1973: The sacking of a football manager

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The Independent Online
DEREK DOOLEY walked into Bramall Lane one morning just after Christmas 20 years ago to be greeted by the Sheffield United chairman John Hassall. "I was looking for you the other day but you were nowhere to be found," he said. "I know. I never spea k to football club chairmen on Christmas Eve," Dooley replied.

With good reason. For Dooley, by this time United's new commercial manager - to whom Hassall in fact wanted to offer a gift - had been sacked across the city at Hillsborough as Sheffield Wednesday manager on that day the year before.

If this year's November casualties think they have been unfairly treated, they might consider the cruel case of a man who had given his club 28 years service as player and administrator, during which time he had lost his right leg in their cause. Does hestill remember Christmas Eve 1973? "Only vividly."

Derek Dooley had been a strapping, rampaging centre-forward for Wednesday and scored 46 of their 100 goals when they won promotion to the First Division in 1951-52. Then, in February the following year, he collided with the Preston North End goalkeeper, George Thompson, and broke his leg. Gangrene set in and the limb had to be amputated from the middle of his thigh. His playing career was over at the age of 22. When talking about the incident to Arthur Hopcraft in 1967, Dooley summed up his character inone sentence: "It's my one regret in all this that the ball didn't finish in the net."

He became a scout for Wednesday and worked in their pools and ticket offices. Then, in 1971, he became manager. By the 1973-74 season Dooley thought he had a squad good enough to challenge for promotion (Wednesday were by then back in the Second Division).

A virus swept through the club, however, keeping out key players for two months. Hillsborough was even closed down for a week. By mid-season there were signs of improvement but he had used 31 players and Wednesday had slumped to 18th. He asked for £60,000 to buy new players.

He thought the board had agreed when they summoned him to the "Blue Room" that Christmas Eve. "But all I got was the sack. I didn't even have time to sit down before the chairman, Mike Sheppard, told me," he recalled. "I went out shocked and waited for the players to come back from training to tell them. I made a pretty bad job of that as well and shed a few tears.

"It was a horrendous Christmas. My son Martyn, who was 17, was a Wednesday fanatic but he went up to his bedroom and tore down all the posters and pennants. Mind you, my nine-year-old daughter, Suzanne, was delighted because I could play with her on Christmas morning instead of training."

With his pay-off of £1,600, equivalent to three months' salary, he sought respite on Boxing Day not in some sunny sanctuary but with a friend in Bedfordshire. He wanted to avoid the media glare - he believes the board wanted to, as well, which is why he was sacked at Christmas. He reappeared to watch a match, accepting one of the many invitations from his sympathetic friends in the game. Alec Stock, the Fulham manager, had asked him to watch his team's next match.Against Sheffield Wednesday.

Too proud to collect the dole, he was unemployed for six weeks, worked for a football boot company for six months, then joined Sheffield United, of whom he remains a director, having previously been chairman and chief executive. It is a story with an upbeat ending for a man who has spent 50 of his 65 years in the game and who last year became the first sportsman to be made a Freeman of Sheffield.

"I was bitter for a long while and so was my wife, Sylvia, who still won't go to Hillsborough. But I went back in United's first season in the Premiership three years ago and the Wednesday chairman, Dave Richards, took me on the pitch. I wondered if I was dropping a clanger, but the reception from the fans was very moving.

"Time heals wounds and I have forgiven, even if I can't forget, and every Christmas Eve the memories come back. Still, now I have the best of both worlds."