Hero. Legend. Statesman. A great footballer and a great man. All of these and more were uttered as Sheffield paid tribute to Derek Dooley following his death on 5 March 2008.
The Dooley story is one not only about football but also of overcoming the cruel and arbitrary nature of misfortune.
He was born in Pitsmoor on 13 December 1929. After leaving school in 1943 he took a job with a firm manufacturing deaf aids and played football for a local YMCA before joining Lincoln in 1943.
He made only two appearances before he joined Sheffield Wednesday in 1947. A local lad, all red hair and standing 6ft 3in tall, 13st 10lb of of raw, fearless centre-forward.
He was prolific at Hillsborough and his personal life was flourishing too as he married Sylvia in 1952 at St Thomas’ Church, Wincobank.
Dooley grew up in a football world with a £10 a week wage cap. He would travel to games on the bus or the tram alongside the fans. One Christmas Day the Owls were hosting Forest but there were no trams until 11am meaning he had to walk from Firth Park to Hillsborough.
He was on the tram after playing Notts County one time when “a bloke got on as wet as if he’d been in the River Don,” he recalled.
“He sat down and started saying ‘I kept heading for the exit to leave but that beggar Dooley kept scoring so I couldn’t leave the game.’” He would take Sylvia to the pictures and sometimes when the lights came up, somebody would shout ‘there’s Dooley’ and people would clap.
“But there was no getting in for free. By February 1953 he had scored 63 goals in 63 games but life was about to inflict some cruel misfortune. It was Valentine’s Day 1953 and Wednesday were playing at Preston. The Owls had worked out that to counter the hosts’ offside trap they had to release the ball quickly before the defence could move up. Albert Quixall did so, releasing the ball quickly with Dooley in pursuit.
George Thompson, the Preston keeper, came out and just as Dooley connected with the ball so did Thompson catch him above the ankle. In that moment, Dooley’s life was transformed. His leg was broken and after two days in hospital it was discovered that it had become infected by gangrene it was amputated. Dooley was 23.
He was able to move to a house in Norton after the Star readers raised money for him and the same year he started work as a receptionist at Gunstone’s Bakery. His 1955 testimonial was attended by 55,000 and by the early 1960s he was back at S6 as head of the development fund. In 1971 he was appointed the new Owls boss after Danny Williams was sacked. The Owls were not in a good place and they continued to struggle and by December 1973, they were hovering at the bottom of Division Two.
On Christmas Eve, Dooley was sacked. He attended one match in 1976 but until 1992, he refused to visit Hillsborough, the pain too great. Instead he moved across the city and became United’s commercial manager, the first of a variety of roles - which would include chairman - in a long relationship with the Blades.
In 1992 he returned to S6 for the Sheffield derby, enjoying a standing ovation from both sets of fans as the Blades won 3-1. He was given the Freedom of the City and in 2003 was awarded the MBE. Dooley died at home in March 2008. Both Sheffield clubs opened books of condolence with United commissioning a statue that stands in the South Stand car park.
His funeral took place on March 14 at Sheffield Cathedral and was attended by Neil Warnock and Dave Bassett, who both worked with him, with Sir Bobby Charlton and Dickie Bird also among the mourners. Pele was among those to pay tribute to a true Sheffield hero.