I joined The Football League from Charlton Athletic in January 1991 and stayed until I left to join Swindon Town in July 1998.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of my time at The League was creating a ‘celebrity squad’ made up of actors, presenters, comedians’ pop singers, former footballers, cricketers and sports stars. Every year we would stage Celebrity Charity matches as pre-match entertainment at our Football League Wembley cup finals, such as the Coca-Cola Cup and the Auto Windscreens Shield.
The squad evolved over the years, but I enjoyed the support of a core group of ‘regulars’ and these included Ray Winstone, Angus Deayton, Gary Wilmot, Bradley Walsh, Jess Conrad, John Leslie, Karl Howman, Roland Butcher, Louis Emerick, Jim Rosenthal, Tim Lovejoy, Shane Ritchie and Chris Evans. Chris in fact loved his involvement so much that when, in October 1995 I ‘flew a kite’ and asked him if he would be interested in staging the draws for the Auto Windscreens Shield on his then BBC Radio One Breakfast Show, he couldn’t have been more pleased. At that time, the Chris Evans Show was the most listened to radio show in Europe!
So, after assuring my bosses at The League that Chris and his producer John Revell, while putting their ‘slant’ on the draw would of course respect its integrity, the first Auto Windscreens Shield draw took place on BBC Radio One on 9th November 1995. After an on-air chat with me about the competition, Football League Secretary David Dent then announced that ‘Mr Chris Evans will draw the home teams and Mr Simon Mayo will draw the away teams’. The ‘slant’ was that the names of the teams would be announced by Chris’s sidekick Dan McGrath – in the style of a northern working men’s club steward! It was great fun and hugely successful and you can imagine how delighted the management of Auto Windscreens were with the profile. So much so that they had a cartoon specially commissioned of the draw which they presented to me. Caricatures are meant to be unflattering, aren’t they?
I mentioned earlier that Tim Lovejoy was a regular in my squad. At that time Tim was producer and co-host with Helen Chamberlain of Sky’s cult Saturday morning show ‘Soccer AM’ and I gave Tim the ‘exclusive rights’ for ‘Soccer AM’ to promote the Auto Windscreens Shield Charity Match.
Like Chris, Tim loved his involvement with the Wembley Charity Matches and I was so pleased when Tim presented me with a personally inscribed copy of his book ‘Lovejoy on Football’. In the chapter entitled ‘Anthony Hutton Killed Celebrity Football’, Tim wrote, ‘…there was a man called Steve Sutherland who worked at The Football League and he used to organise the celebrity games at Wembley and when he called, you felt privileged to be asked.’
As for the big day – the 1995/96 Auto Windscreens Shield Final, Rotherham United v Shrewsbury Town at Wembley Stadium – at one point it looked like all my meticulous planning and promotion of the Charity Match would come undone – we lost the kit for the celebrity match!
Here’s my diary account of that day:
Sunday 14th April 1996
I had breakfast at the Hilton with Auto Windscreens directors Graham Frisby and Richard Usher then I went over to the Stadium to prepare for the Auto Windscreens Shield Final and in particular, the Charity Match.
When my mate John Fuller arrived to help me at 10.30am, John, my League colleague David Cookson and I went back to my car to collect the Celebrity team kit, which were packed in black sacks. Little did I know that I was about to experience my worst nightmare.
Somewhere between the Wembley Banqueting Hall and our designated celebrity match changing room adjacent to the medical room, John and Cookie managed to lose one of the black sacks! One of the kits had gone missing. I admit I went mad and lapsed into a Corporal Jones style ‘Don’t panic, don’t panic we’ve lost the kit, don’t panic’ frenzy! I had Wembley’s cleaning staff searching everywhere while John, my PA Mayte and I retraced our steps. The clock was ticking and I knew that the stadium concourse gates were about to open. Just when it looked like we would never find the kit and I was resigning myself to having to somehow come up with a quick alternative solution – I could hardly ask one team to play in skins! – I decided to look in the big green skips on the Wembley concourse nearest the changing room. The feeling of relief that engulfed me when, on looking in the second bin, I found the black sack with the kit in it was indescribable! I certainly made the loudest cheer heard at Wembley that day! The stadium cleaners during their final sweep of the concourses must have seen the black sack outside the door of our changing room, thought it was rubbish and threw it into the concourse bin! Of course, this gave all my colleagues at The League a huge laugh and I got all the dustbin jokes for the rest of the day!
Despite a few late arrivals, notably John Leslie and Angus Deayton; the Charity Match went brilliantly and yes, because Stan Boardman never turned up, I actually played in the game myself and added to my Wembley appearances!
The only real drama was with Chris Evans who had turned up without any tickets or car-park pass and he met me on the Banqueting Hall staircase to tell me that Wembley staff were threatening to tow his car away! I went with Chris and I gave him a VIP pass and drove with him round to the Reservoir Car Park and then escorted him and his girlfriend Suzy through the security entrance and round to the Banqueting Hall. When I asked him why he had no kit or boots he replied, ‘I always borrow Angus Deayton’s towel and someone will have some spare boots’. They did as well!
The reception the crowd gave to the lads was brilliant and John Fuller did a super job on the microphone commentating on the match. I really could not do the charity match without the help of John and my friend Neville Maw who were both brilliant. So too was Mayte as it was her first Wembley Charity Match since joining us at The League.
Oh, as for the proper match, Rotherham beat Shrewsbury 1-0!