Derek Dooley: Footballer, manager and amputee revered by both Sheffield teams
Thursday 06 March 2008
Professional football has thrown up few more inspirational tales of triumph over adversity than that of Derek Dooley. After being dismissed in his teens as a crude, ugly duckling of a centre forward, the rumbustious redhead emerged in his early twenties as a prolific goal-scorer with Sheffield Wednesday. But just as he was being tipped freely for England honours, his career was halted horrifically by the amputation of his right leg following an accidental collision with a goalkeeper in 1953.
It was a calamitous blow, yet the resilient Dooley recovered to become Wednesday's manager, only to be sacked by the club he had worshipped all his life. Even then he did not give up on the game, eventually crossing the city to join the Owls' bitter local rivals, Sheffield United, with whom he rose to become managing director, chief executive and chairman.
The dynamism and desire which earned Dooley his unique niche in Sheffield soccer folklore – no one else has been revered to the same degree by both Wednesday and United fans – was evident from childhood in the steelworker's son who learned his football on the streets and on the unforgiving surface of the local recreation ground, where grass was hard to spot among the flattened ash and sharp cinders. He always yearned to play for Wednesday and, even after leaving school at 14 to work in a hearing-aid factory, despite having passed his 11-plus exam, he did not abandon his dream.
Instead Dooley clawed his way up through the ranks of junior teams, excelling for Sheffield YMCA before joining Lincoln City as an amateur in his mid teens. He caught the eye of an Owls scout and was recruited by the Hillsborough club, turning professional in 1947, not long after his 17th birthday. Soon he was netting regularly for Wednesday's minor sides, but when offered senior opportunities – one in the Second Division in 1949/50 and another in the top flight a season later – he performed disappointingly. Though he was quick, bullishly strong and utterly fearless when fighting for the ball, the 6ft 3in spearhead appeared cumbersome and poorly balanced when a degree of finesse was required.
But the picture changed dramatically in October 1951 when, with his team languishing dangerously low in the Second Division table, manager Eric Taylor called up Dooley to face Barnsley at Hillsborough. The raw but eager 21-year-old responded with a double strike which beat the Tykes, then set off on a phenomenal goal rampage which carried the hitherto hesitant Owls to the divisional championship. After a mere dozen appearances he had registered 24 times, including five in the annihilation of Notts County and four against Everton, and by season's end his tally was a barely believable 46 goals in 30 games.
Fans who previously had denigrated his clumsiness now hailed the savagery of his right-foot finishing, his fearsome aerial prowess and a willingness to strike from any angle which yielded several seemingly impossible goals. Though arguments continued to rage about the perceived rashness of the young warrior whose untempered aggression risked injury where more polished performers would hold back, his tigerish chasing of apparently lost causes was applauded, and the strains of "Dooley, Dooley's there" echoed around the Hillsborough terraces to the tune of the Guy Mitchell hit of the day "My Truly, Truly Fair".
Still there were doubts about how the ungainly barnstormer would fare among the élite, and when he was goalless as Wednesday struggled through their opening Division One fixtures of 1952/53, the "I told you so" brigade was out in force. But boss Taylor remained loyal, alleging a vendetta against his prodigy by opponents, rival fans and even referees, and soon his faith was justified as Dooley's touch returned with a vengeance, with 16 goals against the cream of the League's defences between September and February.
But just as talk of an international call-up became increasingly insistent, disaster struck during Sheffield Wednesday's clash with Preston North End at Deepdale on Valentine's Day. As he chased a through-pass from Albert Quixall, Dooley bounced off the goalkeeper George Thompson and fell in a heap. A broken right shinbone was diagnosed, a serious setback but hardly one of career-threatening proportions until a small cut at the back of his calf became infected. Within two days gangrene set in, the leg was amputated to save his life, and an artificial limb was fitted to the six-inch stump.
Thus chronically handicapped, having been married for only six months, with no house, no trade and only meagre education, many men would have fallen prey to self pity. But not Dooley. Having bought a house with the proceeds of his benefit game, he voiced his desire to retain his association with the club for whom he had notched 63 goals in as many games, "even if they use me as the corner flag". Thus he scouted for the Owls at weekends while spending two years reporting for the Daily Mirror, then manned a switchboard at a bakery owned by a Wednesday director – rising from telephonist to assistant sales manager in the process – before returning to Hillsborough, first as youth-team coach and then, in 1962, taking charge of the club's new lottery.
In that role he played a major part in the redevelopment of the ground into one of the best in the country until, with the team labouring near the wrong end of the Second Division and desperately in need of fresh impetus, he was appointed manager in January 1971. Starting with a tremendous fund of goodwill, and blessed with a bluff charisma, he seemed ideal saviour material and his side topped the table early in 1972/73. But that promise was not maintained, results declined and, with gates having plummeted and with his playing resources undermined by a mystery virus, he was sacked without warning on Christmas Eve 1973.
Embittered by what he deemed brutal treatment, the erstwhile hero of Hillsborough vowed never to return to the ground for a Wednesday match. Happily, when he did eventually relent for a Sheffield derby in 1992, the standing ovation he received from both sets of supporters would become one of his most treasured memories.
After leaving Wednesday, he worked for a boot manufacturer before his career path took the most unexpected of turns when Sheffield United offered him the post of commercial manager in 1974. At first he was dumbfounded by the notion of serving "the old enemy", but he accepted the challenge and went on to become a highly successful administrator at Bramall Lane.
He graduated to serve as director, then managing director and chief executive before retiring from day-to-day involvement in 1996, or so he thought. Three years later, aged 69 in 1999, he was made chairman of the Blades, who were £4m in debt and toiling near the foot of the First Division. He was instrumental in the appointment of Neil Warnock as manager and presided over a stirring revival, which included appearances in the semi-finals of both major domestic cup competitions and the play-off finals in 2003.
Still in store was a valedictory triumph in 2006, when United secured promotion to the Premiership as runners-up to Reading. Immediately afterwards Dooley stepped down as chairman to become a life vice-president of the club.
In 2003, Dooley was appointed MBE for his services to football, and fans on both sides of the Sheffield divide were gratified but hardly surprised. To them he had long been regarded as little short of royalty.
Derek Dooley, footballer, manager and administrator: born Sheffield 13 December 1929; played for Sheffield Wednesday 1947-52, manager 1971-73; chairman, Sheffield United 1999-2006; MBE 2003; married (one son, one daughter); died Sheffield 5 March 2008.
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