The man to break up greatness: How David Pleat's Sheffield Wednesday rebuild shunned Chris Waddle, John Sheridan and David Hirst
“I’d taken over a team of fading stars,” David Pleat said looking back on his 864-day reign as manager of Sheffield Wednesday. “Waddle, Sheridan, Hirst. These were players who had been very good but were now in their twilight.”
It was on this day 25 years ago that Pleat walked into a hell of a job. Wednesday, barely two years on from a campaign that had seen them reach both domestic cup finals, had sacked Trevor Francis at the start of a rebuilding job designed to usher in a new era at S6.
That iconic trio were among stars fading, players were reportedly briefing the media against the manager and the boardroom had long settled on his departure. They needed an experience hand at the tiller, it was felt, someone who could walk through the doors of Middlewood Road and make it their own.
Bobby Robson was a name kicked around, as was former Owls player Danny Wilson. There was speculation around a return for Ron Atkinson and some had talked up Waddle as a natural successor to Francis, who too had started out as player-manager.
As it happened, Wednesday looked south both in terms of the football league ladder and in geography. Their signing of Pleat, then of second-tier Luton Town, came as a surprise for many. Respected though he was, he’d been three years out of the top division.
His brief was to evolve and finish the job Francis had begun to kick into motion. The former England international had met resistance in implementing changes and bringing in a more modern approach to how to run a football club.
Time waits for no man and ultimately it was a future that couldn’t include Waddle, Sheridan and Hirst forever.
“When I came in, it was explained to me that we had got to move some of these players out,” Pleat later told Tom Whitworth in ‘Owls: A Modern History of Sheffield Wednesday’. “They’d had their glory but they were on their way down. The board thought I was the right man to do it.
“They [the players] all thought they should be in the team, but the team wasn’t doing well with those players in it. The club had relied on the old guard too long. And they should have turned more over before I got there.
“But they hadn’t, so by the time I got there I was left with too many to turn over, to move on and replace. So that first year was really dramatic for me as I made some of those changes. It was a really difficult time.”
It couldn’t be done immediately of course but Pleat’s methodology became clear as the months went on. Waddle, by then mid-thirties, turned down an opportunity to become player-coach.
“That was a semi-political suggestion form Dave Richards,” his manager said. “But I was happy to embrace it because I liked him, Waddle.
“He still thought he had a lot to offer, but he didn’t. He had a little bit to offer. He’d still got the football brain but had lost that bit of athleticism and a bit of pace. His legs had gone.”
In September 1996 Waddle left for a short stint at Scottish side Falkirk before enjoying short stints of cult heroism at Bradford City and Sunderland before continuing his genius in non-league.
“He’d been fading and he couldn’t do it anymore. He could still do his tricks but he wasn’t progressive. Not the future.”
Then went Sheridan, a fellow genius, but one with an occasionally abrasive attitude Pleat felt his talents no longer warranted.
“John Sheridan. Wonderful passer of the ball – but he’d lost his pace, too. Never had much pace, in fact. And John wasn’t an easy player to control. He was difficult.”
He played just 17 times in Pleat’s debut 1995/96 campaign, and made his final two appearances for Wednesday the season after. A brief spell at Birmingham reunited him with Francis, but Bolton Wanderers would be his next destination, first on loan and then permanently, in November 1996.
Sheridan later commented that he was hugely disappointed at how his departure was handled. “I just left”, he said. “Nobody said thankyou.”
Hirst left a year later for Southampton in a Saints-record £2m deal that many believe, in hindsight, Wednesday got the better of. By then 30, Hirst’s goalscoring powers were waning a touch and eager to find the club a new focal point, Pleat sent him south.
He’d almost been sold to Everton beforehand, the Toffees turning him down on account of his medical.
“I found Hirst tremendous on his day but treading water another,” said Pleat. “He’d had problems with injuries and probably had a little bit too much weight on him.”
The revolution didn’t stop at three. Andy Sinton, Chris Woods, Chris Bart-Williams and Mark Bright were moved on as Pleat, keen on introducing a more continental approach, looked overseas for talent. Two Italians joined, as did two Serbs – with contrasting success. There was a Dutchman, a Belgian, a Frenchman and finally a Norwegian. It was the bold new world.
For a while the revolution appeared to be working as the Owls finished seventh in his second season, but in November 1997 it crashed to a halt. Pleat was sacked with Wednesday skint and bottom of the league.
“Maybe in particular I could have built the team around Sheridan more in that first season,” Pleat said, looking back on his relationship with those ageing icons. “I could have got closer to him and tried to integrate him more. Maybe I should have done, but it was difficult.
“Hindsight’s a fine thing, isn’t it?”