In the community whose population divides cleanly into Wednesdayites and United supporters, with very little in the way of don't-knows or don't-cares, Derek Dooley is the real thing: an authentic legend of the game. As hundreds of coaches slip on to the M1 at Junction 30 in the hours just after dawn next Saturday, not one of the 70-odd thousand supporters on the road to Wembley will carry more of Sheffield in his heart and in his bones.
It's quite a legacy. Sheffield, after all, is a cradle of the game. In a blighted and confused post-industrial landscape where coalmining is following the steel industry into near-extinction and unemployment among the male workforce runs from one in 10 in some areas to one in four in others, where foreign-owned shopping malls are replacing factories, where expensive urban-renewal schemes - the Don Valley Stadium, the Supertram - create giant resentments, the Owls and the Blades provide a rare thread of cultural continuity.
Within this world, Derek Dooley is unique. Born almost within sight of Hillsborough, he watched Sheffield Wednesday as a boy, spent more than 20 years with them, and is therefore blue and white all the way through; there's nothing he could do to change that, even if he wanted to (which he did, for a long time). And after spending almost the next 20 years with Sheffield United, he's red and white all the way through, too.
His is a story of vast promise, auspicious beginnings, great deeds, abrupt tragedy. And that was only the start of it.
Now the 63-year-old man settles into his living-room settee, shifts his right leg awkwardly, and begins to talk. 'When I was playing . . .'
PEOPLE WHO lived in South Yorkshire when Derek Dooley was playing, which is to say in the early Fifties, remember the local children twisting the words of hymns and pop songs in praise of Sheffield Wednesday's young centre-forward. At choir practice in a mining village, the little boys giggled and sang 'My hope to follow Dooley is in thy strength alone.' And in the playgrounds it was 'Oh, my Dooley fair, Dooley Dooley fair . . .'
Here's what happened when Derek Dooley played.
'As far as I can go back,' he says, 'I remember scoring goals.' Born in 1930, a steelworker's son, at 15 he played three first-team matches for Lincoln City, who were in the old Third Division North, and scored three times. Two years later he was old enough to sign part-time professional forms at Hillsborough, and had worked his way into the reserves when national service took two years out of his career. When he came out, he had to wait his chance. It came on 5 October 1951, with Wednesday languishing at 17th or 18th in the Second Division. They'd tried half a dozen men in the No 9 shirt already that season; now, for the visit of Barnsley, they gave it to the 21-year-old local lad, 6ft 2in and almost 14 stone, with big feet that splayed out as he ran.
Wednesday won 2-1, and Dooley got both goals. His next two matches yielded only one score. But then, at home to Notts County, Wednesday won 6-0 and five of them were Dooley's, all in the second half. After that, he couldn't stop: 22 goals over nine consecutive games, including a hat-trick in 12 minutes against West Ham (with Malcolm Allison marking him at centre-half) and all the goals in a 4-0 win over Everton. His final goal of the season, and Wednesday's, was their 100th of the campaign, and his 46th - in only 30 games. From nowhere in October, Wednesday had won the Second Division championship, and Derek Dooley was a hero.
Next season, in the First Division, he'd scored 16 goals in 20-odd games and was being talked of as an England prospect when Wednesday visited Preston North End on 14 February, St Valentine's Day. There had been snow and ice at Deepdale, and the ground staff had tried to improve the surface by spreading saltpetre. Dooley went for a 50-50 ball with the Preston goalkeeper, who had to come out of his area and tried to clear the ball with his boot. They went down, Dooley with his right leg broken at the shin. Two days later, in Preston Royal Infirmary, he discovered that he had no feeling in his toes. They examined him. Gas gangrene had spread all the way up his leg. 'It was a one in a million chance. The goalkeeper's stud had nicked me in the back of the calf. Nothing more than a simple scratch, but something had got into the bloodstream.' Within 48 hours his right leg had been amputated, leaving only a six-inch stump.
No more goals. No more of the only life he'd known. He was 23 years old, with a wife, no house, no trade, not much of an education (he'd passed his 11-plus, but left school at 14). Now he spent months getting used to the artificial leg. And at the end of the next season, Wednesday gave him a testimonial at Hillsborough: a combined Sheffield XI versus a team of internationals. 'Stanley Matthews played, and Tommy Lawton, and Jack Kelsey from Arsenal, and John Charles . . . there were 58,000 people in the ground. I took away pounds 7,500. Not bad for those days.'
He got a job as a telephonist and receptionist at a bakery, combining it with a bit of scouting for Wednesday. Soon he was looking after the youth team, and then, eight or nine years after his accident, they took him on full-time again, to run the club's new fund-raising lottery. And in January 1971, with the club again near the bottom of the Second Division and having just got rid of their fifth manager in a dozen years, they asked the Favourite Son if he'd like a go in the hot seat.
'I loved it,' he says. 'It was the next best thing to playing. At one stage, in my second season, we were in the top three for about four months, before we fell away. I'd got a fairly good side together. We liked to attack.' But in 1973, almost 20 years after he'd lost his playing career, and with Wednesday back near the bottom of the division, they sacked him. On Christmas Eve, would you believe.
'It would be fair to say that I felt bitter,' he says. 'I thought I hadn't had a fair crack of the whip.' In fact that he didn't set foot again in Hillsborough, the place which until that moment had practically defined his whole life, for almost 20 years.
HE'D SPENT a few months working as a rep for a boot manufacturer when Sheffield United, remembering the success he'd made of Wednesday's lottery, offered him a job as commercial manager. Eventually he was invited to join the board, and by the mid-Eighties he was the club's managing director, which was his title when he took retirement last year.
For him, the last five years have been the happiest, since Dave Bassett arrived from Wimbledon and Watford to bring the long-ball game to Bramall Lane. 'I've felt part and parcel of it, with David. It's been an excellent relationship. The best I've had in football, in fact.' Bassett gets some stick, though, doesn't he? 'Oh, he does. Aye. Unjustly, I think. A lovely fellow.'
At the very least, Bassett's Route One game serves to turn next Saturday's semi-final into the sort of contrast of styles that is one of the better aspects of the British game. The plain-man's football of United and the more cerebral ways of Trevor Francis's Wednesday may also express something fundamental about the souls of the respective clubs.
Both of them have their roots in cricket. Wednesday were founded in 1867, by the cricket club of the same name, while United were spawned 22 years later by Yorkshire County Cricket Club, with whose players they shared the Bramall Lane ground until 1973, when the cuckoo won and the cricketers moved out. Wednesday have won the league championship four times, United once; United have taken the FA Cup four times, Wednesday on three occasions. But the most recent of these honours came in 1935, since when the two clubs have yo-yo'd up and down the league, meeting each other in the Third Division as recently as 1980.
Hillsborough is to the north of the city, Bramall Lane to the south. Geography, though, seems to have little to do with the division of support. There are certainly no extraneous allegiances - religion, say - to distinguish one set of fans from the other. Family tradition is sometimes the key, but not always. My taxi driver to Hillsborough last week was a Wednesdayite; one of his sons has followed him, but the other goes to Bramall Lane. Why? 'I couldn't tell you.'
Dooley says the slum clearances of the Forties and early Fifties, which established new housing estates on the northern edges of the city, brought Wednesday an increased local following, but he's more inclined to attribute the higher standing of his original club to its greater willingness to court glamour by spending money and taking risks, particularly during the era of a man called Eric Taylor.
'Eric was both the manager and the club secretary when I was there. He'd never played football in his life. He started as the office boy in the Thirties, and during the war he kept the club going. When it was over, he carried on. He left the football to his coach, Alan Brown. He just came in before the game and gave us a pep-talk. But he had the greatest vision of what football could become, in terms of stadiums and so on, of anyone I've known. In the Sixties, before the World Cup, he built the new North Stand - a cantilever, with 10,000 seats. People were sure it would be a white elephant. But the World Cup came to Hillsborough in '66, and after that we got the Cup semi-final every other year. He knew how to sell Sheffield Wednesday to the public.'
United's directors, by contrast, were a more conservative bunch - even when, in the Seventies, the team built around Tony Currie regaled the First Division with football superior in artistry to that of their neighbours, who were struggling in the Second. And, Dooley says, 'Wednesday have always been in the transfer market, whether it was selling Albert Quixall to Manchester United or buying Chris Waddle from Marseille. At United, our record signing is Brian Gayle, who cost pounds 700,000.' Nevertheless United did build a new stand of their own, with its full complement of suites and restaurants, and struggled back to the Premier League, where they are currently engaged in what has become an annual battle against relegation.
'Wednesday have got some good ball-players,' Dooley says. 'They play an entirely different style from us. That's got something to do with the money they spend. As for us, what the media say, that we get the ball and welly it up the field and hopefully somebody's on the end of it . . . well, that's unjust to Sheffield United and to Dave Bassett, because a lot of thought and preparation goes into it. We've got free-transfer players in our first team, you know, but we're still in the Premier League, just, and now we're in the semi-final of the FA Cup. Dave is brilliant at working with the material he's got. We beat Manchester United through sheer guts and commitment, we murdered Spurs 6-0 with some good football. On our day we can beat anybody. And we're not Wimbledon.'
ONE DAY last spring, when United were about to play Wednesday away from home, the Hillsborough chairman, Dave Richards, invited Derek Dooley to visit the ground for the first time since the Christmas Eve dismissal 18 years earlier.
'I said, 'No, I don't go to Hillsborough.' But he kept asking, and eventually I accepted. It was a night match. The directors had a meal first, and then Dave said, 'I'm going to take you out on to the pitch.' I said, 'I'm not going.' I thought I'd get 'Wednesday reject' shouted at me, like. But he said, 'Will you do it for me?' So I went out - and there was a man in the middle of the pitch with a microphone, and he said, 'Right, we've got one of our players who hasn't been here for a long time - will you welcome . . .' Well, bloody hell, they've got 30,000 in there, haven't they, and it was brilliant, something I'll never forget. There was United's supporters shouting for me, and Wednesday's too. And kids who'd never seen me, but whose dads had told them, 'Well, he was a good player and he scored all those goals.' I feel I'm fortunate, to be accepted by both sets. Because in this city you're either blue and white or red and white, aren't you?'