Derick AllsopComment


Derick AllsopComment

An unlikely band threaten to join England's European roadshow next season - Howard Wilkinson's Sheffield Wednesday.

To the purist, theirs is not the sweetest music, but their high velocity, high altitude style has brought them raging success over the past couple of seasons. Having climbed to the First Division, they have, at the time of writing, reached the top tour, as well as progressing to the quarter-finals of the Milk Cup and on along the FA Cup trail.

It takes more than mere hit, run and hope tactics to achieve that much. Wednesday's game is based on simple ideals yet draws the very best out of every individual.  Wednesday have a modest pay structure and cannot compete for the greatest player in the land, but those assembled at Hillsborough more than compensate for lack of that mythical "star quality". Wilkinson makes sure of that.

He is a deep thinking man, and the deeper he thinks the more he becomes convinced by old-fashioned virtues.  Those concepts are reflected in his commitment to the job, the commitment he demands from his players and the style of his team's play. So he remains undeterred by criticism. "I have a clear conscience about what I'm doing from the bottom to the top of this club," he says.

Fortified with his beliefs, Wilkinson attempts - and usually succeeds - to coax the ultimate from his players by steering them along a straight, uncluttered path. He utilises their strengths and accept their limitations.

Central defender Mike Lyons and striker Lee Chapman are cases in point. "Lyons is a centre-half because there's no way he can play outside-left," says Wilkinson. "The first three days Chapman was here we talked to him about what he thought he was and what he could do. Let's face it, his touch isn't the best in the game.

"But he's got height, he's good in the air and this season he's given the best centre-halves in the land a torrid time. If we can then start adding little bits to his game all the well and good. Make no mistake, I would have a team of 10 Bests or 10 Beckenbauers if I could. People with that level of ability can play anywhere and ensure we'd win everything. 

"But I can't have such a team so I try to get players playing to the best of their ability, both individually and collectively."

Wilkinson, a former school teacher, has been influenced in his work by the managerial example of Allan Brown and Jimmy Sirrel. Brown had an intimidating image, but Wilkinson, once a player at Hillsborough, reveals another picture. "He imposed a discipline which led to self-discipline, and stressed the importance of dignity."

Of Sirrel, who handed him the reins at Notts County, Wilkinson says: "He's been in football's House of Lords for 10 or 12 years now, yet he's just an enthusiastic and open-minded as ever. He told me to be patient but persistent.

"I feel I have a strong sense of purpose and an inquiring, open mind as well. My views have changed since I got my first coaching badge at the age of 22 and I want my kids to think about things before they accept them.   

"It's difficult because our game is a goldfish bowl and people are looking into it. But we've got to remove the rubbish, the debris from the minds of players and managers, and reduce football to basic principles."

Wilkinson is guided by strong principles and he is less than impressed with the attitude and behaviour of some of those who earn a living from the game. He says: "To a large extent we are a disgrace if we are going to call ourselves a profession. We use the prefix 'professional' before football as if we have an inferiority complex - and rightly so.

"The true professional has established systems learning, codes of conduct, discipline and ultimate sanctions which give them a standing in the community. We are appalled when we hear a doctor has been unprofessional. Most unprofessional acts in football don’t even get as far as the papers. I don't think we’ll ever be a true profession”

Wilkinson leads by deed as well as word. He is fiercely proud of his fitness, is careful with his diet and is at his desk by 8.40 every morning. He goes through his mail, telephones the local press with the latest news from his camp ("I believe that's part of my duty here, just as it is to report to the press room after a match") and then sets about preparing the morning's training programme.

"It would be disrespectful to the players not to be ready for training," he maintains. "If I'm not set to go training on time we can effectively be 3-0 down before we can do anything about it.

“Again, it comes down to attitude, to being a good professional. I can't expect them to have the right attitude if I don't set them the right example."

 At the age of 41. Wilkinson has made enormous progress in club football and recently confirmed his growing stature in the international ranks by taking control of the England B team. But he insists he is still learning - and still some way short of his managerial peak.

"I expect to be a better manager in three years' time and better still in five years - provided I keep an open mind, and stay fit and enthusiastic. You have to keep looking ahead and never be tempted to think you can afford to relax. Once you sit on your backside and get involved in all the claptrap you're in trouble."

Despite that positive intent, Wilkinson accepts that tomorrow could just as easily bring catastrophe as cups.

"The one certainty is that some day I’ll get the sack," he says with remarkable frankness. It is equally certain that he wouldn't betray his principles to ward off such a danger. "The important thing is to be yourself and not try to be anyone else. I'm not influenced by dress or speech," he says in a distinctly local accent. "You have to be true to yourself, to your players, to your club and your profession. Nobody can ask more of himself than that.

“I’m employed to run this club in such a manner that when I leave it will be stronger and more successful in every way."

What, then, would constitute success for Wilkinson and Wednesday? "Given enough time, success for us has to be First Division honours and then Europe."

Considering the way they have set about their task this season, it may be foolish to bet against them fulfilling their ambitions.


This article originally appeared in the April 1985 edition of World Soccer Magazine.

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