Sheffield Wednesday: Where did it all go wrong with George Hirst?

George Hirst
George Hirst
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The George Hirst saga is finally coming to an end.

The striker looks poised to leave his boyhood club and join Belgium outfit Oud-Heverlee Leuven, who are managed by Owls legend Nigel Pearson, next month.

But the truth is, it should never have come to this.

Neither Wednesday nor Hirst’s advisors have covered themselves in glory during this sordid affair.

It is such a shame as Hirst is arguably the most exciting, talented youngster to emerge from the club’s academy in decades.

So why has it not worked out?

The Owls say they opened contract talks with Hirst, the son of Owls great David, and his management team, Doyen Global, who have since rebranded and are now known as KIN Partners, over 18 months ago. So they gave themselves plenty of time to thrash out a deal.

Despite lots of toing and froing with Doyen, no agreement was reached. Hirst, who notched 40 goals for club and country during the 2016/17 season, rejected a new long-term contract which would have made him the best-paid player of his age group in Wednesday’s history.

Chairman Dejphon Chansiri said: “The reason we broke our structure was based on appreciation of the promising signs that George was showing and in recognition of his hard work and achievements for the under-23s and England team at youth level.

“Our policy is based on basic salary but, as with all development players, is enhanced with bonuses subject to the player participating in first-team matches.

Dejphon Chansiri

Dejphon Chansiri

“Our offer to George was declined by the player’s advisors and when we asked them to submit a proposal to us, we found they were requesting the basic salary of an established first-team player at our club, plus completely unrealistic bonuses, clauses and add-ons.

“We therefore had no choice but to decline this proposal, not because of the money, but in the interests of fairness and squad morale.”

Hirst’s scoring prowess won him many admirers. He had a string of suitors, led by Leicester City. Wednesday snubbed advances from Leicester and Everton. Leicester, the 2016 Premier League champions, were knocked back three times last August. Their final bid was thought to be around £2 million.

At that stage, the Owls had still not given up hope of tying Hirst down to a new contract.

Hindsight, of course, is a wonderful thing but perhaps, after eight months of no breakthrough in negotiations, Wednesday should have cashed in on Hirst in the August transfer window.

However, if there is one thing we have learned about Chansiri, he is a proud and principled person. He did not close the door on sorting out Hirst’s future.

Talks continued to take place between all parties. The ideal scenario for the Owls was that Hirst would pen a new deal and then go out on loan to a lower-league club to enhance his football education. Fleetwood Town and Mansfield Town expressed an interest in his services last August. Wednesday were prepared to subsidise all of Hirst’s wages.

But Hirst failed to agree fresh terms with the Owls and he stayed put.

Chansiri criticised Hirst’s advisors, accusing them of being “disruptive”.

He said: “As a club, we respect every player’s right to choose his own career path, but I have to question the advice George has received from his agents and other advisors. I am not pleased with how they have conducted themselves throughout this process.”

Wednesday argued Doyen kept moving the goalposts.

No common ground could be found and talks broke down. Again. There appeared no way back.

But Hirst Junior approached Chansiri in February and asked him if he could play U-23s football again. Chansiri granted his request and Hirst made a scoring return to action, finding the net in the development squad’s 3-2 defeat at Leeds United. Hirst also trained regularly with the first team.

“I respect him because he asked me to play,” said Chansiri. “I’m happy to step back and let him play.”

Relations appeared to be getting better and Hirst’s contract offer was still on the table. Things seemed to be going in the right direction.

Ultimately, it proved another false dawn.

No deal was struck and Hirst was left out of the U-23s final few fixtures. Hirst’s divorce from Wednesday was inevitable from that moment on.

The parting of the ways between the club and Hirst is a real pity, particularly as Hirst would have, in all probability, enjoyed his fair share of game-time at senior level last season. Given the Owls’ unprecedented injury crisis, Hirst could have added to his two substitute appearances had his contractual situation been settled.

It wasn’t to be.

When Hirst signed his maiden professional deal back in March 2016, he said there was “nowhere else” he would rather be and was looking forward to kicking on at S6.

But he has lost the best part of a year of his development over the contract stand-off. His career has stalled.

Could Wednesday have handled the situation better? Was banning him from playing at all age levels at the club the right thing to do?

The only thing that was ever going to achieve was further alienate the player and his management team.

But the club made a stand. As far as Chansiri is concerned, the club did everything they could to try and keep Hirst at Hillsborough.

One day we might hear Hirst’s side of the story.

No-one in the British media has seen Hirst play as much as I have in the past few years.

So what sort of player are OH Leuven getting?

Hirst is a striker who always looks to play on the shoulder of the last defender. His movement off the ball can cause opponents all sorts of problems and his gangly style belies a good turn of pace.

The beauty of Hirst is he recognises what he can and can’t do. He’s not the type of player who will dribble past three or four players and rifle a right-foot shot into the top corner. That’s not in his make-up.

It takes some youngsters years to learn and figure out what their strengths and weaknesses are. Not Hirst.

He knows his game inside out and where he needs to improve to fulfil his potential.

As he has developed, Hirst has got bigger and stronger. Now he doesn’t get brushed off the ball as much as he used to when deployed in the lone-striker role.

His first touch and some of his link-up play can let him down on occasions but he never shies away from taking responsibility. Even if he is having a tough afternoon, he never retreats into his shell.

Most of Hirst’s best work comes in and around the penalty area. It is where he comes alive. His awareness and speed of thought make him a hard man to contain.

Yet strangely Hirst is not as assured in front of goal as his goal record might suggest. I can think of at least three or four matches where I saw him score once when he should have walked away with three or four goals to his name had he been more clinical. There is room for improvement with his finishing.

Hirst is far from the finished article but he has got undoubted ability.

It looks like we will never know whether he was ready to make the step up and play in the rough and tumble of the Championship week in, week out. Personally, I’m not wholly convinced he would have found it an easy transition. Hirst is still a little rough around the edges and remains an unproven talent.

One thing for certain is that there have been no winners in Hirst’s long-running contract dispute.

It should have been a perfect marriage.

Instead, the Owls have lost one of their own.

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