In his four years at St. Andrews, two of which were whilst Birmingham City graced the Premier League, Gary McSheffrey amassed almost a century of appearances. After being a mainstay in Steve Bruce’s side that won promotion to the top flight during the 2006/07 campaign, he remained a regular the following season, but it proved to be one of turmoil as Bruce was replaced by Alex McLeish and Birmingham suffered relegation back to the Championship.
As the Blues eyed an immediate return to the highest echelons of English football, McSheffrey was involved in seven matches before a persistent knee injury saw his game time become limited. Loan spells at Nottingham Forest and Leeds United either side of a few more Premier League appearances allowed him to regain match fitness, but he was released by Birmingham in June 2010. Cue a return to his hometown club, Coventry City.
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Still in the Championship at this point, the Sky Blues were targeting a return to the elite level after a nine-year absence, but this dream never became a reality and McSheffrey played through a turbulent period at the Ricoh Arena. On a personal level, his goal scoring exploits had diminished and he perhaps failed to live up to expectations, but he believes he performed better than what he was given credit for.
He said: “When Aidy Boothroyd initially brought me back we had a good team, and up until early December, we were in the play-offs in the Championship giving it a real go. Then we went on a poor run where we didn’t win for a long period and Aidy got the sack. Andy Thorn took over and we were playing some lovely football at times, but it wasn’t enough.
“I think I played better than a lot of people gave me credit for in my second spell, but I didn’t score as many goals and that’s what I was judged on because I was know as a goal scoring wide man.
“When I came back, I believed I was a better all-round team player, but the goals dried up a bit and I didn’t score as freely as I used to. We then suffered relegation to League One in my second season back at the club and that is never nice, especially with City being my home, but I did enjoy my football.
“Especially in the first couple of years, I really enjoyed it. Then the season in League One, the expectancy levels were high and people thought we would walk the league, but I didn’t score enough again – it’s as simple as that.
“I played a lot of games under Mark Robins and I thought I was playing a good team game, but as an individual that spark wasn’t quite there where I was exciting on the eye.
“David McGoldrick, Leon Clarke and other players took over the goal scoring and I became a more reliable team player. I am my own biggest critic and I know I didn’t bag enough goals in my second stint, and that’s what people judge you on.”
The 2012/13 term – City’s first in the third tier for almost fifty years – was a period that turned into a frustrating one for both the club, and McSheffrey. Previously an ever present, a change of management saw his Coventry career unceremoniously cut short. Despite playing on four occasions for Steven Pressley, everything changed following an away defeat to Portsmouth on the 23rd of March 2013.
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“Pressley came in and he seemed fine and I played a few games for him. At that point we had a meeting and he said he was delighted with how I was playing for him and the amount of work rate I was showing,” Gary revealed.
“He probably just assumed I was an out-and-out attacker who stayed forward, but my game changed and tracking back became part and parcel of it. That arguably impacted on my pace and flair, but he was happy.
“We went to Portsmouth and lost 2-0, then he had a chat with me and he told me that he was leaving me out of the following game. He then said he was going to change the way he did things, to develop more young lads, and I got told I was surplus to requirements.
“It was all a bit of a shock to the system because I was only one year into a three-year contract, but because I had already experienced that type of thing before, I just thought I could eventually earn my place back.”
Although McSheffrey had the ignominy of training with the academy squad for eight weeks alongside four fellow members of the senior setup, he remained focused and determined to make the most of the situation. With the aim of forcing his way back into Pressley’s plans paramount in his thoughts, the then 30-year-old refused to compromise his professionalism, but this reintegration would never materialise.
Recalling this experience, McSheffrey said: “That wasn’t the case and he didn’t want us training with the squad, so we were at Warwick University with the youth team and that wasn’t where I wanted to be. Fair play to Gregor Rioch, he was very respectful towards us as senior players and we trained there every day. I’m sure he would’ve been quite surprised with how well we were dealing with it and not chucking the towel in.
“Ultimately, sometimes when you are put in a ‘bomb squad’ the people in charge are probably praying that you lose your head so they can discipline you, or that you walk away from your contract.
“We just had to stay strong and dig in, but we trained with some quality prospects such as James Maddison and Ben Stevenson, seeing them for eight weeks. You could tell that a few of them would break into the team in a couple of years.
“It wasn’t where I wanted to be, but it’s one of those things and at the time I quite enjoyed training with them. I knew they respected me and liked playing alongside me because a lot of them had watched me play at the Ricoh for the first team.
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“I wanted to help them and be of benefit to them as they looked to progress, trying to set an example of how to do things. I would like to think I always applied myself in the correct manner and I just got on with it.
“Soon after I ended up at Chesterfield, but I wish I had stayed at Coventry longer and dug my heels in a bit because I probably would’ve out-seen some managers and got myself back into the team somehow. I knew I was good enough, but I just needed to start playing again as I had about five or six months without a game and eventually I moved on.”
Now 35 years of age and back in the Football League having signed for Grimsby Town on Thursday, McSheffrey still believes he has enough to offer in the professional game. Since parting ways with the Sky Blues, he spent time at Chesterfield, Scunthorpe United, Doncaster Rovers before signing for Eastleigh in the summer of 2017.
After just a few months with the National League outfit, he decided that, logistically, the move was not sustainable. Despite not thinking too far ahead, he has not ruled out delving into the world of football management when he eventually hangs up his boots. Now a holder of the UEFA B licence, he has also passed the practical side of his A licence and just needs to complete the required coaching hours to obtain the qualification.
He said: “I signed for Eastleigh this season, but geographically it wasn’t right for me and my family so we shook hands and cut my stay short. Ever since that, I had been training with Doncaster just to keep my fitness up in the hope that I could get a club. I’ve done that now with a move to Grimsby, so I am looking forward to the next few months.
“Coaching is something I think I’d be good at if I put everything into it, but it isn’t something that I’m chasing. Sometimes, I think things are better when they fall to you when you least expect it, so I’m going to continue concentrating on prolonging my playing career for as long as I can.
“I’ve started my badges so I’d never say never. If anything came up or I fell into the something in the future, then I’m on the road to the necessary qualifications having completed my UEFA B licence. At the moment I feel like I could still be valuable to a squad in the Football League, but maybe managing is something I’ll pursue after I have hung up my boots.”
Having played under Mark Robins at the Ricoh and during his time at Scunthorpe United, McSheffrey is hoping that his former boss can lead the club out of League Two in the right direction. With the season entering its final stages, City are still in touch of the automatic promotion spots, but the play-offs seem to be the more realistic route to promotion.
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Although he would have liked to see Robins draft in some more experienced players in the January transfer window, McSheffrey admires the job that the ex-Manchester United striker is doing in the midlands.
“He took over at a time when the damage was already done last season and he had a good go at trying to keep the club in League One, but the relegation was disappointing. Supporters had a great day at Wembley in the Checkatrade Trophy and that was nice to see,” he said.
“Robins is a good manager and I enjoyed playing under him, but I think he got the best out of me when I was at Scunthorpe and it was great working with him. He has done a good job at Cov so far. I think his January transfer window could’ve been better and he could’ve brought in two or three more experienced heads, but he opted for young lads on loan.
“The players are out there and they should perhaps be trusted a little bit more, rather than relying on youngsters. I think you get more consistency with the older players and it can be difficult when you’re gambling on youth all the time.
“That is obviously down to opinions and I think he is doing a good job, but you would say promotion is a must really with the squad he has got and the type of club City are. The expectations are there and the club probably has a top six budget, but it isn’t easy. This season has provided a blank canvas, releasing a lot of players and bringing a high amount in as well.
“Some of his signings this year have been really good, the likes of Michael Doyle, Marc McNulty and Jack Grimmer have impressed me. Two or three of the young lads have been good too. I always knew Jordan Shipley would be good when I was training with him, but Tom Bayliss has been brilliant too and he is the best box-to-box midfielder the club has had for years.
“He carries the ball forward with a big stride like Steven Gerrard used to and he breezes past players, so if people like him keep performing it will help massively. If they can keep pushing from now until the end of the season they can really establish a play-off place, but a spot inside the top three is still up for grabs and that will be the target.
“They’ll want to keep getting results and I don’t think there is anyone better than Robins to do it at the level, but he will want promotion, one hundred per cent.”
City now have ten games remaining in Sky Bet League Two and they sit inside the top seven going into the final run-in. Whether or not the Sky Blues have enough to achieve their ambitions this year is yet to be seen, but McSheffrey could come up against his former employers next weekend as Grimsby travel to the midlands.