Graphic: @m9homas / Photo: @hops1963

His recollections of some cherished times at Sheffield Wednesday are accompanied by a self-described ‘nearly man’ sentiment. There is, however, a very satisfying full-circle element to both Lance Key’s days on the pitch, and where you find him today as a manager.

“The first thing I had to do for Sheffield Wednesday was pick the ball out of the back of the net.”

Lance Key was part of 1990s football at the top level in England; when ClubCall on the house phone was king for transfer rumours, and team kits remained both in the memory and on the players for longer than just a season. The goalkeeper would only fleetingly get to play in the burgeoning Premier League, on loan at Joe Royle’s Oldham Athletic, but he is a name remembered by plenty of Sheffield Wednesday fans from that era, in large part due to the manner of his eventual debut almost five years after he joined.

While loan spells were where he ultimately got his competitive action, he spent six years at Hillsborough, a significant wedge of which are still considered the glory days for many Wednesdayites. A local lad joining the first team, though, he certainly wasn’t, with the Owls swooping as far south as Cambridgeshire and non-league to sign the promising young stopper from Histon.

“A lad from Cambridge, Giuliano Maiorana, he went from Histon to Man United in 1988, and that kind of sparked off interest in our local area,” Lance explains. “With Giules going to Man United, all of a sudden, people were realising that our level, which would have been Eastern Counties level then, had some decent non-league players.”

“That was the kickstart, and our manager Alan Doyle made me aware, and another lad called Shaun Sowden, who eventually came with me to Sheffield Wednesday in 1990. I went for a week’s trial, did very well, they were still not committing, and ironically, we had a game against Wisbech Town, who were in Histon’s league.

“So we came back down this way to play in a friendly, and we won the game 1-0; I had one of those nights to remember, where you kept a clean sheet and did the job you should. Off the back of that, they signed us on a two-year contract.”

It is Histon for whom he is number one today – as manager, that is. Having returned as a player in his mid-30s, he was around a club on the climb, with the Stutes reaching the fifth tier of English football as Conference South champions in 2007.

It is now just over a decade on from what was their zenith, with the club a one-goal aggregate loss to Torquay United away from a Wembley play-off final in 2009 that offered a place in the Football League. That was also the season that Swindon Town were beaten in the FA Cup before Matt Langston’s header sank a Leeds United side featuring Robert Snodgrass and Fabian Delph, as Steve Fallon’s team reached the third round.

Histon were three relegations down the line when Lance became manager part-way through 2016-17, and though a second successive slip through the trap door couldn’t be averted that season, his side were Thurlow Nunn (Eastern Counties) Premier champions in 2019. It is a club gladly on some solid ground again after quite a slide from the previous dizzy heights.

Dizzy heights, it just so happens, Lance had learned a thing or two about before his return to the club as a seasoned goalkeeper. His introduction to professional football was at the club who stunned Manchester United to win the League Cup in 1991 as a second-tier side, before playing at Wembley a further four times two years later.

‘If it’s Wednesday, it must be Wembley’, and both on and off the pitch, the big personalities were everywhere to be found at S6 back then. John Harkes to John Sheridan, the devastating David Hirst and majestic Chris Waddle, to the ever so shy and retiring Carlton Palmer.

“When I first went up there, even though you’ve signed with the first team, you’re a young kid,” Lance recalls. “Training with the first-team goalkeepers is one thing you did do, so you got to know them, first and foremost, but the first-team squad would get changed in a different dressing room to you, so you’d get changed with the apprentices.”

“So it took about 18 months to break into that, but little things that stick in my mind, you had people like John Sheridan, for instance. A great footballer in his day, lovely person, and I remember one of the first times I got invited to go and play in the Friday 5-a-side, with Big Ron (Atkinson) with his dustbin bag on to try and lose weight!

“I always remember I wouldn’t give John Sheridan the ball, and he came up to me after about five minutes and he said, ‘Big lad, just give me the ball, we can play.’ Because at my level before that, you were worried about giving it to players who weren’t necessarily that good on the ball.

“The difference being that the big players know what they’re gonna do with it before they receive the ball. It was a big lesson to me and it made me feel more at ease with that environment; ‘okay, I’ll trust them’, and with that, they start to trust you as well.”

His initial introduction to the club was training towards the end of a season that brought that despairing final day at home to Nottingham Forest. Stuart Pearce burying a first-half free-kick in front of the Kop, a yellow polo-clad Ron Atkinson watching on helplessly from the side, and radios tuned in for updates from Luton Town’s game at Derby County are all snapshots from a day that saw Wednesday relegated from the top flight.

Happier times (and then some) were on the horizon, though, and while making ‘a huge step’ up in football terms and moving well over 100 miles from home were a lot for Lance to contend with, it proved worthwhile.

“It was quite daunting. I’d been up in April for that month’s trial and they’d already told us when we signed that we would live in digs.

“They had a family that looked after the apprentices, basically; a lovely couple, called Des and Beris Sampson that lived on Middlewood Road, who looked after us for about 18 months. You had John Linighan, Brian Linighan, they were in the digs, and I had a great time, because I was with the apprentices for the most part of my first year really, even when we trained.

“It was a big thing, because to move away from your family, in order to be able to give everything you’ve got, you have to be happy where you are, and I felt in a family environment.”

Football is notoriously ruthless, and perhaps understandably to a degree, pervaded by self-first thinking. Into the 90s, the ‘school of hard knocks’ was also most definitely still in session at the top level, and while you would be some way off to deem that Wednesday changing room one full of footballing Care Bears, Lance’s recollections are emphatically fond.

“Certainly Kevin Pressman I got on well with, the Goalkeepers Union thing. I got on with Chris Woods very well, and even when I finished full-time football, I went into office sales and went through him to get business.

“In terms of the dressing-room characters, David Hirst was certainly one, John Sheridan was right up there. Chris Bart-Williams when he came into the squad was a lively youngster that had a lot to say.

“Gordon Watson was a chirpy Cockney that pretty much pissed people off, but in a nice way! Chris Waddle was a superstar, and you’re training with someone like that every day, and a genuine lovely guy.

“Carlton Palmer was Carlton Palmer! Carlton was one of those people where you could quite easily take him the wrong way but actually has a heart of gold and is a very decent man.

“I look back at that squad, 93-94 years especially, and it’s the whole squad. The experience of Nigel Worthington, Phil King, Nigel Pearson, Peter Shirtliff, Mark Bright, Paul Warhurst, the list is endless.

“John Harkes, another one, a great entertainer. Youngsters that broke into the squad with me if you like, people like Graham Hyde, Ryan Jones; Ryan Jones came to my 30th when I was up there.

“I look back on it with very, very fond memories, because they don’t become your friends for life, because I wasn’t with them long enough, but they were your acquaintances at the time and they become your friends whilst you’re there. Yes, there was a drinking culture; you could be in Josephine’s on a Monday night before a Wednesday night game, that would happen all those years ago.”

With Ron Atkinson famously departing for Aston Villa after promotion in 1991, Trevor Francis’ four-year tenure made up the lion’s share of Lance’s time as an Owls player, with David Pleat the latter of his three managers. As some supporters will recall, his six years at the club brought just a solitary competitive appearance for Wednesday, along with loans at Premier League Oldham Athletic, plus Oxford United, Lincoln City, Hartlepool United and Rochdale.

He discusses the prolonged quest for opportunities, as well as the January 1995 FA Cup win at Gillingham, when his chance did come.

“Chris Turner was first-team goalkeeper when I got there, Kevin Pressman, who’d done his knee ligaments – that’s why they signed me – and Marlon Beresford. Then obviously Chris Woods came in, who was England’s first-choice keeper, and Kevin Pressman regained his fitness, so I had a very high category of goalkeeper ahead of me.

“I went everywhere on loan to get games but the ironic twist was I went to Oldham Athletic under Joe Royle to play some reserve-team football, and both Paul Gerrard and Jon Hallworth got injured in the same week. I ended up making my league debut away at Chelsea in the Premier League (a 1-0 win for Oldham in October 1993), when Glenn Hoddle was manager, and had a day to remember, got huge reviews on Sky TV and the newspapers.

“The following Monday, play Newcastle live on Sky, we lose 3-1 but I play very well, and Trevor Francis got a bit of grief from Sheffield Wednesday fans saying ‘why’s this young lad not getting a go?’ He pretty much pulled me back from Oldham and put me back in the reserves at Sheffield Wednesday; Kevin Pressman had got injured so Chris Woods went back in goal and I never really got the chance to play.

“The only game I got to play was in the FA Cup; we won the game 2-1 but the first thing I had to do for Sheffield Wednesday was pick the ball out of the back of the net, because Pressy got sent off and my first thing was to face a penalty. We won the game with ten men, again, had a very good game, but it was all wrong for me, because it was then the international week, so no game.

“We played Newcastle at Hillsborough and Trevor Francis chose to go with Chris Woods; he hadn’t played for two or three months but he said ‘no, I wanna go with experience’. My impression at the time was ‘well, how can I gain that experience if I don’t play?’”

At 26, there was as concrete an opportunity as any to take a leap of faith by moving on altogether, which he admits still sticks in the mind as a Sliding Doors moment of sorts.

“Sometimes you wish you had your time ten years later, because then you might have got more of a chance, but having said that, it was probably the best six years of my lifetime. That was probably the biggest thing, that I actually felt too comfortable, I didn’t wanna move away from it.

“I always thought I was going to get a chance, and it never materialised, because you’re at a Premier League football club. After I’d been there four years, John Rudge at Port Vale offered me a three-year deal, I was gonna sign it, and lo and behold, Trevor Francis offered me a new two-year contract, on my birthday.

“I look back on that as probably one of the only real mistakes I made, in terms of taking the plunge, because that’s when I probably should have moved away, like Marlon (Beresford) did, to go and play.”

His eventual departure in 1996 was not the last of him as a professional footballer in Sheffield, however. Returning south from a stint at Dundee United, Lance signed for the legendary Howard Kendall, over on the red and white side of town.

“Another lovely man, just a great man-manager. I actually had a very good few months with Sheffield United; we got to the (Division One) play-off final and got beat by Crystal Palace, when David Hopkin scored in the last minute.

“It was bizarre that you end up going again to a big Sheffield football club and you don’t end up playing competitively, although, I was travelling with their first team home and away, was at both play-off games against Ipswich Town, and Wembley. I look back at it again and think ‘the nearly man’, in a way; I had a career that people would die for, but I didn’t make enough appearances.

“I played probably 100 league games in England, Scotland and Ireland, but that really wasn’t enough. Even at my level now, we have a young keeper who’s only 20/21, has been released by a club, and I say to him ‘the best way to prove yourself is to play’, and I didn’t play enough games all those years ago.

“Certainly Sheffield United was ideal for me at the time, we still had a house in Sheffield. The bizarre thing to it was, all my friends who were Sheffield Wednesday fans, one or two of them didn’t speak to me the whole time I was at Sheffield United!

“That is the truth, and we still laugh about it now. The day I left Sheffield United, they started talking to me again!”

He would return to one of his former loan clubs Rochdale in 1997 before completing the long road back to non-league at the age of 30. While the memories of a front-row seat at a Premier League club with a spring in its step take some topping, returning south and playing regularly thereafter for Kingstonian and then Histon was perhaps just reward for all the waiting in the wings he had done.

He enjoyed two promotions with the club he manages today, and represented England C alongside the best in non-league, his cap from which proudly sits in a frame today. As a manager, presiding over the Eastern Counties Premier success two seasons ago – by some 14 points, no less – is as meaningful as all he experienced in the professional game.

 

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“Yeah, it rates right up there, because you’re judged over a 46-game season. I was very fortunate to play in the English Premiership, Scottish Premiership, represent my country at non-league level, but to win a league at the end of a gruelling season is certainly right up there in my career.

“Having had probably 10/11 years of being a club that was on a downward spiral, we’re now a stabilised football club. I don’t think we’ll ever reach the dizzy heights of where they were before, but I don’t think the club would really want that either.

“Certainly we as a club at Step 4 now are always striving to be better, and I think if we can improve ourselves to one more league, Step 3, I think that would be a great achievement for the club.”

Lance’s older brother Richard was also a goalkeeper, with the likes of Exeter City and Cambridge United in the 70s and 80s. Success is infinitely more meaningful when shared with family, especially when they are directly responsible, as has been the case at Histon.

Asked about the dynamic of managing son Evan Key, Lance explains the further strands to that one.

“It’s more of a family affair than you know, because Lee Smith, who is our oldest player and actually played for Histon in the Conference when I was coaching there years ago, he’s my stepson. He’s been with me in my life since he was four years old, and he’s seven years older than his brother Evan.

“In that championship-winning season, they both had a massive part to play. Then our club captain, Max York, is my nephew, so he’s my sister’s son.

“Max that season scored 27 goals from centre-half! There’s always going to be a bigger challenge with family members, because they think they have a bigger right to say certain things to you!

“But probably also very rewarding being able to galvanise that and make it work.”

That you can look at a league table in February and see some teams having only played six games says all about the ridiculousness of this season, though Histon had begun well in the Isthmian North Division, sitting in 6th before the halt in proceedings, over three months ago now. In addition, if you hanker for the days when you could justifiably expect a former footballer to be running a pub, it will be heart-warming to know that Lance is involved in precisely that, taking over the Hop Bind in Cottenham in 2018.

“My parents ran a pub in the 80s in Cambridge, and I enjoyed the way of pub life and the atmosphere of it, in those days. So that kind of stuck with me, and when we came back to Cottenham, where we live now, just outside of Cambridge, we got involved in a local, Cottenham United club, where Evan was playing, and helped out there.

“They had social club events and we ended up being part of the committee and running the bar and stuff on a volunteer basis. Both me and my wife came from a background where we always said we wanted to have a go at it, and then the local village pub became available.

“I used to drive corporate people to the airport for 20 years when I finished full-time football, and through that, I got to meet the CEO of Greene King. Then it was my 50th, we were away for the weekend and were being very well looked after whilst we were watching the World Cup final, my wife turned to me and said ‘you can’t stop thinking about it, can you?’

“‘No, I can’t!’ So I ended up emailing the CEO of Greene King at the time, never really thought we’d get much of a response, but he came back to me within ten minutes; we had the pub pretty much signed and sealed within a week.

“It is the hub of the village, and it was going very, very well, up until COVID-19.”

The success they had in the first 18 months has offered something of a safety net, alongside furlough and small grants, but like everyone across the industry, the green light to resume cannot come soon enough. Through the pub and managing at football, Lance feels fortunate to currently have everything ‘on the doorstep’.

In his footballing story, Histon is where the heart is, though the mark of those halcyon 90s days in the Steel City live on.

“It was a wonderful time in my life. You’re in your pomp, at the age of 22 to 28, and I had probably three years, if you like, with the first-team squad in the Premier League, which was lovely.

“Evan was born in Sheffield, and my wife Sharon and I have some wonderful friends up there, because it’s a wonderful way of life, they’re very, very friendly and becoming people. Still to this day, they’re one of the best group of friends that we’ve made throughout my journey in football.

“The Hillsborough Golf Club, we used to get honorary membership up there, so I’ve played golf ever since we were at Sheffield Wednesday. That’s my biggest other hobby, and my son Evan has given us two lovely granddaughters.

“That’s the one thing through COVID-19 that I would say is lovely, because within that support bubble, we’re able to see our grandchildren. Grandchildren and golf are the two things I enjoy most outside of football.”

Interview/article by @chris_brookes

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