The Big Interview: Former Sheffield Wednesday skipper Richard Wood recalls celebrating Owls fans blocking the road and a sad parting of the ways
He was a callow teenager starting out in Sheffield Wednesday's reserves when the elbow of a former international smashed into his face.
Sixteen-year-old Richard Wood stretched at the back post at home to Aston Villa to head the ball clear. A moment later, Steve Stone left his calling card.
“Welcome to men’s football,” The England winger, 14 years Wood’s senior, growled.
Wood could stand or fall. “I had a massive black eye. I didn’t mind,” he grins. “It was Steve Stone! He’d played for England. I was loving it.”
He stood. And so the career of one of the game’s most uncompromising, unflinching centre-halves truly began.
Strange then to turn up to interview the man who gave seven years to the Owls and watch him fussing, cloth and detergent in hand, over his cleaning duties at the playgroup and coffeehouse he and partner Jade opened six months ago near their West Yorkshire home.
“My missus has always wanted to do it,” he says. We’ve been to so many in the past with our kids. Some of the them were disgusting - dirty and dark, serving awful coffee and greasy chips. We’ve always said: ‘We can do this.’”
Wood is 32 now, skipper of Rotherham United after spells at Coventry City and Charlton Athletic and closing in on 500 senior appearances at the coalface of English football.
He’d been a Leeds United season-ticket-holder, a schoolboy striker and then midfielder. Wednesday fought off interest from Oldham Athletic and, as he commuted from Ossett in a Renault Clio his mum and dad helped him buy, turned him into a central defender.
“I was training with the first team at 16,” he recalls. “We’d have a circle and the youngest would go in first and try to win the ball. I’d always go in at 100mph trying to win the ball and ended up hammering people. I took David Burrows out and injured him. He went crazy with me.
“Nothing fazed me. I just wanted to impress. Alan Quinn, he used to go mad with me every session. I get on well with him now, there’s no issue! I used to stand on everyone’s toes. It was partly clumsiness, partly on purpose.”
There’s a slight pause and a rueful twinkle in his eye as he considers his 16 years in the game since: “I’m still doing it now.”
His debut, at 17, coincided with Wednesday’s exit from the second tier, a 1-1 draw at Brighton and Hove Albion on April 17, 2003, and the first of his infamous scruffy goals wasn’t long in following.
“I came on for the last 10 minutes. Afterwards, I was buzzing,” he says. “I know it sounds bad, but the relegation wasn’t on my mind. I’d just made my first-team debut! It worked out better for me because I knew all the big hitters would go and I might get a chance the following season.
“I started the following week. We won 7-2 at Burnley and I scored. The ball’s come bouncing across and I’ve gone to volley it. I’ve slipped and my left foot has gone from under me, I’ve hit the ball into the ground, the keeper’s already dived and it’s gone over him. It was a typical, horrible Wood goal!”
We’re sat chatting over coffee at the Secret Garden in Horbury Bridge. Business is booming and Jade is a busy woman. Music plays in the background and the place is gleaming. Wood is obviously doing his stuff with a duster, just as he is with League One Rotherham who have made this season’s play-offs
“I’m quite hands-on. I put on a pinny,” he confesses. “On my days off, I get roped in, cleaning tables and washing up.”
Jade, his childhood sweetheart, is, bright and smiley, much like the venue. Too attractive for him! He’d be a handsome chap, actually, if his nose was where it was supposed to be. It starts in the right place but then veers off across his right cheek, testimony to many hard battles against many hard men.
Wood made 189 appearances for the Owls but one stands out more than any other: the 2005 League One Play-off Final at the Millennium Stadium when they won promotion by beating Hartlepool United 4-2 in extra time.
“That was the best day of my career,” he says. “I still get goosebumps when I see highlights of it. After the game, I remember going up the motorway coming out of Cardiff on the team bus. The road was rammed with blue and white. It was that busy, we were just at a standstill.
“I remember the lads getting off and running up and down the motorway jumping into fans’ cars. People in their cars were giving us sweets and crisps. We called at a service station and the services were just as rammed. Fans were chanting and going up and down escalators.
“Paul Sturrock was the manager. I played my best football under him. He was a funny guy but he was tough. You had to be fit. He loved his running. I remember him stood there with his brolly, cup of tea and whistle. ‘Run, you f***ers’ was all he used to say.”
Stone’s Hillsborough assault never left Wood. The youngster was competitive anyway but it was then that he realised the potential value of intimidation.
“I do it all the time,” he admits. “One that sticks out is when I’d left Wednesday and joined Coventry. I was playing left-back for a spell and came up against Burnley’s Chris Eagles at the Ricoh Arena. I was good friends with him. I’d played with him at Wednesday when he came on loan from Manchester United.
“We shook hands before kick-off, then he got the ball and I smashed him. Fairly, mind. No free-kick. He was moaning like mad, saying: ‘I thought we were mates. What’s going on?’ I told him: ‘As soon as you get the ball, I’m going to do exactly the same again.’
“What Stone did didn’t bother me, but you can scare people. A lot of football is in the mind.”
Wood took to the Championship with the Owls the way Wednesday supporters had taken to him as a young lad coming through the ranks.
“I was playing every game,” he recollects. “There was interest from top-flight teams and I got picked for the England Under-21s squad. I got the letter and the week before we were due to meet up I got injured.
“I did it against Crystal Palace in the first four minutes. I went for a ball, stretched awkwardly and my groin went.
“I played the full game, against Andy Johnson and did really well. After the game, it stiffened up and I couldn’t walk.”
He wouldn’t play again for more than a year.
“I was 20. I never heard anything from England again,” he says. “I look back on my career and wonder what might have happened. It knocked me for six. I didn’t get diagnosed with depression but, in hindsight, that’s what it felt like. You can ask Jade. She helped me through it.”
As if on cue, she appears at the table, light-heartedly reminding him to watch the clock because it’s his turn on the school run to collect sons Jenson, aged nine, and Graye, seven.
The couple have lived together since they were 18, and have been through much together, particularly in helping Jenson cope with Type 1 diabetes. But they’re not married. “Too expensive, weddings, rings and all that,” he smiles. “I would. She’s not bothered.”
My latte is the best I’ve ever tasted and Wood, tucking into a large slice of bespoke chocolate cake supplied by “a woman up the road”, is pleased. Coffee is his big thing, only don’t get him talking about it as it’s an hour of your life you’ll never get back.
The Secret Garden’s beans come from a man in Hull who does his own roasting. I didn’t listen after that. In all other respects, the doting dad is great company: friendly, honest, quite serious but with an endearing ability to laugh at himself and a soft voice belying his ripped 6ft 3in frame.
His departure from Wednesday came at the end of 2009 under Brian Laws amid insinuations that still rankle that he was faking an injury in a bid to force a move.
He’d been offered a new deal but wasn’t ready to sign. “I felt that, because I’d come through the academy, I was unfairly treated contract wise,” he says.
“Laws came out in the Press and hammered me. He put me on the bench when I was fit and brought me on with 15 minutes left. The fans knew all about it. It felt like every fan inside Hillsborough was booing me. It was horrendous. Then my man scored from a corner and we lost the game.
“Afterwards, he slaughtered me in the changing room in front of the lads and then on the radio, saying I didn’t want to be here. I’ve never acted that way. It’s not in my character. I always give 100 per cent in everything I do.
“I’m not criticising him because until then he had done well by me and made me captain. It’s the way football works. The fans were unbelievable. I still think the club is unbelievable. I’d love them to get to the Premier League. People come up to me and say: ‘We’re all Wednesday aren’t we?’ Yeah, we are. I loved it there.”
It’s time for Wood to go and take the boys back to the home he says the family will never leave in nearby Emley. It’s an appropriate location for this big mast of a defender Millers boss Paul Warne has dubbed ‘Wrecking Ball’.
His lip is badly split, etched slightly in dried blood, the consequence of a typical no-quarter-asked performance in a 0-0 draw at table-topping Wigan Athletic four days earlier.
He grabs the keys to the blue BMW parked outside and finishes the Eagles story: “I did it again, and he was going mad. I said: ‘Don’t worry, you’re having it a third time.’ He started drifting more and more inside. He never did anything all game.”
Then, apron safely stashed in the back room, he drives off to make the kids their tea.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
Best player played with: That’s a hard one. Keiren Westwood was an unbelievable goalkeeper when we were together at Coventry City. He won us so many points. Steve Watson at Wednesday. He was a Newcastle United legend. His hips had gone but he could still play. He was class. There’s Chris Brunt as well for that wand of a left foot.
Toughest opponent: Dean Windass. Just because he was horrible. He was in my ear all game, abusing me. He’d nip you, stand on your toes, all sorts. I was young when I played against him and he was trying to bully me.
Most talented opponent: I played against Wayne Rooney when he was an Everton kid and I was in the Owls academy. He scored two. It was just before he started breaking through to the first team. He was only 15/16. You could tell how good he was going to be.
Best manager: I’d say Paul Sturrock, because I played my best football under him. I’ll always be grateful to Chris Turner for giving me a chance and signing me as a pro. Paul Warne at Rotherham United is up there as the best man-manager, along with Chris Powell who was my boss at Charlton Athletic. It was how he looked after me with my family issues over Jenson and his diabetes when we were living in Leicester, letting me go home and things like that.
Best friend in football: You don’t make many friends in football. Well, you do, but then they leave or you leave for another club and you don’t see them so much. I still have my friends from school. Probably Danny Ward. We were at Rotherham and travelled into training together. He’s at Cardiff now. We’re still in touch. He came round to my house the other week.
Best trainer: Lee Frecklington at Rotherham.
Best moment: The play-off final and promotion with Wednesday.
Worst moment: Being out for 13 months through injury early in my career.
Best goal: Against Crewe for Wednesday one New Year’s Day. It was a bullet header. It flew in. How far out? Oh, it was close in. Eight yards. I don’t score long-range goals! I’ve made a career of scruffy ones.
Biggest influence: My family and Lee Bullen when we played centre-half together at Wednesday. We partnered each other in the play-off final. Him and Graham Coughlan. They were older players who really helped me out.
Any regrets: No. just the ‘what if’ with the injury after the England Under-21s letter.
Sheffield Wednesday (2003/2009): 189 appearances, eight goals.
Coventry City (2009/2013): 134 appearances, nine goals (first 26 games and three goals on loan).
Charlton Athletic (2013/14): 26 appearances, no goals.
Rotherham United (2014/present): 91 appearances, six goals.
Crawley Town (loan, 2015): 10 appearances, three goals.
Fleetwood Town (loan, 2015): seven appearances, no goals.
Chesterfield (loan 2015): seven appearances, no goals.