Ron Springett In The Net - Sheffield Wednesday

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#91 15/10/2019 at 09:27

It began with two boys from a council estate in Sunderland — a “couple of scruffies”, to use their own description — trying to raise a few quid from what kids of a certain generation will know as “Guying”. Bonfire Night was approaching. School was finished for the day and the boys were positioned strategically with their Guy Fawkes doll outside the best hotel in town.

The date was October 19, 1984. They had made their Guy from a pillowcase stuffed with newspaper, a school jumper and a pair of battered old corduroys. The face was drawn on with their mum’s lipstick. Their mantra was “Penny for the Guy?” and, to begin with, 11-year-old Craig Bromfield and his 13-year-old brother, Aaron, didn’t realise they might have hit the jackpot when a group of men came into view wearing red tracksuit tops, with Adidas stripes on the sleeves and “some kind of flower” on the chest.

The flower was actually the tree of the Nottingham Forest crest. Brian Clough’s team were staying at the Seaburn Hotel, preparing for a game against Newcastle United, and it turned out professional footballers could be a lot more generous with their money than the locals. And certainly a lot less frightening than the stranger — head shaven, bovver boots, eyes filled with hate — who had terrorised them earlier that evening, aiming a kick at their Guy, for no other reason than Aaron was mixed race.

Kenny Swain, the Forest left-back, was the first to take an interest and did not seem to mind when one of the boys asked if they were a basketball team. Swain, a European Cup winner with Aston Villa two years earlier, explained who they were. He apologised for not having any spare change and he asked them to wait while he went into the hotel to see what he could find.

When he came back out, he had a sheet of paper filled with autographs. “He told us he was sorry he hadn’t been able to get everyone but some of the players had gone to bed,” Craig, speaking to The Athletic 35 years later, recalls. “He promised that if we went back in the morning he would get the rest. And he gave us a £5 note. If I’m honest, I spent more time looking at that than the autographs. It was the first time anyone had ever given me a fiver.”

At 7.30am the next day, the boys were back. Clough was on his morning walk along the seafront and, if you were to try to make sense of the following chain of events, it doesn’t feel like an exaggeration to say it is the kind of story that should probably be turned into a film. And for Craig, in particular, it was the beginning of a relationship that has shaped his entire life.

A relationship — crazy as it sounds — that led to him being taken in by the Clough family, living under their roof as one of their own. Brian, Barbara, their sons, Nigel and Simon, and daughter, Elizabeth. And Craig: a sixth, unofficial member of the family, saved from a difficult, often traumatic childhood at a time in his life when he badly needed some direction and guidance.

The strangest thing, perhaps, is that a library’s worth of books has been written about Clough — and none tell this story.

Clough wrote two autobiographies and spent virtually his entire career as the most quotable man in the business. Yet you won’t find a single word from him talking about what you are going to read here. Some things, plainly, mattered more to him than publicity or self-promotion. Which tells you a lot about the man when, at the heart of it, lies some extraordinary kindness. Not just from Clough, but his entire family.

It is some story, though, and it certainly isn’t easy for Craig, all these years on, to explain how he could go from asking for spare pennies on a street corner, living in an area where the poverty could make you weep, to moving in with the most famous manager in football.

Though maybe it helped, going back to their first encounter outside the Seaburn, that he made sure to refer to “Mr Clough” when he inquired whether Swain was awake, too. Craig was a year out of primary school, small for his age, with buck teeth, fluffy hair and failing eyesight. Aaron had big, brown eyes and a sunrise of a smile. And if there was one thing Clough always appreciated it was good manners.

“Have you two rag-tags had any breakfast yet? And where’s your coats? You’ll catch your bloody death. What’s your mam doing sending you out like that? Now come inside. Hurry up, before I change my mind.”

For two boys from Southwick, walking through the Seaburn’s revolving doors was like setting foot in a different world.

Southwick, on the north banks of the River Wear, was a hard-faced place to grow up in the 1980s. A “shithole”, to use Craig’s description. Though positively upmarket compared to their old place in Barclay Court and the now-demolished slums where his first memories were of “our Joanne (his sister) crying, cockroaches and darkness, but not much else.”

Their dad, a Jamaican-Geordie called Gerald, was a professional sign-writer. But he had a reputation. He was a hard man who used to shine his muscles with olive oil for added effect. He was also a thief, a low-level drug dealer and a magnet for trouble in a deprived area, selling bags of cannabis. He had a temper and when he came home drunk or in a bad mood, even sometimes if he had lost a game of pool at the Transport Club, he regularly used to hand out beatings.

“Never us,” Craig says, “but several shades out of our mam and for the smallest of reasons like bones in his fish, or his egg-and-tomato sandwiches being soggy, or if she hadn’t been able to sell enough brass off the walls to our neighbours so he could have a decent night out.”

He was their dad — strictly speaking, Craig’s stepdad — and they loved him. Even when they had to spend time in children’s homes, or a refuge against domestic violence, they still loved him. But it wasn’t a particularly happy childhood growing up in a cramped terraced house — two adults, four kids, two Alsatians — with not enough money for toilet paper sometimes, one set of clothes to last an entire week and virtually no belongings.

More than once, the electricity was cut off because they hadn’t paid their bills. The water, too. Jim McInally, Forest’s right-back at the time, remembers Craig (on the left in the photo above) and Aaron (right) as “two filthy kids … grubby little scallywags who looked like they hadn’t been near water in years.”

Perhaps Clough saw that, too. Maybe they reminded him of boys from his own childhood in Middlesbrough. Or, as he told the pair later, perhaps it was because he thought they relaxed the players, with their north-east accents and boyish innocence.

Whatever it was, Clough invited them in for breakfast and, once they had finished eating, he wanted to know if they liked football. “It was Kenny Swain who told us,” Craig says. “He said ‘the Gaffer’ had said it was OK if we wanted to go to the game. They would take us on the team bus and get us tickets. I didn’t know who ‘the Gaffer’ was — all I could think was the TV series with the big fat guy (Bill Maynard, who starred in an early 1980s sitcom with that title) — but there was no way we were going to say no.”

If the adventure was to end there, it would still have been a great story. Not many boys that age could boast they had dined with Brian Clough or that he had let them travel on the team bus. The game finished 1-1 and the boys watched from the stands at St James’ Park, risking hypothermia in their T-shirts, frozen to the bone.

The next morning, Craig sent a postcard to Clough to say thank you and, within a few days, a letter came back with a Nottingham postmark. Clough told them to work hard at school, look after their mum and come to watch Forest again some time. It was typed by Clough’s secretary, Carol, but signed by the manager with his favourite payoff: “Be Good.”

Whether Clough imagined his new acquaintances would be waiting for him outside Roker Park, when Forest took on Sunderland in the League Cup a few weeks later, was another matter. But his paternal instincts quickly kicked in when he saw the boys. “I was bullied at school,” Craig says. “I was an easy target. My dad was black, my brother was mixed-race and I was a scruff with big teeth. The bullies were outside the ground. There were 10 of them, all older than me, buying people’s spare tickets so they could sell them on for a profit.”

What happened next provided his first real insight into Clough’s precious magic. “I told Brian and he marched over. He gave them a couple of his spare tickets. ‘But hey, if you go near this young man again, I will hear about it.’ Then he walked us into the ground, arm in arm. He had this lovely habit where he used to link arms as if to say: ‘They’re with me.’ Those lads never bullied me again.”

The following January, Forest returned to Newcastle in the FA Cup and the two boys were waiting again. That was the first time Clough invited them to watch the match beside him. “Aaron was spat at and told to ‘fuck off home’ on the walk to the dugout,” Craig says. “The north-east wasn’t exactly the nicest place to grow up if you weren’t white. It was horrible, but amazing at the same time. Being alongside Brian Clough, somehow you knew you were safe.”

A relationship was building. When the team went back to Newcastle in October 1985, almost a year to the day since Clough walked into their lives, the boys were allowed into the dressing room. Forest won 3-0 and Clough knelt down afterwards to take off the players’ boots, as he often did when he thought they had given everything.

“He sat on the dressing-room benches,” Craig says. “He had his back to the wall, arms folded, feet up, legs crossed. Then he turned to me and Aaron and asked the question that, with no exaggeration, changed our lives. ‘You two still off school? I tell you what, I bet your mam would give her eye teeth to get rid of you for a few days. Why don’t we give her a ring and you can stay with us? Get some fresh air and get you fed? Scotsman, get their mam on the phone. Tell her, if it’s OK with her, they’re coming for a holiday.’”

“Scotsman” turned out to be McInally and, though the family didn’t have a phone, they did have an arrangement with their neighbours in times of emergency. This, according to the boys, was one such time. McInally dialled the number from a payphone. “And while we waited for the neighbours, Mr and Mrs Pennock, to knock next door, Jim made it clear he would rather not be wasting everyone’s time,” Craig says. “He was trying not to swear. ‘Surely, your ma can’t agree to this … she has no clue where you’re going … the gaffer is daft even asking me to do this …’”

And of course, it was daft. McInally didn’t even know her name, and vice versa. She was answering the phone to a stranger with a Glaswegian accent. Yet he wanted to pass it on that Brian Clough — yes, Brian Clough — had asked if her boys fancied staying at his place, 150 miles away. No more details than that, really. But Brian had said not to worry, and that he would make sure they got home safely.

It was daft in the extreme.

“Jim hangs up,” Craig recalls. “Then he turns to us. ‘Hey, lads, your ma says she’ll miss you, but have a good time.’”

They were in the back seat of a Mercedes when they arrived at The Elms, the Clough residence in Quarndon, among the hills and greenery of rural Derbyshire. Aaron was 14, Craig was a month from turning 13 and, almost implausibly, Old Big ‘Ead was giving them their own team talk.

“OK lads. Now, the rules. While you’re here, you can call me anything you want, all right? Big Head, Shithouse, Brian, don’t mind. Simon is Simon, Nigel is Nigel. Elizabeth likes to be called Lib, sometimes Libby, but only if she likes you, and you’ll have to work that out for yourselves. Mrs Clough is ALWAYS Mrs Clough and, hey lads, I’m not kidding, if I hear anything else out of those mouths, I’ll knock yer daft bonces together. Now get on up that drive.”

For Craig, it can feel surreal to recall the scene. “The house looked like something you would see in (US TV soap) Dallas. It was so big and white. Everything was so beautiful. The garden was the most beautiful garden I had ever seen. The house had the loveliest, fluffiest green carpet I had ever seen. There was ivy growing up the walls. Even the walk up the drive was special. We walked through the door and it was like a different universe.”

They were woken the next day by a two-time European Cup-winning manager cooking them the best bacon sandwiches they had ever tasted.

(Photo: Peter Robinson/EMPICS via Getty Images)
Nigel, then 18, and Simon, two years older, introduced themselves with a table tennis tournament in the upstairs games room. Barbara — or Mrs Clough — had big, wavy hair and, as her husband put it, “a smile the size of Stockton High Street”. More importantly, she didn’t seem to mind too much that he had brought back a couple of waifs. If Elizabeth, the eldest of the children, thought it was slightly strange, she didn’t say anything either. “They were all so beautifully normal,” Craig says.

They slept in a room with a view of the garden and enough space for “three or four massive wardrobes”. One, Craig discovered, was filled with Clough’s green sweatshirts. “The blankets smelt beautiful. The pillows were the plumpest pillows I had ever known. It was what we’d call in the north-east proper apple-pie tucking-in material.” A far cry from their sleeping arrangements in Sunderland, where the boys used their Parka jackets as duvets and their dad had a habit of chopping bits off their bunk bed to put on the fire.

The first walk round Quarndon was another eye-opener. “I remember there was a sign saying ‘Vote Tory’ on a telegraph pole,” Craig says. “Brian didn’t like that. ‘Not if I’ve got owt to do with it, you bloody shithouses.’ He took his walking stick and started trying to knock it down. But he couldn’t get it down. So he ordered Aaron to climb up and do it for him.

“We also had to fit in a walk around Kedleston Hall because Brian had told us that, in the countryside, it was a well-known fact that if you rolled around in cow shit it would make you stronger. I didn’t know he was joking at first. After that, I’d regularly hear, ‘Hmm, smell that fresh air’ followed by, ‘God knows you need it, Sunderland.’

“He used to call me ‘Sunderland’ or ‘Mackem’. I used to whistle when I was nervous, so another nickname was ‘Ronnie Ronalde’ (a music-hall star famous for his whistling). Or ‘Rigor’. He thought that one up when he came into the lounge and I was sitting in his favourite reclining chair. I had his remote control in my hand and I was eating a Yorkie bar I’d found in the study. Brian walked in with milk and biscuits. ‘Ay up,’ Brian said. ‘Look at Rigor mortis over there! Hey, son! Hey Rigor! Do you need a crane to get you up, son?’”

At first, Craig used to get the Clough boys mixed up until he taught himself that Simon was the one with the moustache. Nigel had made his Forest debut the previous Christmas and was still young enough to keep a collection of mix-tapes in his bedroom. The accents could be confusing for two boys who had never previously left the north-east (for a long time they thought Swain was from “Bacon-head” near Liverpool) and perhaps it was inevitable there would be some awkward settling-in moments.

The time, for example, Clough took them out for dinner with the television commentator Brian Moore. “I wasn’t used to eating posh food,” Craig says. “There was something green and stringy on my potatoes. I found out later it was parsley but, back then, I didn’t know what on earth it was. So when I thought nobody was looking I put my hand to my mouth, spat it out and chucked it under the table.”

Towards the end of the meal, Moore excused himself to go to the toilet … and you can probably guess where this story is going. “I looked down and, bloody hell, Brian Moore has got my half-chewed parsley all over his shoes.”

They ended up staying for a week. They wore Forest kit, or tracksuits, or whatever they could find that vaguely fitted. They went with Clough to the City Ground and they had a run on the pitch. Ian Bowyer, the club captain, took Craig to the optician’s to buy some glasses. Then, back in Quarndon, it didn’t need long to realise something very important. “Mrs Clough deserved an OBE for services to football,” Craig says. “She was Brian’s rock, a beautiful woman with a heart of gold.”

More than anything, they got to see what made Clough tick. Craig doesn’t try to impersonate that distinctive, nasal accent, Mike Yarwood-style, but he does have a brilliant recollection of the way, with every word, Clough’s voice used to get louder and louder until it could make your bones vibrate.

Did he ever feel intimidated? “Never,” he says, “because you knew you were going to do whatever he asked anyway. I’ve seen people visibly grow a couple of inches because of a kind comment from Brian, or sometimes even a look. How could anyone have such a gift?”

They mowed his lawn and swept his drive. They walked his golden retriever, Del. They learned about his love for Frank Sinatra and The Ink Spots. They came to realise he didn’t like many of the politicians on Question Time but that he would bellow with laughter if Richard Pryor was on television, or his other favourite, Bobby Thompson, aka the Little Waster.

At the end of the week, Arsenal rolled into town and there were two young boys sitting anonymously beside Clough in the dugout. Forest won 3-2 with a hat-trick from Peter Davenport and one memory stands out. “The crowd singing, ‘Who’s the bastard in the black?’ when the referee didn’t give a handball,” Craig says. “Then Brian getting out of the dugout and shaking his fist at the crowd. They stopped swearing straight away.”

It could be described as the best holiday of their lives. Though it was actually the first proper holiday of their lives. Then it was time to say goodbye and Clough sealed two £20 notes in an envelope for their mum, along with a box of chocolates. Barbara had written a letter and sent on some glossy magazines. Nigel and Simon gave the boys a bag of sports gear. Then the train started pulling away and, when they got back to Sunderland, it was Guying season again. “For the first time ever,” Craig says, “we were better dressed than our Guy.”

After that, they arranged holidays to Quarndon whenever they could. It wasn’t straightforward ringing the operator from a payphone, asking to be put through to Brian Clough on reverse charges and expecting to be taken seriously. But that was the routine for a couple of years and, almost always, it ended with an invitation to visit and train tickets being arranged.

Even after Aaron turned 16 and signed up for the army, Craig continued travelling down to Derbyshire on his own.

Except life in Sunderland was increasingly miserable. The Forest pennants on his bedroom wall had gone missing — flogged, almost certainly, to line his dad’s pockets. The big Umbro coat Clough had given Craig to keep warm had also vanished. Gerald had once pushed his wife out of a bedroom window and hit her with a pan. Now he had become further entrenched in drug dealing. He eventually had to leave the north-east and took a painting job in Cambridge, where he was sent to prison for head-butting his supervisor. Craig had had enough.

On the way back from a friendly game against Hearts on September 12, 1988, the Forest bus pulled in at some services on the A1 and the players found him crying in the toilets. Usually, he travelled at the back of the bus with the players. For the rest of the journey he sat beside Clough at the front. Clough made him explain everything and the following day he told Craig to go for a walk while the family called a house meeting. It was a short walk, no further than the end of the drive, before they called him back in. The decision was unanimous: Craig, now 15, was to move in permanently.

“I can remember punching the air,” he says.

The upshot was this: Craig lived with the Clough family for two years. Even now, he still remembers the code — 4-5-2-1 — for Clough’s office and the manager’s telephone numbers. He went with the Cloughs on holiday to Majorca. For a while, he even trained with the first team. And, yes, he frequently asked himself how life could have changed so dramatically. “Every single day,” he says.

Sometimes he used to fret about what the players made of him. But he didn’t need to worry. Stuart Pearce, the leader of the dressing room, put his arm around him and let him know he was liked and accepted. Scot Gemmill taught him how to cross a ball. Nigel surprised him with tickets to see Elton John. Friendships formed: Steve Hodge, Des Walker, Gary Crosby and many others. The players threw Craig in the bath (affectionately) when Forest won the 1989 League Cup final and, unofficially, he played a small part when they won the same competition the following season.

Triumphant Forest after winning the 1989 League Cup final (Photo: David Cannon/Allsport).
In the fourth round, Everton were the opponents and Neville Southall was keeping hold of the ball too much for Clough’s liking. “I had to go up to the linesman on Brian’s behalf,” Craig says. “I was still only a kid, wearing jam-jar glasses. ‘Lino, are you watching their keeper time-wasting?’ Late on, Southall started doing it again — and the referee awarded an indirect free-kick. Lee Chapman scored. One-nil. Thank you very much.”

Clough took them back to Wembley five more times in the following three years. Nigel was one of several England internationals in the team and Craig saw, close-up, their father-son bond, at home and at work.

Clough, he says, treasured one photograph in particular of his son, then 19, scoring his first goal for the club. “It was Nigel going in for a diving header with three defenders around him. Brian would say to people, ‘Tell me the greatest thing about our Nige in this picture.’ Nigel’s eyes were wide open, looking at the ball even when he was risking his head being kicked off. He was so brave, and Brian used to love that … he was unbelievably proud.”

Craig took a job at Simon’s newsagent’s and, at 17, moved into the club’s digs with young up-and-coming players such as Sean Dyche and Gary Charles.

Roy Keane, a £47,000 signing from Cobh Ramblers, was another story. “I loved Keane to bits. We played Spurs in the League Cup semi-final one year. Keane scored the winner. On the way home, there was a card table for Pearcey, Des and some of the other senior players. ‘Hey lads,’ Roy said, poking his head through the gap in the seats, ‘bit of a touchy subject, but I’ve got to ask: Do you ever get a semi on when you are playing? Today, I was celebrating the goal and I looked down and … is that normal?’ There was uproar, absolute uproar! I can still see Pearcey’s face. But I loved Keane. What a player. Bloody hell, the guy used to get turned on just thinking about the game.”

Amid the laughter, there are glimpses of hurt, too. The tragedy is that Aaron died last year, aged 47. Their dad did not live until he was 40. And when it comes to talking about Clough’s death, Craig finds it is hard to keep back the tears.

Eventually he stops trying, and lets it all out.

One memory that always pains him is Clough’s final game, in 1993, and the dismal scene as various people tried to hurry this giant of the sport out of the building. Clough wanted some time alone; others did not want to give him that time.

Then there was the story, never told until now, of Peter Taylor visiting Clough a few years earlier in an attempt to fix their broken relationship. Together, Clough and Taylor, his long-time assistant, had taken an unfashionable, unheralded club to back-to-back European Cups. But the two men had not spoken for years.

“Peter was waiting on the row of seats outside Brian’s office. He wanted to say sorry. Brian came out his office and he twigged. He always used to refer to Carol, his secretary, as ‘Beaut’ or another affectionate term. This was the first time I’d ever heard him call her by her name. ‘Carol, who let him into my ground? Firstly, get him out. Secondly, whoever let him in, get them fired.’ Then he went in and the door closed.”

Clough, he suspects, deeply regretted it. The relationship was never fixed and, though Craig has too many fond memories to dwell on this issue, he also believes it is no coincidence that Clough’s drinking accelerated after Taylor’s death in 1990.

Again, it is a difficult, emotional subject. “I was in the kitchen with Brian when he heard the news. The phone rang. I didn’t know who it was. But I could tell something was wrong. Brian didn’t say a word and then he dropped the receiver. It was just dangling on the cord. Brian left it there. He went for a walk and when he came back four hours later he was crying.”

His regard for the Clough family can be gauged by his status these days as a keen follower of Burton Albion, the team where Nigel is the manager and Simon — described by Craig as a “brilliant talent-spotter” — leads the scouting network. Nigel previously had four years at Derby County and on the internet forum there used to be one poster, in particular, who backed him through thick and thin. Username: Ronnie Ronalde.

Craig is 46 now, living in Derbyshire, where he is writing a book about his experiences and setting up a charity to help underprivileged children. He previously worked in Poland as the director of an executive search firm and, even then, he would fly back to watch Burton play.

“All Brian ever wanted — all his family ever wanted — was a better life for a kid who had no life before that,” he says. “They taught me how to talk. They taught me how to mix. They taught me how to ask questions and to be confident in front of anybody. They gave me all that, and more. I owe them everything.”

It is the kind of story that deserves a happy ending. And it brings to mind one of the great man’s quotes — or, at least, a variation of it.

The greatest Brian Clough story of all time? For two boys from Sunderland asking for pennies for the Guy, definitely in the top one.

Consilio et Animis 

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Sheffield Wednesday
#92 15/10/2019 at 12:37

What a great story, I could easily see that made into a film... I'd watch it if it was.
Old Big Ead Salute

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Sheffield Wednesday
#93 15/10/2019 at 19:05

Bloody brilliant that, you gotta love Mr Clough. 

Be water, my friend 

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Sheffield Wednesday
#94 23/10/2019 at 10:47

With rain lashing across the pitch at the Cardiff City Stadium on Friday night, Cameron Dawson was thrown into a situation he says he “wouldn’t wish on many people”. Just 10 minutes before kick-off, the 24-year-old was called on to start for Sheffield Wednesday, having previously expected to spend the match on the bench as backup to No 1 goalkeeper Keiren Westwood. An ankle problem sustained in the warm-up ruled out the Republic of Ireland international, so up stepped Dawson.

Considering he was thrown in at the last minute, Dawson put in a decent display in Wales and was only undone by Lee Tomlin’s curling free-kick over Aden Flint. Westwood did not recover in time for Wednesday’s mid-week clash with Stoke City and so Dawson started again, navigating the challenges of a slow, hard-fought 1-0 win with ease.

The match against Cardiff was not the first time this season that the Wednesday academy product has been called into action from the bench — he did the same after Westwood was sent off in the opening game of the season against Reading. In that match, Dawson had even less time to prepare as he came on with the score at 2-1 and 80 minutes played to help Lee Bullen’s Wednesday to their first three points of the campaign.

“It’s your job to be prepared but it’s safe to say I wouldn’t wish that scenario on many people because it is tough,” Dawson tells The Athletic. “To see that red card go up and think right, ‘You’ve got to go on here and you are going to be a big part in us winning this game’. As a goalkeeper, although you are always ready, you never really expect it.

“The first thing I had to do was defend a free-kick on the edge of the box and it was just about settling in from there. It’s tough, a real tough thing to do, especially as a goalkeeper. I think it’s different as an outfield player because they generally bring on wingers and strikers and they are ready for that. Fortunately, we got the win and it all went well.”

Dawson is relaxed as he talks about one of the most challenging aspects of his job. He makes lighthearted jokes between moments of seriousness that reflect the maturity of a player who was made first-choice goalkeeper at the age of 23 under Jos Luhukay last season. Wearing tracksuit bottoms that have been raggedly chopped into shorts (something that most of the Wednesday squad do — as in the image below — instead of training in the apparently less comfortable club issue shorts), Dawson is positive about life under new boss Garry Monk.

“It has been a really positive start with the new manager coming in,” Dawson says. “A really solid foundation was set so he could just put his stamp on it and the boys have taken really well to it. When a new manager comes in it lifts the standards in general because there’s a new man at the top to impress.

“Then, tactically, you would be surprised how different managers are in terms of what they want from their teams so it’s a case of learning what he wants and going from there. Training is very thought out; when it is time to work it is time to work. Sessions are intense and it’s done properly and with quality and he is very meticulous in his planning and his training.”

Cardiff was Dawson’s first league outing under Monk, with his other appearance under the current Wednesday boss coming in the 2-0 Carabao Cup defeat to Everton in September. With five appearances so far this campaign, it has been a gentler start on a personal level for Dawson compared with the opening months of 2018-19 when he broke into the first team along with fellow academy graduates Matt Penney and Jordan Thorniley.

“It is about assessing last season and looking at what I can do better,” says Dawson. “I know that every single part of my game I need to sharpen up so it’s about working on that, repetition, keep working through those techniques and just backing that and believing that.

“Any opportunity I get is a chance to show what I’m about. When you are not playing every week it is important not to try too hard. You just want to trust yourself and trust your ability and hope that shows and impresses the man at the top.”

After progressing through the Wednesday academy, Dawson has had the task of impressing quite a few different men at the top since he signed at the age of 15. The Sheffield native joined Wednesday relatively late after originally starting out as a striker and working his way back through the field until he ended up on the goal line.

“My pathway was a bit different because I didn’t start off playing in goal until I was 13,” Dawson explains. “From there I just played for a Sheffield boys’ representative side. It was definitely a different pathway and for me it was great. I got the chance to play with my mates until I was 14 or 15 and that was something I really enjoyed.

“When you come in at 15 or 16 you are still a boy and then at 17 I signed my first professional contract and trained a lot with the first team. At 17 what are you? For me, you are still a boy. At 17 going and training with the first team every day, at the start that was really tough.

“I didn’t just go into it and it was all plain sailing — I had tough days when the boys are getting on to you and the strikers at the other end of the pitch are shouting at you. But it’s important to take it all on board and it’s all character building. It’s weird because everyone says footballers never grow up but in a football environment you have to grow up quickly and realise you are in a man’s world.”

After training with Wednesday’s first team for a few years, Dawson got his first senior appearance at Wycombe Wanderers after being sent to Gareth Ainsworth’s side on an emergency loan deal in August 2016. Dawson says he is still grateful to the Wanderers manager and goalkeeper coach Barry Richardson for taking a chance.

“I was just going through a really tough time in my career where I was really struggling,” he says. “I was just desperate for something to drop for me. I was really ready to go and play in the league somewhere and was just waiting for the opportunity and for the club to say I could go.

“They (Wycombe) took a chance on me. I was unknown. I only played two games but I did good and I owe an awful lot to them.”

Those two games also ensured that Dawson became the member of his family with the most Football League appearances, surpassing his father Richard’s record of one league game for Grimsby Town against Leeds United. Dawson senior also played in goal but tried to persuade Cameron not to follow in his footsteps.

“My dad didn’t play much, he made his league debut for Grimsby actually but he only played once there,” he says. “Then he went over to South Africa and played there for a couple of years and then stopped. That was one of the reasons why he wanted to keep me out! That was long before I was born.

“It was funny actually because, as I was coming through the academy I was fortunate and got the chance to play for England a few times, so I had a bit of banter with my dad saying: ‘Oh you never got to do that!’

“Until I played my first league game he always had one over on me that, ‘Listen son you’ve not played in the league yet’, but now he just stays quiet. There’s no advice given from him now but I think he knows that it maybe wouldn’t go down the best — especially after a loss! He’s a Wednesday fan, all my family are, so it’s been great.”

Apart from his family, Dawson credits Nicky Weaver with having the biggest influence on his career to date. The two have moved through the ranks together as player and coach. Weaver was Wednesday’s No 1 when Dawson joined the academy and has since progressed from academy coach to the first-team staff.

“He is really approachable,” says Dawson. “If I ever had a problem then he was there to bounce ideas off and talk to about goalkeeping stuff. It’s been great and we are really working on things to keep improving.

“I’m 24 years old and there’s still a lot of improvement for me. That’s what we are working on, trying to get somewhere near that finished article sometime soon, which I’m not sure ever comes. You look back at the end of your career and you can probably see where your best years were but hopefully mine are in front of me.”

Dawson had his fair share of highlights already in his 43 appearances for Wednesday, including a penalty save from David McGoldrick against Sheffield United last season.

“The best save I have ever made for the football club is when we played Swansea in the FA Cup (in February 2018),” says Dawson. “Someone crossed in and (Mike) Van Der Hoorn steamed in from about six yards out and I tipped it over.

“But the save that meant the most is obviously the derby. Every so often I still find myself watching it. That save was massive at the time and at that point we were 16 games in and still hadn’t had a clean sheet. We were going through a bit of a tough time and to produce it in that match, when it meant the most, meant an awful lot to me.

“We always look before every game at the penalty takers. I’m big on liking to see them take the penalty. You can look at a map on a goal and there’s all sorts of stats on where they’ve gone and some goalies like that. I actually like to physically watch them take the penalty because I like to watch them run up. As a goalie I like to feel the rhythm of them running in. Some have a little stutter, some don’t. I watched loads of penalties in the run-up to that game.

“At the time I thought Billy Sharp would be taking the penalty but I’d watched McGoldrick as well. He’s taken loads of penalties over the years. He goes both sides and has got more than one penalty but at that time I just thought that would be the penalty he would go for and luckily got it right. At the time I didn’t really know what was going on but when I look at it now and see all the limbs going in the away end it’s great.”

Tuesday night’s 1-0 win against Stoke might not have been the best showcase for Dawson to stake his claim in the Wednesday goal, given that he was not called into action during the first half except as an outlet to knock it long. Whether or not he will lock down the No 1 shirt remains to be seen but the signs are encouraging. He says he doesn’t focus too much on long-term targets — aside from potentially emulating his dad should he one day have children who want to be goalkeepers…

“I think if I have a family in the future I will be steering my kids away from being a goalkeeper,” says Dawson. “I think I’d tell them to be a striker or something! You make a mistake as a goalie then it tends to be a goal.

“To be fair, most goalkeepers are a bit different. I’ve not come across many normal ones. I genuinely believe it’s the toughest position on the pitch.”

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#95 22/11/2019 at 22:23

Directors of other Football League clubs have noticed something a bit strange about Sheffield Wednesday. They feel they’re getting a slightly odd welcome to the Hillsborough boardroom.

In the wider football community, chairman and owner Dejphon Chansiri is known to be very personable and polite. However, The Athletic has been told other Championship directors have been left with a negative impression when they visit his club.

Normally when the top brass of the visiting club arrive ahead of a match, there will be some cosy mingling and usually a little welcome speech from the hosts. Yet at Wednesday, things are often a bit more low key. Visiting executives at Hillsborough have noted that only one or two officials from the home side will be present, and only for a short period of time before leaving their guests unattended. It all seems a little cold and impersonal.

It may not sound like much, but in the eyes of the game’s great and the good, these kind of things give a little insight into the way a club is run at a time when they are very much in the spotlight.

Sitting next to Steve Bruce at his unveiling as Sheffield Wednesday manager in January this year, Dejphon Chansiri took off his glasses, spent a few meticulous moments cleaning them and then restored them to their rightful place.

Lined up next to microphones from various media outlets in the Hillsborough press room was the chairman’s red teapot with a cup and saucer, in his jacket pocket sat his mobile phone clad in a Sheffield Wednesday protective case.

All of those are small details, but indicative of who Mr Chansiri really is — a man with an eye for detail, who can say and do unexpected things, but all with a huge passion for Wednesday. As he answered questions about Bruce, with the new manager stating his desire to get cracking, Chansiri nodded along with an encouraging smile.

Seven months later, and this time without the teapot in shot, Chansiri can scarcely have expected to be in the same position. With Garry Monk now at his side, the chairman once again found occasion to smile when talking about his new appointment’s qualities as an ambitious, hungry manager. Now working with the fourth permanent manager of his four and a half years owning the club, Chansiri has had to unveil more head coaches than he would have liked.

The Thai businessman comes from a family who made their fortune from seafood through their company Thai Union Group, whose portfolio includes John West plus brilliantly-named brands such as Fisho and Chicken of the Sea. The company is headed by Chansiri’s 84-year-old father Kraisorn, who acts as chairman, while the Wednesday owner’s older brother Thiraphong is company president. There’s also youngest brother Dr Disaphol Chansiri, who has a PhD in law and diplomacy and runs his own art consultancy firm in Thailand.

Hailing from Bangkok and a family listed at number 41 on Forbes Thailand’s 50 richest people of 2019, Chansiri ‘s £37.5 million deal to buy Wednesday from Milan Mandaric in January 2015 was also the result of family influence — his son Att is an avid football fan and is said to have been a key motivation in the deal.

In his time in charge, Wednesday have reached the Championship play-offs in successive seasons, losing to Hull City in the final in 2016, installed a £1 million Desso GrassMaster pitch with new under-soil heating and drainage systems, and twice broken their transfer record, most recently in 2017 with the £8 million signing of striker Jordan Rhodes.

There have also been wranglings with financial fair play rules.

Two soft embargoes limiting activity in the transfer market for the past two summer windows came as a result of EFL-imposed Profitability and Sustainability regulations, and last week the latest charge was brought by the league’s governing body for allegedly breaching rules with the sale of Hillsborough. Facing the media for the first time since the charges were brought by the EFL, manager Monk said he has had discussions with Chansiri but not spoken to the owner in great detail.

“Having spoken to everyone at the club, the club as a whole, I think it was the surprise of it,” Monk said. “The communication has been fantastic over the last year, between the club and the EFL. No one at the club saw that coming. The biggest part of the surprise, is the charges that were put forward were things which the EFL would have ratified and agree to at the beginning.

“That’s where the strangeness of it, the surprise for the club. Those charges are for things which the EFL already ratified and agreed to. But that’s a club issue. In terms of myself, players and the staff we have here, it doesn’t affect our daily training, it doesn’t affect we have to go on to the pitch and try and win games.”

Fans are left with questions about Chansiri and how he runs the club, and so far this year have not had a place to direct them.

Although he regularly flies over to the UK to watch matches and handle business and is often seen travelling around Sheffield via taxi rather than in a privately driven car, last December’s fans forum, when he declared he would put the club up for sale, was the last such opportunity for Wednesday supporters to seek answers direct from the owner.

Chansiri speaks limited English but has developed his knowledge of the language since his unveiling as owner, when he spoke through a translator. The forums are well documented as running for hours at a time, with up to 250 people in attendance putting questions to the owner. Fans have expressed their frustration at the forums because Chansiri, who does not take criticism well, gave very lengthy answers and accused supporters of attacking the club.

In an interview with The Sheffield Star before last December’s forum, he said: “I have to laugh sometimes when some fans say I’m not transparent and honest. I am always as honest as I can be with the fans but some only want to hear what they want to hear. If some fans don’t believe what I have to say, there is no point in talking to me. I always say the truth, even when they are not things the fans are going to like. I will always tell the truth. I’m not going to lie. I’m not going to tell them everything they like to hear like some other clubs do.”

The December forum was also the last interaction fans had with then-chief executive Katrien Meire, who left the club two months later after barely a year in the role. Since then, Wednesday have been without a chief executive, and given they also do not have a director of football there are queries as to who is running the club on a daily basis.

Prior to buying Wednesday with his own funds Chansiri had little interest in football and had no experience of the industry, having owned construction and property businesses in Thailand. He now also owns local taxi firm D Taxis and Elev8, who make sportswear, including Wednesday’s training and match kits, and energy drinks.

Chansiri’s lack of experience in football prior to joining Wednesday means he has relied on advisers during his tenure. These advisers have come in many forms, including a short-lived transfer committee in 2015 consisting of the club’s then-manager Stuart Gray, ex-Newcastle United player and manager Glenn Roeder and former Leeds United and Derby County executive Adam Pearson.

More recently, transfer dealings have passed back into the hands of the head coach, although Chansiri has the final say on all deals and his close adviser Amadeu Paixao is also involved. Former Doyen Sports agent Paixao is well connected in the football world and is said to be heavily involved in the negotiations process, with one agent revealing they’d had many interesting business tussles with Paixao over the years. David Downes and Dean Hughes, brought to the club by Bruce from previous employers Aston Villa, are currently head of recruitment and recruitment analyst respectively.

Sources close to the club told The Athletic very little happens without the chairman’s approval, which can make it a slow process getting things done. Chansiri is known to drive a hard bargain in all areas of the business, which has led to wider questions about Wednesday’s transfer policy and whether they sell players for the right price at the right times. There has reportedly been interest in big-money moves for star players Adam Reach and Fernando Forestieri but no deals resulted. A number of players now look set to leave the club at the end of the season for free or far less money than if they had been sold when their value was at a premium.

On the latest EFL charges over the sale of Hillsborough to Chansiri, other chairmen are said to be very upset at both Wednesday and Derby (who similarly sold their Pride Park stadium to their owner Mel Morris), and even those with particularly good relationships with both clubs want action and sanctions. There is feeling that selling football grounds in order to avoid breaching financial rules is not as clever a way around regulations as it first looked.

Internally, Wednesday’s approach under Chansiri is said to be closer to the mindset at Wolverhampton Wanderers or Leicester City rather than a Norwich City, for example, with one source saying he “won’t stop until we’re in the Premier League and he won’t stop then either”. The chairman is said to have delayed his holiday so he could be at the club to ensure they landed Monk in September following Bruce’s summer move to Newcastle United.

When Chansiri was announced as owner in 2015, the outgoing Milan Mandaric stated that the new chairman would not be happy unless he made progress. Although Wednesday have come close, they are still waiting for the promotion from the Championship he had targeted by their 150th anniversary in 2017.

Speaking to The Athletic four years on, former owner Mandaric says he believes Chansiri needs time and further guidance to get Wednesday back into a top tier they left 20 years ago.

“I’ve always said that in football you don’t spend money, you invest it,” Mandaric says. “You have to find the right manager and the right players – players with hunger. When I think about my time at Portsmouth, we bought guys like Paul Merson and Teddy Sheringham, who were getting a bit old, but they both still had that hunger and they were great for us.

“I like Dejphon, I think he’s a good man and I’m still happy I sold the club to him. I know it’s easier said than done and you’ve got to give him (Chansiri) time. But like I said, it’s not just about spending money, you have to spend it on the right players. In the Championship, you need experienced guys, hard-nosed players who know how to grind out results. And when you get promoted, well, you can change the plan and do some different.”

Speaking on potential future involvement with Wednesday and Chansiri, Mandaric said: “I haven’t spoken to him for a couple of years but I will try to contact him next time I’m in the UK, in December. I will see if he wants to meet me because Sheffield Wednesday should be in the Premier League. It’s such a great club.

“I remember when we were fighting our neighbours (Sheffield United) for promotion to the Championship and I think we went 16 games unbeaten to beat them to automatic promotion (in 2012). What a team that was. But look at United now. It’s just not right that they’re in the Premier League and Wednesday aren’t.”

If you watch Chansiri closely at his rare public appearances, he seems like a busy man. Even when unveiling managers, he often gets his phone out to read messages, seemingly distracted but no doubt in demand around the world.

With Wednesday in the spotlight more than ever at the moment as they await a verdict from the EFL, you imagine that phone is busier than ever before.

(Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images)

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#96 23/11/2019 at 09:05

First bit intrigued me cos I thought the Thai's were massive on hospitality and showing good grace to opposing businesses.
The whole smiling up front and showing how good you are while holding the dagger behind your back routine.
And do D-Taxis actually exist?

Would Mandaric be a good advisor at this time? 

Post edited on 23/11/2019 at 09:05 by tylluan

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#97 23/11/2019 at 20:25

Some brilliant articles on here, cheers for posting them. Just signed up for the trial, and will sign up for the subscription.  

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#98 04/12/2019 at 18:01

Sheffield Wednesday’s defence against a misconduct charge over the sale of Hillsborough will be based around the belief that it was approved by the EFL and that the league was aware of the terms and the timing of the deal, The Athletic understands.

The Championship club are facing a severe punishment after being charged with an aggravated breach of the EFL’s spending rules, with Thai owner Dejphon Chansiri and two former directors also in danger of receiving lengthy bans.

A 21-point deduction is considered the likely outcome among some clubs, though others within the game believe that the EFL could even push for Wednesday to face automatic relegation from the Championship and a points deduction from the start of next season.

Wednesday are ninth in the Championship at present on 29 points, two points off the play-offs. A 21-point deduction would drop them to the bottom of the table, four points behind Barnsley and eight points from safety.

Birmingham City were deducted nine points by the EFL last season for breaching profit and sustainability rules but did not face a misconduct charge. Championship rivals Derby County, Reading and also Aston Villa, who were promoted to the Premier League at the end of last season, have previously sold their grounds to their owners. The Athletic understands that Derby’s stadium sale is being closely examined by the EFL and that developments in that case are likely this week or next.

Wednesday’s alleged misconduct is related to how, for how much and when the Championship club sold their Hillsborough stadium to Chansiri, the owner, in an attempt to avoid breaking the rules, with the league suggesting Chansiri, former chief executive Katrien Meire and finance director John Redgate misled them.

The South Yorkshire side have been under intense scrutiny since this summer when they pushed their usual financial year-end back from May 31 to July 31, delaying the publication of their accounts for the 2017-18 season.

That was the season Chansiri had hoped his team would reach the Premier League but a 15th-place finish was a poor return on the heavy investment he has made in managers, players and wages.

But, more significantly, it also meant Wednesday were set to massively overshoot the league’s spending limits. Under profitability and sustainability rules introduced in 2016, losses at Championship clubs are capped at £39 million over a rolling three-year period.

Wednesday lost nearly £10 million in 2015-16, just over £20 million in 2016-17 and were heading for a pre-tax loss of around £35 million in 2017-18 until they — like Aston Villa, Derby and Reading — took advantage of a loophole that allows club owners to sell their stadiums or training grounds to themselves to bank a one-off profit that can be used to offset losses elsewhere.

Wednesday did this by selling their ground to Chansiri for £60 million, with an official profit on the transaction of £38 million.

According to their accounts, which were signed off by the owner on June 20 of this year and filed a day later, this turned their operating loss for 2017—18 into a pre-tax profit of £2.6 million. Once deductions were made for depreciating assets and money spent on the academy, a P&S loss for the three-year period of £19 million — £20 million inside the limit.

The actual sale of Hillsborough, however, is only mentioned in passing on the penultimate page of the accounts, where it is also suggested the £60 million will be paid in eight annual instalments of £7.5 million. There are no clues, though, as to how much rent the club will pay Chansiri’s stadium ownership vehicle Sheffield 3 Ltd, which should be a key consideration in the ground’s valuation.

But the real issue for Wednesday relates to the timing of the sale.

According to documents at Companies House and the Land Registry, Sheffield 3 was incorporated on June 21, the same day the 2017—18 accounts were filed, and the stadium sale went through a week later.

This, however, is a year after Wednesday have accounted for the sale in their books and therefore too late to count against their operating losses for 2017-18.

Without Hillsborough’s sale, Wednesday would have lost more than £57 million between 2016-18, £18 million over the limit.

Wednesday have said they will “vigorously defend” themselves when the matter goes before the panel and it is understood their defence will be based on the claim that the EFL was aware of what the club was doing and effectively sanctioned it.

The Athletic has been told that the club warned the former EFL chief executive Shaun Harvey about their profit and sustainability problems and told the league that they intended to fix them by selling the stadium. Several weeks of talks about Hillsborough’s valuation followed but the figure of £60 million was eventually approved by the league.

The agreement came after deadline for the financial year but the club will argue that this is something they did following consultation with the EFL in the summer of 2018.

An EFL spokesman said: “As a result of the disciplinary proceedings announced last month, it would clearly be inappropriate to provide specific comment on matters linked to our comprehensive investigation other than to reiterate that, following the review of a large number of documents provided by the club — some of those seen for the first time — evidence came to light to justify multiple charges of misconduct.”

Wednesday said in a statement: “The club maintains that it consulted with the relevant executive officers of the EFL in connection with the stadium transaction and that it acted in good faith.

“The club has in its possession numerous emails, letters and other documents in which the EFL gave authorisation to the transaction, and on which authorisation the club understood it could rely. That authorisation gave rise in law to a legitimate expectation that the transaction would be accepted by the EFL, which is binding on the EFL.

“The EFL is acting in breach of that binding legitimate expectation by retrospectively treating as misconduct that which it had itself previously authorised, and this makes the charges themselves unlawful. The club is accordingly bringing its own claim against the EFL to establish that it is acting unlawfully, as well as standing ready, if necessary, to vigorously defend the charges.”

Harvey stood down as chief executive at end of the last season and the league is still looking for a replacement, but it is understood that new chairman Rick Parry is determined to be much tougher with overspending clubs than Harvey was prepared to be, which means more charges could be imminent.

The league has warned clubs that aggravated breaches of the rules will bring a further nine-point penalty, which is the sanction Wednesday face when the case goes before an independent panel. Chansiri, Meire and Redgate have also been personally charged.

Meire, the former Charlton Athletic chief executive, quit her job at Wednesday in February, after just 13 months in the role, and is now working for Club Brugge in her native Belgium. Redgate stepped down from the board in February 2018 but has stayed on as finance director.

These two, with Chansiri, are the only directors listed in annual accounts for 2017-18, although Chansiri is the only one to sign the report.

Birmingham were docked nine points last season for incurring losses of nearly £49 million over three seasons — £10 million over the limit. Since then, however, the EFL has told the clubs that points will be deducted on a sliding scale from three points for a breach of less than £2 million, to 12 points if it is more than £15 million.

“Profits on the disposal of tangible fixed assets” had been specifically banned under the EFL’s version of “financial fair play” but, in order to bring its rulebook in line with the Premier League’s, those regulations were replaced, but without that clause, by the “P&S” rules in 2016.

Derby were the first club to spot the change in 2017 and they transformed a huge annual operating loss into a £40 million profit when owner Mel Morris bought Pride Park for £80 million.

Since then, Aston Villa’s owners have bought Villa Park for nearly £57 million and Reading’s owners have purchased the Madejski Stadium for just under £27 million, with both transactions wiping out what would have been P&S breaches.

Wednesday’s fate will be decided by an independent panel that is yet to be appointed. In the meantime, Wednesday manager Garry Monk will have to operate under a cloud of extreme uncertainty for the second straight season, as he was in charge of Birmingham when their play-off push was derailed by a points deduction.

The former Wednesday player turned pundit David Prutton is worried the league may try to make an example of the club.

“The EFL have got to show they are not all the things they got accused of being before — indecisive, incoherent, being a bit willy-nilly when it comes to fines or bans,” he told The Athletic.

“It might just be bad timing if they do decide to make Wednesday the sacrificial lamb to show what happens if you do this kind of thing. The legislation is there for a reason and needs to be implemented when something like this happens.

“The fans are the ones that are going to bear the brunt of this emotionally, and whatever is going to happen needs to happen very quickly. If that is the gut-punch of docked points, then that needs addressing sooner rather than later.

“The fans won’t want that looming for the rest of the season, so they will want the bad news now. After that it will be about adjusting the aims and expectations for the season, because Wednesday fans will be there through thick and thin, and Wednesday are too big of an institution to go belly up, I truly believe that.”

Were Chansiri to be banned it would create a power vacuum at the top of the club. The Thai owner is understood to have considerable control over the decision-making at a club where there is no chief executive.

“The only silver lining that I can see is that they are going for Chansiri rather than the club and it might force him to sell it,” says Steve Walmsley from the Wednesday fanzine War of the Monster Trucks.

“If they are going to charge him personally then they might not be so harsh on the club. So long as the deduction is not more than 15 points. We would need to get 65 points this season to avoid relegation — on the basis of their results so far they could do it.

“But the owner’s credibility with the EFL, the rest of the clubs and the fans is damaged. I think he either needs to sell the club or take a step back and the charge might make him do that.”

(Photo: Athena Pictures/Getty Images)

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#99 04/12/2019 at 18:08

“The only silver lining that I can see is that they are going for Chansiri rather than the club and it might force him to sell it,” says Steve Walmsley from the Wednesday fanzine War of the Monster Trucks.

What a fucking prat.
Hardly a silver lining seeing that the man with the bank account could get offed. 

Be water, my friend 

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Sheffield Wednesday
#100 04/12/2019 at 18:28

Steve Walmsley is what one would call, a fucking spacker. 

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#101 05/12/2019 at 14:23

Albert Quixall wasn't a winger. 

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Sheffield Wednesday
#102 05/12/2019 at 14:28

Albert Quixall wasn't a winger.
TommyCraig6, 05/12/2019 at 14:23

No he was an Inside forward but thanks for posting about a 5 month old article.  

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#103 05/12/2019 at 16:35

In the comments section following the Athletic article contributors were criticising and disappointed with the coverage because there was a sensational headline referencing the size of the deduction which was not featured in the article. People were disappointed with "tabloid" headlines unworthy of The Athletic and that they were siding with the EFL. 

Fuck 'em. This city will always be ours. 

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Sheffield Wednesday
#104 16/12/2019 at 08:39

Jordan Rhodes has been patient in his wait for a goal since returning to Sheffield Wednesday. And, to butcher a popular saying about buses, it seems if you wait long enough for one Rhodes goal then three come along at once. Some 20 months on from his last strike in a Wednesday shirt in April 2018, the 29-year-old sent a reminder of his credentials as one of the Championship’s best strikers with a stellar first-half hat-trick in the 4-0 demolition of Nottingham Forest.

Wednesday have enjoyed their visits to the City Ground in recent years, boasting a record of five wins in their last six visits, but few could have expected such a dominant performance from the visitors before Saturday’s kick off. Garry Monk’s side ran riot in the first half as they netted four times, the second time they have done so under Monk this season after the 4-1 win over Middlesbrough in September.

It has been a rollercoaster week for Rhodes, who has started Wednesday’s last two matches after an effective performance off the bench against Brentford last weekend at Hillsborough. The former Blackburn Rovers man had been out of the side for three games, featuring for the under-23s with the promise from his manager that he will be needed and would be given a chance to prove his himself over the festive period.

As Wednesday’s record signing — signed for £10 million from Middlesbrough in February 2017 — Rhodes has faced scrutiny for his performances and was shipped out on loan to Norwich City last season, where he scored nine goals in all competitions to help win promotion to the Premier League. Whether he has ever been given a fair crack of the whip by a Wednesday manager — until Monk — is questionable, but the new Hillsborough chief’s belief in his striker is clear after he asked Rhodes to show personality and continued hard work in training.

“I’m delighted for him, we all are,” Monk said after the win at Forest. “It has been tough for Jordan over the last couple of seasons and into this season but I spoke to him when I came in and asked him for that hard work. He has had to be patient but I told him that he will get his opportunity and when he gets his opportunity, that hard work will pay off.

“We all know he has that quality. He had to work his way into the squad, it’s hard work and the work we do on the training ground, doing that to a high level and showing a bit of personality.”

After his run-out against Brentford, where his off-the-ball movement was invaluable to stretch the back line and allow Steven Fletcher space to create chances and score twice, Rhodes was the first to receive praise from Monk on his return to the dressing room at full time. And Rhodes had the backing of his team-mates, who are said to have been delighted to see him back in action for the first team in the last week.

As he emerged from the tunnel at the City Ground sporting a smile and with the match ball signed with warm messages of praise from team-mates under his arm, Rhodes was modest about his performance.

He said: “It’s nice to be out there, I really enjoyed it. Sometimes days like this go for you as a striker when you get the goals, and sometimes they don’t. That’s why you keep going and why you play football, for little glimpses and rewards like this. I’ll try my best, that’s all I can do. Some days it is good enough, some days it isn’t. It’s not always easy when you are not playing football. Coming on last Saturday was a real boost and I have really enjoyed this week.”

The Rhodes house isn’t short of match balls after the striker’s exploits earlier in his career, but it had been over five years since he last bagged a league hat-trick, while playing for Blackburn against Huddersfield Town in May 2014. His efforts on Saturday meant Wednesday were clinical in taking the chances they have repeatedly created but often failed to take, with four of their five first-half shots on target finding the back of the net. And while he joked that his kids might use the match ball to play in the garden, the softly-spoken forward will surely treasure the memento after waiting so long to score for his club.

Rhodes’ hat-trick came inside 37 minutes of terrorising the home defence. He coolly side-footed the first past Brice Samba off his left foot on nine minutes, before leaving the goalkeeper rooted to the spot as he connected well with an angled header four minutes later. He completed a perfect hat-trick in spectacular fashion after an acrobatic effort in the melee of a corner saw his bicycle kick sail in off his right, while in-form Fletcher poked in a fourth from another corner just before half-time. Rhodes kept working hard even with the points looking safe as he chased down Forest defenders and prevented them from building from the back.

The Wednesday man received the plaudits he deserved from the travelling support at full time as they bellowed his name from the away end. Though reluctant to be the star of the show, the performance from Rhodes was the bright point of the season as Monk continues to build momentum and make a case for a play-off berth.

A quiet figure around the training ground and in the dressing room, Rhodes seems to be flourishing with gentle encouragement from Monk who favours one-on-one interaction with his players to establish their roles in the team and have important discussions. As the Hillsborough chief explained: “It’s your duty as a manager. Everyone interacts differently, some respond to that and some don’t. Sometimes you have to have tough conversations and you might not agree but I have always tried to just be honest with the players and tell them your thoughts. They have to understand that you’re there to help them.

“Jordan’s a quiet lad, he goes about his business really professionally but the key thing is when you come onto the pitch — that’s your personality. You don’t have to be loud about the place, you need different types in the changing room but on the pitch is where you have to show your personality and he has done that really well. Now the challenge for him is to maintain that.”

(Photo: Tim Markland/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

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First used 05/08/09

Sheffield Wednesday
#105 07/01/2020 at 09:20

Sitting in the stands at Tannadice just a few days before Christmas, John Harkes will have been relieved that Dundee United versus Ayr was the match he made time to see over the festive break. Christmas isn’t lacking in opportunities to watch football in the UK, but time has been in short supply for Harkes lately as he prepares for the new USL League One campaign with Greenville Triumph.

Speaking to The Athletic between a corporate meet-and-greet and a radio appearance, the Triumph head coach admits that even if he wasn’t busy negotiating player transfers and preparing for the season ahead, there’s never enough time when he visits the UK. With trips to former clubs Sheffield Wednesday, West Ham, Derby County and Nottingham Forest all on his wish list during a two-week family holiday, Dundee was the one team he couldn’t afford to miss.

That’s because Harkes’ son Ian is currently on the books at Tannardice, after signing for United in January 2019. Ian playing and scoring — as he did in the 4-0 drubbing of Ayr with his family watching in the stands — means more for the Harkes family, after his grandfather James grew up just a few streets away from the stadium and has supported the club since he was a child.

“It’s crazy when you think about it,” Harkes says. “Ian could go and play anywhere in the world and it is his grandad’s club, it’s crazy. That was his childhood club. With him being in Scotland, it’s sink or swim when you compete at the Championship level and he has been rising above, I am so proud of him.

“When he scored against Dundee in the derby match earlier this season, he hit a rocket from the top of the box, they won 6-2 that match, they destroyed them. I said Ian, you’d better enjoy that moment because not everyone gets to start in a derby match and he said: ‘Yeah, I know but next week we’ve got so-and-so…’

“He’s like me, already thinking about how he prepares for the next game. That’s great as a young pro to do that. I think he’s got a big upside to him, he’s a quality player and technically probably cleaner than I was on the ball.”

Making sure to enjoy the moment in big games is something Harkes knows is important, he says, especially when reflecting on his early career with Sheffield Wednesday.

“It was the best time of my life, to be honest. When I look back, it helped me grow on the field, working under Ron Atkinson. He believed in me, he was a great mentor, he had a great balance. Enjoying the hard work that you put into it, having fun and growing from there — I wanted to stay at Wednesday for ten years if I could. Certain other things stepped in there like other managers and styles of play.

“In my first season as a pro, in seven months I got my contract, scored the goal of the year and beat the legendary Manchester United to upset them 1-0 in a cup final. So many of the footballers at Wednesday like Nigel Pearson and John Sheridan said to me: ‘What are you going to do now Harkes? Retire?’ They said I’d done more in seven months than most footballers do in ten years. Now you think what the heck happened, how quick was that train ride. You want it to last forever. Those are the moments you want to last forever and ever.”

A 35-yard screamer against Derby in 1990 was Harkes’ way of introducing himself as the first American to play in the English top flight. He would also become the second American to score at Wembley Stadium and the first to appear in the final of a major English tournament as Wednesday won the 1991 League Cup against Manchester United. And the novelty of scoring that goal against Derby — and playing at Wembley — still hasn’t worn off for Harkes.

“In California they say ‘grip it and rip it’ when they are doing their stuff. For me, I don’t know what happened there. Maradona had the Hand of God, I guess that was the Foot of God for me. I pushed it forward, nobody came to step to me and there was just a natural instinct to go and strike the ball and I did it. Sometimes you just let go and have those moments. I was very fortunate to have that moment.

“Scoring that goal was a pretty standout moment, but scoring against Arsenal at Wembley (in the 1993 League Cup final) was probably one of my boyhood dreams. When you watch all the Liverpool films and the teams of the 70s and the 80s they’re the things where you think, ‘God I want to be there’. Just because of the history of my family and following football from a young age, I have such a deep appreciation of what it takes any footballer to get to Wembley. At that moment, when you are young it is hard to put it into words.

“Not only are you feeling good about being part of something special, but you get to represent your family and everybody in the US,” Harkes adds. “To some extent we were breaking down barriers. I was the first American in the Premier League and I take a lot of pride in that but it’s not just about me, it’s about opening doors and pathways to other players. There’s so many great players from our country that don’t get that opportunity. For me, it’s more of a cerebral kind of thought process and responsibility, not just a flash in the pan for one game.”

‘Flash in the pan’ is certainly not a phrase that applies to Harkes’ playing days, as he made 164 appearances in English football for four clubs as well as scoring six goals in 90 appearances for the USA. After leaving Hillsborough in 1993, Harkes joined Derby and then West Ham before returning to the USA for the launch of the MLS with DC United.

In 2019, Harkes was part of a new league launch in the States, this time as manager of third tier South Carolina-based Greenville Triumph, as the USL League One had its debut season. After leading Greenville all the way to the play-off final, where they lost 1-0 to North Texas SC, Harkes is preparing for the new campaign which begins in March and will see the arrival of new teams, including David Beckham’s Inter Miami FC.

“Getting to the final in our first season was incredibly rewarding and exciting but it makes you hungry for more and we want to get back there and win it in the second year,” he says. “We also know and are very understanding that not everybody gets to the final and there are going to be ups and downs in the second year. There’s a big target on our backs, the league is getting better because there are more teams coming.

“It’s busy, but it’s good busy because it’s the off season. I’m retaining a lot of my players and I’m negotiating a couple to come in as well, but it’s different this year because I am not building from scratch and looking for the first player on the roster. It is challenging building squad from scratch, but I did it at FC Cincinnati in 2016. A lot of it is based on whether you already have an idea and a philosophy about your style of play and then it’s about your networking and the relationships that you build over the years.”

Harkes is a football junkie, as is the rest of his family. Wife Cindi used to play for Sheffield Wednesday Ladies during John’s spell at Hillsborough before a semi-pro career in the US, and their two daughters also play, as well as Dundee-based son Ian. Coaching youth teams was Harkes’ first step on the ladder to management, which he says was crucial to develop as a manager and is still something he does occasionally to be reminded of the fun in football.

“You can never be naive to think that because you were a player, you know how to coach. You have to take time to really figure out what it means to coach and you have to get some experience. It doesn’t matter if it is as a youth coach or in the academy club, you just need to coach. It is all about preparation and communication so when you get to the older groups and the pros at that level, it is more about the responsibility that you take everyday and the accountability that you are being the leader yourself.

“I learned from my dad early about how you take care of people and how you care for people when you coach and teach them. It is not about you or your ego. When you have great players on your team who think like a manager and think like a coach, then you have great discussions, whether it be at lunch or throughout the day, you are always talking football. That is where I have always been, I have gravitated to them at the time.

“I was very fortunate in working at the World Cup and doing commentary that I got exposed to Sir Alex Ferguson quite a bit. When Manchester United were coming over for their tours and the International Champions Cup we would sit and have wine together and talk philosophies. So I have learned quite a bit from him and the way he demanded so much from his players but he kept them honest and humble.”

And what of Harkes’ philosophy as he looks to repeat the successes of last season?

“I’m a hard coach, I demand a lot from the players but I communicate well. It’s open-door communication with them and I coach with encouragement. I will point out different areas of development where they need to improve but I’m not putting them down, it’s more of relationship building to get the best out of them. That’s just my style of coaching.

“I want football intelligent players who can figure things out for themselves. I don’t want to be hankering on game day and shouting instructions. There’s a sense of ownership in place for them to take control of the game so I want to see that through the players. I have learned from all the coaches along the way, whether that’s been Bruce Arena here with the national team, Bob Bradley who is at LAFC to even my first coach in England, Ron Atkinson. At Sheffield Wednesday all the players and staff, from the people at the top to the tea lady, we were all together. Everybody was one club.

“That was what Ron did very well there, like Jurgen Klopp does today at Liverpool and that’s how I am at Greenville. That’s what you do in a club to bring everyone together. I want my players to walk through Greenville Triumph and know they are part of something special.”

Photo: Shaun Botterill/Allsport

Consilio et Animis 

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