Sports Retro: When Howard Wilkinson picked up the mantle from ‘Big Jack’

Howard Wilkinson (right), Sheffield Wednesday - 7th April 1986
Howard Wilkinson (right), Sheffield Wednesday - 7th April 1986
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When Howard Wilkinson was appointed Sheffield Wednesday manager in June 1983 he succeeded one of the biggest characters in football in Jack Charlton.

‘Big Jack’ had steered Wednesday from the bottom of the old Third Division in late 1977 to promotion to Division Two in May 1980, engineering the 4-0 Boxing Day Massacre defeat of city rivals United en route.

In 1981/82 they finished just a place and a point off promotion and the following season they reached the FA Cup semi-final and ended up sixth.

So, when Charlton announced he was to quit S6 in May 1983, many inside and outside the club pleaded with him to stay on. To no avail, however.

On the Wednesday radar was Graham Taylor who had just guided upstarts Watford to second in the old First Division.

However, the future England manager was in the middle of a Hornets adventure and unattainable.

Howard Wilkinson (left) welcomes new player, Lee Chapman, to Hillsborough - 12th July 1984

Howard Wilkinson (left) welcomes new player, Lee Chapman, to Hillsborough - 12th July 1984

Instead, the Owls turned to the emerging talents of Wilkinson, who had an exemplary coaching background honed firstly at Boston United.

He graduated on to Notts County and played an integral part in the Magpies’ rise to the First Division and in 1982 the former Abbeydale Grange PE teacher became team manager as Jimmy Sirrell rose to club boss.

Then came the call from chairman Bert McGee at Hillsborough. Wilkinson was not concerned by being second choice to Taylor.

He said: “For the board to try for Graham Taylor indicates to me they are a good board. It was sensible thinking.”

Howard Wilkinson, Sheffield Wednesday Manager, receives Manager of the Month Award from Miss Great Britain, Jill Sanby - 2nd February 1985

Howard Wilkinson, Sheffield Wednesday Manager, receives Manager of the Month Award from Miss Great Britain, Jill Sanby - 2nd February 1985

Neither was he worried about following in ‘Big Jack’s’ footsteps, adding: “The fans will come along and judge me by what I do with the team.”

Wilkinson was to have an immediate impact, blending a mixture of hungry local talent and experience. Tony Cunningham, Imre Varadi and Nigel Worthington arrived to join the likes of Gary Megson, Mel Sterland and Gary Bannister.

His direct style of play was not to everybody’s taste but it was certainly effective and to label it long-ball is too simplistic. Instead, they were always looking to put the opposition under pressure.

It paid dividends with Wednesday unbeaten in league and cup until defeat by Crystal Palace on November 26. There were cup runs that were ended by Southampton and Liverpool.

The Sheffield Wednesday FC Supporters Club Dinner and Presentation of Awards was held at the Embassy Nightspot, Intake, Sheffield, and our picture shows the winner of the Junior Player of the Year, Carl Bradshaw, receiving his award from Manger, Howard Wilkinson - 27th April 1987

The Sheffield Wednesday FC Supporters Club Dinner and Presentation of Awards was held at the Embassy Nightspot, Intake, Sheffield, and our picture shows the winner of the Junior Player of the Year, Carl Bradshaw, receiving his award from Manger, Howard Wilkinson - 27th April 1987

Then on April 28 Sterland’s penalty in the 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace guaranteed promotion for the Owls although they had their eyes on the title.

They had been enjoying a duel with Chelsea for top honours and with three matches left the Owls were five points ahead of the Londoners.

However, defeat to Shrewsbury coupled with victory over Huddersfield for Chelsea reduced the gap to two points.

The Blues then leapfrogged the Owls after the penultimate game and although Wednesday won 2-0 at Cardiff, Chelsea’s 1-0 win over Grimsby took the title to Stamford Bridge.

Wednesday - who finished eight points ahead of third-placed Newcastle - missed out on the title on goal difference but for Wilkinson they were the most successful team in the division over the season.

“We’ve been beaten on goal difference but we’ve finished with 88 points and reached two cup quarter-finals. We’ve got to have been the most successful Second Division team by a mile. There can be no shadow of a doubt about it.

Sheffield Wednesday's Nigel Worthington packs his kit with his wife, Sandra, before leaving for the Northern Ireland team camp on his way to Mexico and the World Cup - 6th May 1986

Sheffield Wednesday's Nigel Worthington packs his kit with his wife, Sandra, before leaving for the Northern Ireland team camp on his way to Mexico and the World Cup - 6th May 1986

“It’s been a tremendous season and we’ve got to be careful about any decisions we make relative to movements of players in and out.”

The team were given a civic reception following promotion when Councillor Clive Betts also called for the Owls to be given civic medals.

The following season saw Lee Chapman move from Sunderland to Hillsborough despite finding himself out of form in front of goal, something he rediscovered to finish with 15 goals, one behind Varadi.

There was another tussle with Chelsea, this time in the League Cup when the Blues prevailed after three matches at the quarter-final stage.

With five games to go, they were fourth, just three points behind Manchester United in second.

However, three points from those five matches saw the Owls finish in eighth.

The Owls made a blistering start to the 1985/86 season with four wins and a draw in their first five games to sit second behind Manchester United who had a 100% record.

A 5-1 home defeat by Everton precipitated a wobble but Wednesday were soon back on track although they were not the most consistent, a run of victories followed by a string of defeats.

While the league was a mostly enjoyable, if unpredictable, experience, Wednesday were also enjoying an FA Cup run.

Victory over West Ham in March saw the Owls reach the FA Cup semi-final for the second time in three years where they would face Everton at Villa Park.

Wednesday outplayed Howard Kendall’s side in the first half but went behind to Alan Harper’s goal five minutes after the break.

Carl Shutt equalised three minutes later only for Graeme Sharp to fire the Toffees into the FA Cup final with a goal in the eighth minute of extra time.

That was though the last time the Owls would be beaten that season. Two draws and five victories ensured they would finish fifth.

The following season saw a certain David Hirst emerge with six goals in 13 appearances, eight as substitute.

However, any optimism which came about after the fine end to the previous season was not borne out with the Owls finishing 13th although they again reached the FA Cup quarter-final where they lost to Coventry.

Wednesday made a dreadful start to the 1987/88 season, five defeats and three draws seeing them prop up the table until they finally managed to claw out a victory on September 26.

Late October kick-started a run of 10 victories in 13 league and cup matches as the Owls climbed the table.

Eventually they finished 11th but it was to be Wilkinson’s last season at the helm.

In October 1988 reports surfaced that he was on a five-man shortlist to succeed Billy Bremner at Leeds.

When the west Yorkshire club failed to lure Arthur Cox from Derby, Wilkinson became the number one target.

So it was that on October 10 that it was announced that Wilkinson had agreed a five-year contract at Elland Road with former assistant boss Peter Eustace remaining at the Owls where he would be caretaker manager.

Wilkinson was close to tears and said: “It’s a very emotional time. Despite what some people say it has been a very successful period in my life and the life of this club.

“I have been overwhelmed in the last 10 days by some of the letters, phone calls and gestures of support I have received.

“Wednesday are now in the strongest position since I came. I think the side has the potential to become a very good team.”

Pictured is the Sheffield Wednesday Football Team - 27th July 1984'L/R back row are: Lawrie Madden, Gavin Oliver, Ian Hesford, Martin Hodge, Mark Smith and Mick Lyons.'Middle row|: Peter Eustace, Assistant Manager Gary Shelton, Peter Shirtliff, John Pearson, Lee Chapman, Imre Varardi, Nigel Worthingtonand Alan Smith, Physio.'Front row: Brian Marwood, Mel Sterland, Charlie Williams, Howard Wilkinson Manager, Pat Heard, Chris Morris and Andy Blair

Pictured is the Sheffield Wednesday Football Team - 27th July 1984'L/R back row are: Lawrie Madden, Gavin Oliver, Ian Hesford, Martin Hodge, Mark Smith and Mick Lyons.'Middle row|: Peter Eustace, Assistant Manager Gary Shelton, Peter Shirtliff, John Pearson, Lee Chapman, Imre Varardi, Nigel Worthingtonand Alan Smith, Physio.'Front row: Brian Marwood, Mel Sterland, Charlie Williams, Howard Wilkinson Manager, Pat Heard, Chris Morris and Andy Blair

Peter Shirtliff, Sheffield Wednesday, at the Young Owls party - 2nd January 1985

Peter Shirtliff, Sheffield Wednesday, at the Young Owls party - 2nd January 1985

Mark Chamberlain, Sheffield Wednesday FC - September 1985

Mark Chamberlain, Sheffield Wednesday FC - September 1985

Howard Wilkinson, Manager of Sheffield Wednesday FC - 1983

Howard Wilkinson, Manager of Sheffield Wednesday FC - 1983