Honest endeavour of all-action Joe Ironside is an instant hit at Cambridge United
When Joe Ironside describes playing for three games with a broken sternum this season, it epitomises the character of the striker.
Let it sink in for a few moments though.
On signing the 27-year-old, head coach Mark Bonner described the newcomer as someone “who can compete aerially and is strong with his back to goal”.
The adage would be an old-fashioned target man, taking the ball on his chest to bring those around him into play.
And there was Ironside in late October and early November, not just playing with a fractured sternum, but scoring in all three games as well.
It is too easy a cliche not to use, but what more would you expect from the boy whose career was carved in the city of steel?
A boyhood Sheffield United fan, it was the Blades that took Ironside on board as a youngster and gave him a first taste of professional football – but that was nothing new for the family.
Ironside’s father, Ian, and grandfather, Roy, were both pros – Ian with Scarborough and Middlesbrough and Roy with Rotherham.
However, they were at polar opposite ends of the pitch – both being goalkeepers.
“I had a dabble with going in the nets when I was a kid, but I’ve always been how I am,” said Ironside.
“I stuck a few past my dad on the top field when I was a kid and felt like, it’s better scoring them than saving them.
“Me and my dad talk about football, but it’s not like it’s the be all and end all. We exchange stories, and if something is going on, or for advice it is brilliant because obviously he has been there.
“It’s just always been a part of my life. When my dad retired, he didn’t go down the football route.
“He tried coaching but it wasn’t for him so he went back to be a joiner, which is what he did before he turned pro.”
The level-headed approach also shines through in the younger Ironside.
He really is a compelling and fascinating character, and would be a great role model for youngsters hoping to make their way in the game.
It was certainly not plain sailing or without its obstacles though.
Ironside was first picked up by Sheffield United having caught the eye playing for Sheffield Schools FA.
He was part of the same youth team as Harry Maguire, and the pair helped take the Blades to the two-legged FA Youth Cup final against Manchester United in 2011.
“It was a proper taste. I was only a first-year scholar – I was 17 – and then in the final at Bramall Lane it sold out – there were 30,000-odd,” he says.
“When we played at Old Trafford, there were 26,000 there and Sheffield United took about 7,000 – it was a youth cup game!”
Ironside scored in the second leg, which the Blades lost 4-1, as they were beaten 6-3 on aggregate by the Red Devils.
“When the ball goes in, that’s when you know [the scale of it],” he says.
“You are used to playing at under-18 level, it would be 100 or 200 maximum on a Saturday morning so we went from that to that.
“It was class, a great experience. We lost but I still scored a goal in the final and I was happy about that – at Old Trafford, no-one can take that away from me.
“It was all about us that year because the first team got relegated from the Championship, and so we got more press because the first team weren’t doing as well. It was a big thing for us.”
It helped create an appetite for more of the same.
“It was a great experience, but you want to establish yourself as a pro so that was just the taste to keep kicking on and doing well,” says Ironside.
A first-team debut was soon around the corner, in October 2012, and a two-and-a-half year contract quickly followed.
Ironside made more than 20 appearances for Sheffield United, including in the League One play-offs in 2013 aged 19, but he was soon facing an exit from Bramall Lane.
“I played for the first team, and as a boyhood Sheffield United fan that was a really proud moment, but I just needed to go and play,” says Ironside.
“The gaffer at the time told me I wasn’t in the plans, but I knew that myself anyway. I knew I probably wasn’t going to get another opportunity, and so you’ve got to go and make a start somewhere else.
“It was better for me because, at the end of the day, when people are honest, you know what you’ve got to do and you can’t grumble about that.
“When I look back at things now, I wouldn’t change anything. Everything that has happened has led me here.”
After a spell at Alfreton Town in the Conference Premier, it was his scoring for Nuneaton in the Conference North that earned a move to Kidderminster, where he became an instant hero on his debut.
Having signed on the Monday, he started on the Tuesday and scored twice in a 4-3 win over Tamworth. “I thought ‘well, that couldn’t have gone any better’,” says Ironside.
And the feat is still remembered by the supporters. Ironside was recently sent a card to United by a Kidderminster fan showing the striker celebrating during that game, and wanted it signed for his wife’s 40th birthday as she was sitting in the front row of the picture.
In that three-season period – with Nuneaton and Kidderminster – Ironside scored 24, 23 and 20 goals.
It showed that the instinct to shun going between the posts was the correct one, not that there was ever any doubt that he was going to be a striker.
“I was the same type of player I am now,” he says.
“I played Sunday League, and I scored lots of goals. What did help me was that I wasn’t always the biggest until I was 15 or 16 so I learned how to use my body.
“When I was in the transition when I went to Alfreton, I probably didn’t know what type of striker I was. I knew what I wanted to be but I didn’t know how to do it.
“I’m not going to get the ball, and do five stepovers.
“It’s all been a learning curve. You play more games, and you learn all your career, and you work out what works and what doesn’t.
“I know what I’m good at, I know what my strengths and weaknesses are, so I just have to play to my strengths.”
Ironside, who was part of Jamie Vardy’s V9 Academy when it was the subject of a Sky Sports documentary, has been assisted in carving out a niche by multiple coaches and managers, including John Pemberton at Sheffield United.
“John used to show me Grant Holt a lot, players like that,” he says.
“He would say this is what you need to be aspiring to be, ie how you’re going to play.
“At Nuneaton, I had Tommy Wright, who was a centre forward for Leicester.
“He would just fill me with confidence, and helped me get my move to Kiddy. He said ‘we see you as a No 9’, it was just as simple as that. Then, on his first game, I scored four.
“I’ve had a lot of good managers who have helped me. If you’ve got a manager who you want to play for like we have with Bonz, it’s a big thing.”
That commitment to the cause is plain to see every time Ironside steps onto the pitch.
The U’s supporters have already taken the striker to heart, even if it has been largely on a virtual basis with most matches being behind closed doors this season.
There has been an appreciation of his application in games, and that has been a driving force that helped him arrive at United, via his return to the Football League with Macclesfield last season.
“I get a buzz about proving people wrong or proving it to myself,” says Ironside, who is the embodiment of a hard-working and dedicated approach.
“I think how I play, that’s just how I am as a person.”
It is very refreshing and certainly comes through, as Ironside is clearly no-nonsense, calls it how he sees it and talks from the heart.
“If I give it my all and it doesn’t work out, I’m happy with that because I’ve given my all,” he explains.
“If you give it your best and it doesn’t work out, there is nothing else you can do.
“I’ve always played football the same – how I play now is how I played when I was 10 or 11.”
It is also abundantly clear that first and foremost, football gives Ironside enjoyment and that is aided by his new surroundings at United.
“If I’m enjoying things off the pitch, like the club with the right vibes, then I think I will play well,” he adds.
“If you know you’re wanted, it’s half the battle. All the lads are ledge.
“If you enjoy going into work every day, I think you’ve got better chances of doing well.”
All those attributes and more were evident earlier in the season with that fractured sternum.
“If I can play, I will play, that’s just my mentality,” he says.
Even if it means going through the pain barrier.
Ironside suffered the injury against Bolton, but played against Walsall on the Tuesday night.
“Then on the coach afterwards, when I was laughing my chest and back were hurting,” he explains.
“I just thought it was badly bruised, but I couldn’t really take the ball on the chest in training.
“We played against Salford on the Tuesday, I scored in that but their keeper shanked one and I took it on the chest, and it just knocked the wind out of me properly.
“I thought there was something up so I went to the doc after and said it’s been 10 days so there must be something wrong with my chest.”
The striker reluctantly went for a scan, fearful it could lead to a spell on the sidelines, and it was diagnosed as a fracture and that also meant a heart scan.
“That was all sound,” Ironside adds.
“If I hadn’t had the ECG, I would have been good to go in my own head.
“Even if it hurt, it just hurt after the game – you don’t really think about it during the game, you just shake it off.”
You would not expect anything less of United’s Ironside from the Steel City.