Interview - Peter Dooley: Favourite man of steel city

From committed spectator to chairman, a life-long battler has rallied to Blades' cause. By Simon Turnbull
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The Independent Online
THREE WEEKS ago Derek Dooley was happily retired. When he set off for Bramall Lane on 23 November it was simply with the intention of watching Sheffield United play Port Vale. When he returned home he had some news for his wife. "I said: `They've made me the chairman of the football club'," he recounted. "She said: `You've not taken the job have you?' I said: `Yeah'. She said: `I'm taking you down to the hospital tomorrow to have your head examined'."

Dooley rocked back in the chairman's chair and chuckled. He was quick to point out, though, how supportive his wife has been to him over the years. She had, after all, been Mrs Dooley for only six months when his world collapsed around him. "Valentine's Day 1953, it was," he said. "At Deepdale. I'd gone for a 50-50 ball with the Preston goalkeeper and broken my leg. Just a little cut at the back of the calf, it was."

Two days later, in Preston Royal Infirmary, Dooley told doctors he had no feeling in his toes. Gas gangrene had spread all the way up his right leg. Within 48 hours the leg had been amputated, leaving only a six-inch stump. At the age of 23, with 46 goals from 30 games, Sheffield Wednesday's rising star and centre-forward found himself on the football scrap-heap with no house, no trade, not much of an education (he'd passed his 11- plus but left school at 14) and with a physical handicap to carry through the rest of his life.

Approaching his 70th birthday, which arrives tomorrow, Dooley makes light of his disability these days. "I've got used to it," he said. "I've spent more of my life now with one leg than I have with two. Of course it was hard at first. But when you're standing on a touchline on a freezing day and someone next to you says: `God, it's so cold both my feet have gone numb,' you just have to laugh and say: `Yeah, but it's only half as bad for me.'

"It has its compensations. When I'm out walking round Sheffield, for instance, nobody points at this shuffling figure and says: `Look at that disabled old bloke.' They know who I am. They know I could play football."

They greatly respect him too. Dooley holds a unique place in the affections of Sheffield folk. He happens to be a hero on both sides of the steel city's football divide. That much was brought poignantly home to him in the spring of 1992 when both sets of supporters stood to applaud him at a derby match. "I'm an emotional type anyway," he said. "And that really brought a lump to my throat."

It was the first time in 18 years that Dooley had been back to Hillsborough to see Wednesday play. After his accident he retained his link with the club by working at weekends as a scout and then as youth team coach before being taken on full-time as lottery manager. He subsequently graduated to the team manager's hot-seat but was removed from it with the cruellest of timing in 1973. The sack was delivered on Christmas Eve.

"I vowed never to go to Hillsborough again," he said. "So did my wife and she still hasn't been back. When they named the restaurant there after me she wouldn't go for the opening ceremony. And not so long ago, when they held the `100 years of Hillsborough' function, Sheila wouldn't go then either. She'll never forget that Christmas Eve."

For 25 years now, Dooley has been on the United side of town, at Bramall Lane. He has served Wednesday's rivals as commercial manager, managing director, chief executive and chairman, briefly, once before. He retired from day-to-day affairs at the club three years ago, resigning from the board and accepting the honorary post of vice-president. "I enjoyed spending time with my grandkids," he said, "particularly going fishing with my grandson - he's Derek Dooley, like me, but everyone calls him Del."

So why, then, did Del Dooley's grandad plunge back into the deep end - at nigh on 70, with a club some pounds 4m in debt and fourth bottom of the First Division ? "Because I've got a feeling for the club," he said. "I'm fully aware that it's not going to be an easy job. When you're down among the dead men it's not easy to climb out.

"We haven't got a lot of money. We've got a wage bill we're finding it hard to cope with. The commercial revenue has gone down. And the gates have gone down to 10,000.

"I can understand why the fans have become frustrated. They've seen us sell some of our better players, not just because we needed the money but because their wages were so high, and they've seen us go down the League. We've been down this avenue before and I feel for the fans. I really do. I know we're not going to suddenly get gates of 15,000 again - not until we start going up the League again or look like we're going in the right direction."

At least one Unitedite has been lured back to Bramall Lane. In replacing Adrian Heath, who resigned the same night as Mike McDonald quit as chairman, Dooley and his fellow directors appointed Neil Warnock - a Sheffield native and lifelong United fan - as manager.

"People say: `Why didn't you go for a Graeme Souness or a Joe Kinnear?' Well, there were two reasons - firstly neither of them applied for it, and secondly I doubt if we could afford somebody of that ilk," Dooley said.

"Neil fitted the bill. He's got a great track record in terms of getting teams promoted. And wherever he's been he's never had a lot of cash to spend. That's obviously going to be the case here, at least until we get a more stable base. Neil knows he's going to have to wheel and deal and get free transfers."

Warnock is already in credit on the playing side, having announced his arrival with a 1-0 home win against Portsmouth eight days ago - United's first victory in 10 matches. There may be trouble ahead, though, with Rushden and Diamonds due at Bramall Lane in the third round of the FA Cup this afternoon and fixtures against Blackburn, Birmingham and Fulham to follow.

And, of course, the plight of United is only one half of the doom-and- gloom football picture in Sheffield. The prospect of a merger has been increasingly mentioned in dispatches but Dooley dismisses the idea altogether. "I firmly believe there's room for two first-class clubs in the city of Sheffield," he said. "I don't think a merger will ever happen. If Wednesday were fourth in the Premiership and we were fourth in the First Division I don't think all this talk would have ever cropped up. There's no guarantee that if we merged the teams together they would be successful and where they would play God in heaven knows.

"Back when the Don Valley Stadium was being built we went along just to take a look at the site and there was an absolute outrage at the thought of Sheffield United moving from Bramall Lane, let alone merging."

Born and bred in Sheffield, Dooley himself has never moved from the semi- detached house he bought at Norton from the proceeds of his testimonial at Hillsborough in 1955. It cost pounds 2,100, small change from a Roy Keane wage packet in 1999. "I don't begrudge players getting well paid," Dooley said, "but I find these ridiculous sums now very hard to take in. I read Andy Cole in the paper saying, `I can't go on the buses because I'm well known.' Well, I've got news for him... I used to travel on the tram and the bus to matches and on Christmas morning I used to walk to the ground."

You can read more about those good old days when Keith Farnsworth eventually gets a chance to publish his definitive biography of Sheffield's favourite sporting son. "We'd just about finished it," Dooley said, "and then I became chairman. We've been adding a bit this morning, actually. Hopefully, it should be out in May."

A riveting read it should be, too - even if the latest chapter of the Derek Dooley Story has only just begun.