Political power

Ken Gall talks to the MPs whose intervention over Danny Wilson's management of Sheffield Wednesday drew so much flak

Managers at struggling clubs quickly become inured to criticism from the media, fans and directors. Few, however, will experience a public call for their removal from a cabinet minister – the fate which befell Danny Wilson as Sheffield Wednesday’s season made the dreadful journey from bad to worse.

However, two of the Sheffield MPs at the centre of the “Sack Wilson” row have defended their actions, and attacked what they see as the continuing financial and footballing mismanagement of the club. Former Wednesday director Joe Ashton and Clive Betts – along with two colleagues, Secretary of State for Education David Blunkett and Bill Michie – were reported to have called for Wilson’s head following Wednesday’s desperate start to the season.

“People on trains and in the pubs in Sheffield were not talking about the crisis in the NHS, they were talking about the crisis at Wednesday,” says Ashton. He and Betts believe the row was prompted by the club leaking to the press details of a meeting between the four MPs and the merchant bank Charterhouse to discuss Wednesday’s increasingly alarming financial position.

The response from the footballing community was predictable, with professionals and pundits alike lining up to suggest that MPs should, for example, get the trains running on time before commenting on football. “The football media think they are the only ones who can call for managers to be sacked or players dropped,” says Betts. Ashton also rebuts the charges. “I saw my first game in 1942, I’ve had a season ticket since 1962 and I’ve been a shareholder since 1974. If I don’t know about Wednesday, who does?”

“At the Bradford game [the first after the story broke] many fans came up to say ‘About time, too’. The fans knew that Danny had lost the plot,” says Ashton.

Betts described Wilson’s sacking as “inevitable”. “I’ve been asked whether we were responible for Danny Wilson getting the sack,” he said. “My answer is that it was the team who got Wilson the sack.”

The MPs’ criticism is not confined to Wilson, although the manager’s lack of tactical guile has, they believe, led to the club’s on-field problems. Former chairman Dave Richards – now the chairman of the Premier League, and the man who insisted he would never sack Wilson – is not spared.

“Dave Richards was spending three or four days a week in London, talking to Wednesday on a mobile phone.” Ashton compares Richards’s recent appointment to “the captain of the Titanic being promoted to Admiral of the Fleet”.

Prior to Wilson’s appointment, the club had explored other options. “Gérard Houllier was approached by Wednesday before he went to Liverpool,” Ashton claims, “but he took one look at the set-up at Hillsborough and said ‘No thanks’.”

Betts also berates the club’s lack of ambition. “We are the only club in the Premiership to have lost supporters. In 1993, we finished third, and we reached two cup finals under Trevor Francis. The club was bigger than Chelsea at that time.”

Since then, and despite a substantial cash injection from Charterhouse, Wednesday have fallen away. While understandably incredulous that a £17 million cash injection could lead to debts of £12 million in just two years, Ashton and Betts see a hidden agenda in the way in which the club has been run.

“The business plan is to downsize the club. Wednesday’s turnover is £22 million and its debts are £12 million. No one is going to buy the club in those circumstances. But if it is relegated and some of the high-earning players off-loaded, the turnover and debts could be cut. The club might then become a more viable prospect,” Ashton claims.

As in many two-club towns, a merger to create a Sheffield superclub has been mooted. “There was some talk of a merger from Mike McDonald at Sheffield United, but the fans of both clubs would never accept it,” says Ashton. He does believe, however, that a combined South Yorkshire team is a plausible prospect. “The problem with mergers and so on so far has been that it is small businessmen have tried them. If big companies like Disney and Warner Bros get involved, then it might happen.

“Bayern Munich and Barcelona represent their regions, not just their cities. South Yorkshire has a catchment area of 1.25 million, with about 60,000 people paying to watch football. There could be a South Yorkshire team in ten or 20 years.”

Neither MP regrets becoming embroiled in the row, although Ashton says his wife did not speak to him for a week after the story broke. “Prophets have no honour, but everything that we said has come true. The chairman has gone off to a well-paid job in London; the board’s business plan appears to be working; and only a miracle will keep the club in the Premiership.”

Betts sums up the situation: “The fans were sad when we were relegated under Ron Atkinson. This time, they are just disgusted.”

From WSC 159 May 2000. What was happening this month