Alan Birchenall

Remembering How The Birch's Career Began At Sheffield United

Alan 'The Birch' Birchenall, Leicester City's much-loved and admired Club Ambassador in fact began his professional career as a striker for Sheffield United, who visit King Power Stadium on Thursday (6pm BST kick-off).
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Between 1964 and 1967, the Birch played over 100 top flight games for the Blades, as well as making 14 appearances in the FA Cup and League Cup. He scored 35 goals for the Bramall Lane club, before a big money transfer to Chelsea in 1967.

Speaking to Club Historian John Hutchinson, Alan began by revealing that, although he was born in London’s East End, he grew up in Nottingham.

“I played for Nottinghamshire Boys alongside a lad called Mick Jones”, the Birch remembered. “He played for Worksop and little did we know that later we would make a spearhead together for three years at Sheffield United.

“Then Forest came in for me but I dare not go there because my dad was a Notts County fan! Notts County did not have a youth system, but I did play for their A and B sides on a Saturday.

“This was difficult, though. I was 16, working 55-60 hours a week as an engine fitter at Barton’s Buses, where my dad worked. I worked on the brakes, scrubbing them down and punching new ones in.

“I couldn’t get off on the Saturday morning because I worked from 7am until 12pm normally and they didn’t like me taking time off to play with Notts!

“So, I started playing for a local youth team, called Bestwood Park Boys. I cycled to the games with boots strapped round my shoulders.

“I thought my life would be working as an engine fitter and playing football on Saturdays and on Sundays.

“Then came the day that changed my life. One Saturday, whilst playing for a team called Thorneywood Athletic, I got a tap on the shoulder.

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Alan Birchenall
Alan Birchenall

The Birch quickly progressed from Sheffield United's youth team ranks to the first team.

“I turned around and there was this quintessential Englishman with a trilby hat, wearing a checked three-piece suit. He said to me: ‘Excuse me lad, I’ve had a word with your coach. I’ve been watching you for four to five weeks. Would you be interested in coming to have a three-month trial at Sheffield United?’ He was Archie Clark, Sheffield United’s assistant manager.

“I had to finish my apprenticeship, so my dad had a word with the foreman who said, because I was a good worker, they would leave my job open for me. Hardly a vote of confidence for my football career!

“So, off I went to Sheffield United. They put me in some digs. It was horrible for me because I was in a little room on my own.

“I was playing at wing-half in the Northern Intermediate League, which was a really high standard and I was struggling. I told my parents that I wasn’t going to make it.

“One day, the manager wanted to see me. I thought my career was over. He said: ‘I was going to let you go, but Mr. Clark wants to give you a chance. Mick Jones has gone into the first team and I’m going to play you up front at Hull in the Intermediate League on Saturday. I think that you might have a potential up there’.

“I had just turned 17. We went to Hull and we won 9-2 and I scored seven goals! When I walked off, Hull’s centre-half told me that he was on trial and that I had just finished his career.

“I felt sorry for him all the way back on the coach to Sheffield. After that, I think I got over 60 goals that season. I was just banging them in for fun. I had some great players around me who all went into the first team.

After that game, I became a regular in the team, so I had gone from the youth team straight into the first team in what is now the Premier League. It was fabulous!

Alan Birchenall

“One Tuesday after training, the coach told me that I was travelling with the first team to Stoke. I couldn’t believe it!

“At the time, I was living with first team full-back Len Badger at his mum’s. When I got back to the house and told him, I could tell that he already knew. 

“The next day, we met at the Grand Hotel in Sheffield for our pre-match meal before we set off to Stoke. The meal was steak. I had never seen a steak let alone eaten one!

“I ate mine and then Joe Shaw, my hero at the time, asked me if I wanted his, which I ate with about six slices of toast. At this point, I had no idea I was going to be playing...

“Before we got on the coach, I brought a load of sweets and chocolate, which I ate on the back seat of the coach, although Len Badger did tell me to take it easy.

“When got to Stoke I was sorting out the Sheffield United tickets for collection when the coach told me I was playing!

“‘Doc’ Pace, the centre-forward was ill. I went into the dressing room and all the lads started to clap. My boots were next to the No.10 shirt!

“Through a slat in the dressing room I could see the crowd coming in to the ground. Then I picked the programme. I wasn’t in it, but it was full of famous Stoke names like Peter Dobing, Dennis Viollet, and Stanley Matthews.

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Alan Birchenall and Sheffield United
Alan Birchenall and Sheffield United

Third in from the right, top row, the Birch alongside his Blades teammates.

“We won 1-0 on a mud heap but, at that moment, I knew what football was about. Stoke were a good team. I hadn’t been able to ring my parents about my debut, but they rang me the next morning.

“The next game was at Hillsborough against Sheffield Wednesday and, whilst I was cleaning boots in the boot room, I was told to look at the teamsheet and I was playing!

“We won 2-0 and I scored both goals. Mick Jones had a shot which hit the crossbar, it came back and I knocked it back in from about 12 yards with my right foot past Ron Springett, the England goalkeeper.

“In the second half, I headed in a corner. After that, Mick Jones and me were nicknamed the ‘blond bombers’.

“After that game, I became a regular in the team, so I had gone from the youth team straight into the first team in what is now the Premier League. It was fabulous!”

While at Sheffield United, the Birch was selected for the England Under-23s, sang on stage with rock star Joe Cocker, and established such a good reputation that he was transferred to Chelsea for £100,000 in 1967 at a time when the British transfer record was £115,000. These are stories for another time.

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