Neil Warnock’s love of Sheffield United has received plenty of publicity but the Wednesday are currently managed by a fan, too. Chris Turner has the job of rescuing the former Premiership regulars from Division Two and talks to Al Needham about how he plans to do it in these difficult times
Managers who have been successful elsewhere have struggled at Hillsborough. Was there a particular set of circumstances that made it a difficult place to succeed?
Very much so. Terry Yorath, Peter Shreeves and Paul Jewell were battling against the financial position. They had a lot of players signed during the Premiership days on high salaries who wouldn’t or couldn’t be moved on. From what I’ve heard from Terry and Paul, a number weren’t interested in playing or training. The difficulties they had were insurmountable. Peter Shreeves inherited a squad of players who had three years on their contracts who weren’t doing the business. While managers came and went, these players stayed. I was in the fortunate position of coming in at a time when something like 14 players were out of contract. So I didn’t have the worry of having to move these players on. That doesn’t mean the problem of high salaries has gone – we still have players here on high wages, certainly too high for Second Division football.
What’s it like to go through a relegation battle with a club not expected to be in that situation?
Very hard. It’s like trying to build a shed without the tools. We had a lot of blunt tools, but no sharp ones. You couldn’t build a team out of what we had and I had to get a lot of players on loan, which brought in a professionalism that wasn’t there. Slowly but surely others started to bounce back and enjoy playing again and we became hard to beat. Then we started picking up draws. Then we started picking up wins. We turned it round, but it took too long. It was virtually a no-win situation.
A lot is said about players needing motivation, especially when a new manager comes in to a struggling club. But shouldn’t players have it anyway?
Players already in the team should be motivated and the only players who should benefit from a new manager are the ones who haven’t been selected by the previous one. When I was playing, it wasn’t for the manager – I was playing for myself and I wanted to win. I expect every Wednesday player to feel the same. The situation I inherited was that the club hadn’t had a successful season for seven years and had been on a downward spiral. The difficulty I had when I came here in November was the lack of enthusiasm, discipline and motivation that was around the whole building – not just the players, but everyone. The hardest part was getting people motivated and feeling we could rescue the situation and we very nearly did it. We certainly changed the attitude of the club and a lot of the fans, as can be seen in the season-ticket sales.
What can a manager do when he first goes into a club to shake things up?
The first priority was to get a result as soon as possible to give the players a crumb of confidence. I was told by the directors not to expect a result for the first three games, due to the opposition. Until you get inside a football club you don’t know how deep the problems are and with this club it wasn’t months, it was years of deterioration. Dropping out of the Premiership by a big margin, the knock-on effect of living on Nationwide money and so on. Psychology plays a big part. You have to get players to believe in themselves, that they can do better, and when they do you’ve got to keep that going. Some of it’s kidology as much as psychology, but when they do better, see the effects of their hard work through results, that encourages them further. You have players who talk themselves into bad games and you have to turn that round.
Is it harder to work with players on big money?
No. Gerald Sibon was our top earner when I arrived and he was locked in a set way as to how he should play. We left him out and he didn’t really show any emotion – I’m sure deep down he was hurt, but he was… [Turner shrugs]. He was looking for the reaction of the other players and they said nothing, and we saw a sudden transformation in training. Before he left he came up to me and said he felt better and the team was improving. You can’t ride roughshod over high-earners, you have to get the best out of them – he earns what he’s been paid by a previous manager. I treat all players the same. I don’t pick teams because one player’s on £4,000 a week and another’s on £2,000.
But that’s all about to change, surely?
Unless players realise it very, very quickly, they’re going to be in for a real shock. The gravy train’s stopped, the wheels have come off and players on £4,000 a week – when their contracts come to an end, they’re not going to even smell that. But they will have had a few years of high income that will set them up for the rest of their lives, I would have thought. £1,500 is going to be the norm, £2,000 tops. A few clubs that can afford it will push the boat out on certain players, but wages are tumbling. And they have to. On the outside, football still looks glossy – but on the inside, it’s desperate.
It must be frustrating to know that the balance sheet can be the difference between a good and bad season.
What’s been happening financially in the Third Division over the last 15 to 20 years has now happened in the Second and is starting to happen in the First. The problems that clubs such as York, Hartlepool and Colchester faced are now happening to First Division clubs. Every manager you speak to says the same thing – we’ve got to get players off the wage bills, we can’t afford to sign new players and we need more quality.
Being a player in the 1980s, it must have been galling to miss out on the big salaries of the 1990s.
We were earning more than the players of the 1970s, who were earning more than the players of the 1960s. The Nineties were great for the players, but for the long-term good of football they’ve been a disaster. It crippled clubs such as Derby, Leicester, Forest, Ipswich, ourselves… you can’t say how long it’s going to take for all those clubs to recover from it.
Having been joint manager of Leyton Orient, do you feel it’s a help or a hindrance sharing a managerial role?
You can’t have joint managers, but the situation that John Sitton and I were put in was a very good experience for me, as I was involved in board meetings, with the press and the workings of management without the pressure to win games or expectancy, because all we had was hope. The club was on its knees and we were absolutely penniless until Barry Hearn came in.
How hard is it to manage a club that is sharing a city with a currently more successful rival?
Who’s that? From our point of view, we’re on a downslide at the moment, but we’ve had far more ups and downs than Sheffield United. Whether it’s this year, next year, five years, ten years, this club will rise above Sheffield United in the future. It always has done, always will do. They’re having a bit of success at the moment – even though they didn’t win anything. They got to three semi-finals, but they’re the bridesmaids. It doesn’t worry me what they do over there; I’m concerned with this club. And whatever they do, they’ll never be bigger than Sheffield Wednesday; they’ve never won anything. History tells us that.
Is it harder to be at a club you played for and support? Or does it give you extra leeway with the supporters?
It’s not harder, because whoever I work for I give everything to. I did as a player, I did as a coach and I do as a manager. The added benefit for me is that I see the club I support play every Saturday. No disrespect to other clubs, but I wouldn’t have left Hartlepool for anyone but Wednesday. I feel more pressure internally because I know the benefits will be enormous if the club does well, because I know the city and what it means to Sheffield if we succeed. As for the fans, they’re the same at every club – they want to see the team win. The only leeway that I will get – if any – will be that if things don’t go to plan, the club cannot possibly go down the road of hiring and firing again, as I personally believe they’ll be setting themselves 18 months back towards the eventual goal, as has been done in the past. And if I were making a right bollocks of this job, I would put my hands up and say, “Look, this isn’t working,” and walk away. But I’m confident I’m doing the right job.
When you took over at Wednesday, you said you’d get them into Europe in…
Five years! Bloody hell, I knew you were going to say that. What happened was, I was asked at a press conference how long it was going to take Wednesday to get back to the top. We were still in the First Division, and I said that in five years this club could be in Europe. Could. Five years is a bit of leeway, because we could win the League Cup when we’re still in the First. It would take us that amount of time to get out of the Second, consolidate our position in the First, and then make a bid for the Prem. That’s the goal.
You cited Brian Clough, who also started at Hartlepool and won the league with Derby within five seasons. Can a club be turned around that fast these days?
Certainly not today, given the financial situation. A Brian Clough of today would need the kind of money Chelsea have been given. And you won’t see a club like Wimbledon coming along and moving up from the Third to the Premiership and staying there. It’s possible to get into the Premiership, but to actually win it and go on to win the Champions League – no chance.
Would Wednesday need a big injection of cash to make headway in the Premiership if they came up again?
First of all, you’d need £25 million to kill the debt off. And if you get into the Premiership, you’re on a wing and a prayer. Being up there brings as many dangers as benefits – high salaries, high transfer fees and the fear of debt and relegation that could put you in administration. Look at Sunderland and West Ham, they’ve had to sell off their best players. Problem is, the supporters expect and demand. West Ham supporters want the chairman’s head at the moment, but do they want to see the risk of their club being sold down the river so Joe Cole can keep running out for them?
How much does it concern you that your job is as much about balance sheets as it is coaching?
I don’t mind at all, as I knew this club had no money when I arrived. Since I’ve been here, I’ve spent £7,500 in transfer fees on a non-League player. But I have the confidence in my ability to organise a team and get results. I’d be a fool to say I wouldn’t want the budget to buy three or four players who would turn the club around overnight – we’d all like that – but I’m not disheartened because I did it at Hartlepool. It took me three and half years to learn that, but when we lost to Cheltenham in the play-offs, I knew that we had built a team that was going to go away and play other teams off the park and get promoted.
And how far are you away from having the same confidence in Wednesday?
A million miles away. We’re having to juggle players around, as I did at Hartlepool. I’ve had to get in new players who have been thrown together, so there’s going to be hiccups. We need to be out of the Second in two years, but hopefully we’ll be out this year. But hand on heart, I can’t tell you I have a team yet that you could close your eyes and know how they’re going to play.
Is there any nagging doubt that Wednesday could drop down another level?
That’s a horrible question. No. We’ve bottomed out now. We’ve lost that losing culture, which is the first step in the right direction. You can never say never, but we’ve got enough quality in this club this season that as long as we get the rub of the green when we need it, we can go straight back up.
From WSC 200 October 2003. What was happening this month