Former Sheffield Wednesday captain Darren Purse on his big Owls regret and setting the record straight on his Hillsborough exit
Regrets? Darren Purse has a few. But signing for Sheffield Wednesday ahead of a turbulent 18 months for the club is not one of them.
The former Owls captain, who was relegated in his only full season at Hillsborough, has perhaps cruelly become something of a poster boy among some sections of the club’s fanbase for that drop back into League One in 2009/10.
And speaking to The Star 10 years on, it’s clear the campaign still hurts him.
Brought in on a free transfer from Cardiff City by Brian Laws, Purse’s best days were by his own admission getting smaller in the rearview mirror but at 32 he was one of the most respected competitors in the Championship, with successful spells as skipper of the Bluebirds and Birmingham under his belt.
Laws felt the club needed players of Purse’s personality; tough, determined and ready to go to war. Wednesday’s was a relatively young side lacking leadership, it was felt. The centre-half was immediately named club captain.
Describing how he walked into a broken culture at the club, Purse admitted that, looking back, he feels he could have perhaps done more to spark his teammates into action.
Speaking to The Star he said: “At that moment of time the right players weren't in the dressing room. There were people with chips on their shoulders, there were some bad attitudes and not everyone was pulling in the right direction.
“You look at it now and if I had my time again I would have definitely still signed for Sheffield Wednesday, it’s a fantastic club.
“But I'd have tried to ruffle a few feathers around the dressing room.
“There were too many players there on too easy a ride that weren't pulling their weight.
“I've played in some good dressing rooms and more often than not it's not about the manager you've got or what's going on upstairs, it's about having the right players at the right time. And that’s about attitude.”
Naming names isn’t Purse’s style, he says, but a look down that season’s roster when he describes “players on good money looking out for number one” throws up a few likely candidates.
As the season went on the sinking feeling set in, Laws was replaced by Alan Irvine and although they lost only three of their last 11 league matches, seven of those were draws.
The Owls entered the last game of the season in a relegation shoot-out against Crystal Palace. If Wednesday won, they’d stay up. But despite a Purse equaliser with three minutes to go the clash finished 2-2. It was a result, Purse says, that ‘floored him’.
“We had quite a young side,” he said. “Richard Wood and Mark Beevers, Tommy Spurr, good players that have gone on to have good careers. Micky Gray and Darren Potter were big characters.
“There were some good characters around but then on the fringes of that, there were some people that didn't have the heart for a relegation fight. They were concentrating on number one rather than that massive club. Once you’ve got that in a club it can be very hard to get rid of. It was a massive shame.
“It was tough. We worked hard, I know fans will have a dig at you because of how things look maybe, but you do work hard and you do take it to heart. Of course you do.
“I was absolutely gutted we were relegated. Devastated. I never signed for Sheffield Wednesday with that intention.
“I wanted us to get promoted, that was where I was looking. You're on the floor, then after a few weeks you slowly get onto looking forward to the next season and putting right the wrongs that you'd done the previous year.”
And he got that opportunity, leading the club into their attempt to bounce back into the second tier at the first time of asking. It was a mission, from Purse’s point of view at least, that was cut short prematurely.
Within a few months, former Portsmouth owner Milan Mandaric had bought the club and set about building a new dawn for Sheffield Wednesday. It was a dawn that didn’t include the club captain.
He was released in January and went on to sign for Millwall, his boyhood club, just days before Irvine was usurped by Gary Megson.
Megson would later describe the club’s need for players of Purse's stature.
The defender’s Owls exit was dressed up as one done by ‘mutual consent’ at the time. But Purse tells a different tale.
“I had in a clause in my contract that said if I played 30 games I got another season,” he said.
“I'd played 28 up to that time and I remember having a meeting with him [Mandaric]. He said 'Darren, you're not playing 30 games, see you later', sort of thing.
“That was the way it ended for me at Sheffield Wednesday. I was disappointed. But the chairman is the chairman. He's the man that runs the football club, he puts in the big money and pays the wages.
“I always wondered what I'd done wrong. Sheffield Wednesday fans might have looked as me as captain and maybe a few of them blame me for the relegation, I know that.
“Perhaps I didn't play as well as I could have done or as well as they had expected me to. I can't change that now, I was very disappointed with the way things worked out and I would have loved to have been the captain that took them back up to the Championship.
“It wasn't to be. It was taken out of my hands.”