
“It was no surprise to me that they got promoted the season when I left because Mick is a great manager and because of the nucleus of the hungry squad that they had.
“There were some great young players such as Michael Kightly, Matt Jarvis – who I could see was going to go on and be something special – and I was genuinely pleased that they went on to win the Championship.
“For me, at the end of the previous season I’d had a chat with Mick and we both said it hadn’t gone as well as we’d have hoped and mutually agreed it might be best for me to move on.
“He’d got a few good forwards at the club and there was no animosity – I’ve always had a great relationship with Mick and he is still someone I go to now for advice.
“I did enjoy some good moments at Wolves and when you play for a fabulous football club like that you can never complain – it was a privilege.”
The law of sod meant that as Elliott moved on to Deepdale, he would return and score twice in a 3-1 win at Molineux, one of only three home defeats Wolves suffered in 2008/09 as they stormed to the Championship title.
“I got some stick from the Wolves fans that day but that’s part and parcel of football and was understandable,” he explains.
“I have never had any problem with the football club or fans and love to see them back in the Premier League and doing really well.
“It’s just ironic I scored against them not long after I left – I think I probably scored more goals against Wolves than I actually did for them.”
That’s not completely accurate, but it’s close! The figure was actually the same. Elliott scored five for Wolves and five against them, including on the electric night at Molineux when McCarthy’s Wolves and Keane’s Sunderland went head-to-head for the first time since events with Republic of Ireland at the 2002 World Cup.
Infact, every time Elliott started a game against Wolves, he found the net.
He would have preferred it to be different, of course, but retains that pride to have worn the gold and black alongside other famous and traditional footballing names which, after Preston, also featured Norwich, Coventry, Carlisle United and Heart of Midlothian which included a Scottish Cup win thanks to beating Celtic in the semi-finals and Edinburgh rivals Hearts 5-1 in the final.
He also returned to play back in Ireland, and understandably treasures his senior international CV of nine full Republic of Ireland caps, and a winning goal in a World Cup qualifier against Cyprus.
After returning to round off his career in non-league with Morpeth Town, Elliott hung up his boots to embark on the next stage of his career – coaching.
Whilst studying for his qualifications – Elliott now has UEFA ‘A’ Licence – he coached the Under 19s at Shamrock Rovers and his playing spell at Drogheda including some coaching.
He also works with Improtech Soccer, coaching young players within their education system and has, for the last 18 months, been the head of Darlington’s Academy.
It’s a role with the former league club now in second place in National League North which Elliott is relishing, and more valuable experience in the locker for what he hopes will be a flourishing coaching career ahead.
“I went through my badges and had a couple of roles and, from there, then getting this opportunity with Darlington, historically another good football club who are probably a bit lower in the football world than they would like to be.
“It is very rewarding working with young players and trying to pass on some of my experiences and teach them about the game.
“Having been in their position trying to come through I think it helps, and it is probably different to coaching senior players, which is another ambition I have for some stage in the future.
“I was lucky enough to meet a lot of good people when I was a player, and still feel young away from football with a life to live and to be thankful for.
“Whatever experiences I have had I am now ready to use in the next part of my career and I feel privileged to still be actively involved in the game.”
Elliott also carries out some media work in addition to his coaching duties, whilst also keeping a close eye on the fortunes of his former clubs, remaining in touch with many of the team-mates from his brief Wolves stay.
“Wolves is a great football club which has had its ups and downs recently, going down to League One and back, which shows you football goes through different cycles,” he says.
“Nothing seems to last forever, so you have to make sure you enjoy the good times when they come along!”
As Elliott, now 39, continues to work hard at his coaching with long-term ambitions to progress, he does so with that nickname which is probably unique within football.
Sleeves. That’s right. Sleeves. It’s what he was known as at Wolves, having originated at Sunderland, and has stuck with him all the way ever since.
So why? And how?!
“There was a saying back in Dublin that when someone was telling me a story, I’d say ‘Sleeves Up’,” the man himself explains.
“It was kind of meant in the sense of: ‘Are you serious?’
“When I first signed for Sunderland, the lads were calling it me and Big Mick got wind of it and found it very entertaining!
“Nobody calls me Stephen anymore, it’s always Sleeves, and I must be the only footballer in the world with that nickname.
“There was a Portuguese manager when I was at Hearts – Paulo Sergio – who couldn’t quite get a grasp of it.
“I’m not sure he knew whether it was Steve, or Stephen or Sleeves and so it ended up as Sleeves-o.
“It has just stuck, and even my wife calls me Sleeves – she only calls me Stephen when she’s not happy with me!”
There weren’t too many managers who weren’t happy with Elliott during a career in which he gave his all and left everything out on the pitch along with popping up with some crucial goals.
Except perhaps, and only temporarily, McCarthy on the steps of Portmarnock Hotel after the new boy had made the most of toasting his Wolves’ arrival!
By Paul Berry
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