Despite Sheffield Wednesday's atrocious season, Danny Wilson's job seemsed safe until last month. Grahan Lightfoot examines how it all went wrong for him
The post mortem at the end of the 1999-2000 season will reveal that the cause of Sheffield Wednesday’s Premiership death was obvious. Nothing ever lasts long without a heart. All the more strange that the man who presided over this long and painful downfall was a player who wore the blue and white stripes with such pride. When Danny Wilson was appointed as manager at Hillsborough in July 1998 there weren’t too many Owls fans who were disappointed. After less than two years in charge, however, his dismissal by the club’s new chairman Howard Culley has been met with mixed feelings.
Throughout his tenure at both Barnsley and Wednesday, Wilson endeared himself to the media as “the decent bloke”, who was, more often than not, “honourable in defeat”. Wednesday’s previous chairman, Dave Richards, who had one eye on filling the independent position of chairman of the Premier League, had reinforced the point by swearing allegiance to his manager. Despite the humiliation of an 8-0 drubbing at Newcastle and the accumulation of less than ten points by Christmas, Wilson appeared to be fireproof.
Wilson’s loyalty to his chairman was reciprocal and he toed the club line to his own detriment. Reputed losses of between £12 million and £18 million over the past few years meant he was never allowed to spend the sort of money that he perhaps envisaged when he signed for the club. Some might argue that bringing the lacklustre De Bilde and Sibon, and a trio of injury-prone Scots to Hillsborough, only went to prove that the board were being inadvertently prudent in curtailing his spending.
Wilson was let down badly by his players, though his handling of the Di Canio and Carbone crises, perceived by many to be cost-cutting exercises by the board, contributed hugely to the club’s financial deficit. Those players that remained seemed unable to play with the same passion that Wilson epitomised as a player. Whether or not this was down to his lack of motivational skills, it is always easier to sack the manager than the players.
The timing of the dismissal is strange. With only nine games left of the season Wednesday remained the only one of the bottom five clubs not to have spent any money to try to maintain their status. Joe Ashton MP has gone so far as to suggest that relegation is being courted by the club as a means of straightening out its finances.
The conspiracy theory perhaps doesn’t seem so wide of the mark when you consider that the club is showing little interest in retaining a number of senior professionals coming towards the end of their contracts and that the departure of foreign players such as Jonk, De Bilde and Alexandersson will reduce the wage bill and bring in much needed revenue.
The decline of the club over the past six years is reflected in the sad sight of a half-full Hillsborough. The roar of the full house that greeted Alexandersson’s first goal against Manchester United last season would indicate that the fans are still out there, but they are picking their games. For the most part, the stadium that can hold almost 40,000 has been a veritable morgue this season.
Unsurprisingly, it is Peter Shreeves who is charged with trying to spark the corpse into life for the remaining games. Brought in as head coach under David Pleat, he was perceived to be the mastermind behind what is wistfully referred to as “the season we finished seventh” (1996-97).
Shreeves’s one game as caretaker manager (between the departure of Pleat and the return of Ron Atkinson) marks him out as Wednesday’s most successful manager ever. Played one, won one – a 5-0 cruise against Bolton that included an Andy Booth hat-trick – so nothing is impossible.
From WSC 159 May 2000. What was happening this month