From crowds of 200 to Hillsborough: the uphill journey of Sheffield Wednesday new boy Chey Dunkley
It’s less than 24 hours since Sheffield Wednesday unveiled defender Chey Dunkley as their second signing of the summer and his former mentor Gary Whild beams with pride over the phone.
“I'm not at all surprised,” he tells The Star knowingly in a soft Midlands accent.
“He's a genuinely nice person and when he goes onto the pitch he'll always give his all, he always got the maximum out of his body. It's no surprise at all that he's gone on and he deserves it because of his attitude and everything that goes with it. It's great but not unexpected. He always had that potential.”
Whild, a 59-year-old man well-known across the non-league circuit, was the man to scout a teenage Dunkley and take him to a Kidderminster Harriers side he was assistant manager of, offering him his first professional contract back in 2014.
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He was raw, he was rash and he had to wait for his chance, Whild said, but there was a football league player in there waiting to emerge. There were more talented young players, but he had an attitude that stood out.
And the fact is that Cheyenne Dunkley has needed every square inch of his broad shoulders on his road to Hillsborough. It’s been a journey.
Released by Crewe Alexandra only weeks after his 18th birthday, he made the move to lowly Hednesford Town – level seven on the pyramid, on one occasion playing against Bedworth United in front of less than 200 people.
But no matter, firing himself back into men’s football was the priority, his six-foot-two frame encasing the body of a much older man.
He had enjoyed a short but successful loan spell with the Southern League side on ‘work experience’ from Crewe and climbed aboard within a couple of months of his bad news. He got straight to work.
Where other young part-timers would make excuses and miss training, a semi-professional mentality seeping in, a young Dunkley doubled-down in professionalism and attitude. Within two years – and after a contract tribunal that cost the non-leaguers over £5,000 – he was with Whild and Kidderminster, on a professional contract aged 19.
“We’d watched him, got to know him as a character and then took him in what was then the Conference,” Whild said.
“He was excellent from the minute he walked in the door as a young lad to the time he left the club to join the league and Oxford. He took to it straight away.
“He was always a big, strong lad but he'll admit himself he was a little rough around the edges. What he had, which a lot of young lads with perhaps more talent hadn’t got, was a tremendous learning and work ethic. That’s what made the difference.
“He was always first into training and last out, always asking questions, always wanting to do that bit more. He never wanted to come off the training pitch.”
The fact that he’d been released so young has stayed with him, Whild believes, giving him an edge that saw him battle through a career at Oxford, Wigan and now Wednesday.
Quiet and unassuming off the field, he would rarely talk about that career-defining bombshell, but it was always there, ticking away and giving him the drive to succeed.
Whild said: “It didn't affect him badly. He'd seen the fact that he'd been released at an early age as a vehicle to prove one or two people wrong.
“Chey took the decision to quickly got back into men's football and when he came to us the standard of that league was close to League Two and some clubs in League One anyway.
"He didn't struggle with it, he took it in his stride and always wanted to get out on the training pitch and turn up on a Saturday and give his all.
“The fact he's managed to do that and sign for a club the size of Sheffield Wednesday is testament to him but it's no surprise to me.”
It’s not all been plain-sailing since Dunkley made the move to Oxford alongside teammate and Championship rival Marvin Johnson, a winger for Neil Warnock’s Middlesbrough.
The struggles of Wigan are well-documented and although the Owls centre-half is not a player who has struggled with injuries, he is currently in the very latter stages of recovery from a double leg-break suffered in February.
The fact he has shown the determination to join his teammates fit and firing is typical of the man, Whild said, and in terms of having the fight and leadership qualities to fend off a 12-point deduction, he can think of no better player.
“From minute one when he came in with us he rolled his sleeves up and showed everything you'd need for that [battling a points deduction],” he said.
“He had a tremendous work ethic on the training ground, he was a leader even at that young age and as he got older and wiser he became that bit more vocal. I'm sure he's developed that over a period of time as he's progressed.”
And his ability in the air? His eye for a goal that has seen him weigh in with 32 goals in just over 300 games at football league level?
“Chey chipped in with goals. He was and always has been a threat in the opposition box.
“He's a big physical presence and he's maintained that. The game is riddled with set pieces and if you've got somebody who can get on the end of them in either box they're a massive asset.
"Good luck to him. He deserves it.”