Dejphon Chansiri & 45 Days of Pulis
On Valentine’s Day 1953, Derek Dooley’s life collapsed around his ears. Dooley was on his way to legendary status with Sheffield Wednesday, with sixty-two goals in sixty-one games for the club, but the 1952/53 season had been a difficult one and a trip to play Preston North End, who were neck and neck with Arsenal at the top of the table, looked extremely tricky. Preston won the match by a goal to nil, but of far greater long-term consequence would be an injury to Dooley, a collision with the Preston goalkeeper George Thompson, which left the forward with a double fracture of his right leg.
Two days after the match, a nurse noticed that there was no reaction in his toes when touched. This had to be checked, and when the cast was removed it was found that a scratch on the back of his leg had become infected. Gas gangrene had set in and it was decision had to be taken to amputate, below the right knee. At 23 years old, Derek Dooley’s playing career was over. He took a job working for a company owned by a club director and in 1962 was put in charge of the club’s development fund, but in January 1971, having impressed with his work with younger players, he was put in charge of a Wednesday team in the lower mid-table of the Second Division.
The team’s fortunes, however, didn’t particularly improve. They finished the 1970/71 season in 15th place in the table and only improved on this by one position the following year. The slow improvement increased a little the following season, with a tenth placed finish, but the following season they struggled. A run of eight matches without a win – including an 8-2 defeat at Queens Park Rangers in November 1973 – sent them into the relegation places, and a change of directors resulted in Dooley being sacked… on Christmas Eve. Dooley joined Sheffield United in 1974, and went on to be both the club’s chairman and chief executive. He didn’t set foot in Hillsborough again for twenty years.
Sheffield Wednesday and managers over the festive period, then, have something of a history, but still the sacking of Tony Pulis after just 45 days in charge of the club is strange behaviour, from owner Dejphon Chansiri. The sacking of a manager after such a short period of time could hint at several different things: a catastrophic failure on the part of the manager, a fundamental breakdown in the relationship between the manager and the players or owner, or a structural fault within the club. Chansiri’s own statement said that:
The performances and results have not been of the level expected since Tony Pulis was appointed. There are also other issues which have had a bearing on this decision. On the pitch, seven points from a possible 30 is not acceptable. It is vital we maintain our Championship status and I feel I must make a change now with over half of the season remaining to give us the best possible chance of doing so.
Of course, the “other issues which have had a bearing on this decision” would provide the real meat of what has been going on at Hillsborough this season, but Chansiri isn’t going to elaborate on those, instead choosing to focus on the fairly incontestable argument that Pulis’s first ten matches in charge in the club, which yielded just one win and seven points, was unacceptable. Even that, however, comes with caveats. His dour style of football doesn’t win him many friends, but there are few managers more experienced in the Championship than Tony Pulis, and if you were to believe that any manager could pull Sheffield Wednesday out of the mire in which they’ve found themselves with a little time and prudent investment, it would be him. The decision feels as though it was made with an itchy trigger-finger.
It’ll be six years since Dejphon Chansiri took over at Hillsborough, next month, and Tony Pulis’s replacement will Wednesday’s seventh manager in that time. It is also his ultimate responsibility that the team started the season six points short of everybody else, after Wednesday received a points deduction for breaching EFL profitability and sustainability regulations. This was commuted from twelve to six upon appeal, but even without it they would only be in 19th place in the table, just three places above the relegation zone, where they currently sit, with only Wycombe Wanderers and Rotherham United below them. It could hardly be considered a successful season, even without the points deduction.
And the managers that Pulis follows out the door could hardly be described as a bunch of callow, inexperienced ex-pros, either. Sheffield Wednesday were Carlos Carvalhal’s 16th coaching job. Jos Luhukay had previously coached Borussia Moenchengladbach, VfB Stuttgart and Hertha Berlin, amongst his previous eight. This job was Steve Bruce’s 10th appointment and it was Garry Monk’s 6th, even though Monk is still only 41 years old. Considering that these predecessors have been hired by literally dozens of clubs, we might surmise that – for all the fun we poke managers with – they know what they’re doing.
The uncomfortable possibility, however, is that the problem may even be greater than Dejphon Chansiri alone, because this managerial skittishness precedes him. Sheffield Wednesday have had eighteen managers over the last 25 years, with only one – Brian Laws – managing the club for more than 150 games and only three – Alan Irvine, Gary Megson and Carlos Carvalhal – managing better than a 40% win percentage. This compares with the club’s first two managers, Arthur Dickinson and Robert Brown, who managed the club for a combined 1519 games between 1891 and 1933, and who both had a win percentage of comfortably greater than 40.
It isn’t as though the entire history of Sheffield Wednesday has been one unmitigated disaster since the retirement of Robert Brown in December 1933, but the facts are startling. Between 1891, when Arthur Dickinson became the club’s first “manager”, and Brown’s retirement, the club were the champions of England four times and the FA Cup winners twice. Since then, they’ve won the FA Cup once and the League Cup once, and the FA Cup win came in 1935, with a team largely built by Robert Brown. The other spots – such as the club’s revival in the early 1980s, which ended with them finishing 4th in the First Division in 1986 – have been fleeting. This season is the thirtieth anniversary of Sheffield Wednesday’s last major trophy. And that major trophy was the club’s first in 55 years.
The sacking of Derek Dooley on Christmas Eve 1974 may have been a heartless decision, but the club did achieve what it wanted from it. Perhaps, though, the problem was greater than Dooley. At the time of his sacking, Wednesday were third from bottom in the table, only a point from safety. His successor, Steve Burtenshaw, did at least manage to scramble the team to safety in time for the end of the 1973/74 season, but he in turn was sacked on the 1st October 1974 following a poor start to the following season, alongside assistant manager Gerry Young, who’d previously played more than 300 games for the club. It was Young’s 38th birthday. This time, though, it wasn’t enough to save Sheffield Wednesday. They finished the season in bottom place in the Second Division, with just five league wins all season, and would go on to spend the next five years playing in the Third Division.
It would be errant and simplistic to claim that Sheffield Wednesday are institutionally rotten. It wouldn’t, however, be overstating matters to suggest that are few clubs that have been so badly run in relation to their size, over such a lengthy period of time. The good times at Sheffield Wednesday have long felt as though they came about in the same way that a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day. For a club the size and scale of Sheffield Wednesday, one of the oldest professional football clubs in the world and one hailing from the city which, more than any other, really gave birth to modern football, what is perhaps the most shocking aspect of it all is that it has been ongoing for so long that we have all completely normalised it.
If truth be told, we all know that there are several clubs who are just prone to this sort of behaviour. When you find out that there is a Championship club which has sacked its highly experienced manager after just ten games, and just three days after Christmas, and that this club is Sheffield Wednesday, it’s no great surprise. We are talking about a club which periodically does this sort of this thing, and who are currently playing in one of the most panic-stricken divisions in European club football, after all. This in itself is a damning indictment, not only of the Wednesday’s current owner, but also for the way in which the club has been run for so much of the previous nine decades. And it’s difficult to see how it’s going to change. Certainly not under Dejphon Chansiri.