on 13 November 2000
With Wednesday's dismal showing this season, it's fair to say that I didn't approach reading this book with any great enthusiasm. Despite thoroughly enjoying "A Quarter of Wednesday", there was an expectation that this follow up would simply revisit the same territory. In fact I need not have worried as "Blue and White Wizards" is a pleasure to read, almost to the extent of restoring my enthusiasm for Wednesday, and the only problem was finishing it too quickly.
The book devotes a chapter to each of the 11 members of Dan's Dream Team (which will no doubt disappoint those who were expecting a crime thriller), based both on his recollections and interviews with the players concerned. Sensibly, Dan limits his selections to those players that he has seen play - no doubt this won't meet with the approval of the octogenarians who inhabit the darker recesses of the South Stand, but getting an exclusive interview with Fred Spiksley may have have proved problematical.
Dan's selection criteria appear to have been for individuals who were both outstanding players, and had an affinity for Wednesday and, crucially, the fans. I guess that few would disagree with a line up of Hodge, Nilsson, Worthington, Pearson, Lyons, Sterland, Sheridan, Waddle, Hirst, Chapman and Curran, not forgetting managers Charlton (come back, Jack!) and Atkinson, in spite of the necessity of picking two right backs. An immediate observation is the question of how many of the current/recent players would challenge for a place in this team. I can only think of Des Walker, although his not being "fan friendly" would perhaps disqualify him.
Each player featured has plenty to say, with the passage of time allowing them to be more candid than would have been possible when they played for Wednesday. It is also a cause for pride that they all appear to sincerely hold an affinity for the Club, the city and the fans.
Non football fans won't be able to appreciate the scale of human drama in the game. The chapter on Martin Hodge is particularly poignant. Hodge arrived quietly at Hillsborough on a free transfer - a former "promising youngster" whose career had begun to slide (a typical Wilkinson signing). I remember watching him in a pre-season friendly against West Brom on the eve of the 1983-84 season when everyone thought that Iain Hesford was keeping goal. From then on, Hodge made a record number of consecutive appearances and his form was often breathtaking. Sadly, Hodge's playing career was destroyed by two events: his omission from England's 1986 World Cup squad and Steve Ogrizovic's goal for Coventry. It is strange that Bobby Robson is now talked of in God-like terms when he was capable of making such a monumental error as taking a seriously injured Gary Bailey to Mexico. Effectively England played that World Cup with 2 fit goalkeepers - a scandal. Hodge had his bags packed, but was informed that he was not required at the eleventh hour. In the event, Gary Lineker (not for the last time) saved Robson's career. Life, as it tends to do, delivered it's second kick in the teeth to Hodge in the midst of terrible weather conditions - I was standing near the back of the Kop and could feel raindrops on my face. A combination of that strong wind and a freakish bounce resulted in one of the most extraordinary goals that I have witnessed, and delivered a terminal blow to Hodge's confidence. Whether his current position as Wednesday's goalkeeping coach represents an improvement in fortunes, I'm not quite sure.
The book is also quite revealing in that it confirms many of the rumours which were circulating at the time, an example of which was that Wednesday were lousy payers. Nigel Pearson's wages were no higher at First Division Wednesday than his previous club, Third Division Shrewsbury, and Sheffield United offered to triple Mike Lyon's wages after he had agreed a deal with Jack Charlton. Lyons, to his huge credit, did not break his "gentleman's agreement" - unheard of today. Another "truth" which seems to emerge is the unpopularity of David Pleat (recently confirmed by Carlton Palmer), although immediately after he was sacked a lot of players took the trouble to dedicate the 5-0 victory against Bolton to "The Boss". Oddly, Trevor Francis receives less criticism than would be expected, although his apparent unpopularity with the players appeared to be a decisive factor in his dismissal.
Irony is never too far from the surface either. Big Ron attempted to re-sign Mel Sterland from Glasgow Rangers, who instead followed his former manager Howard Wilkinson to Leeds, leaving Atkinson to fill his right back position with .... Roland Nilsson. Perhaps the most surreal thought of all is that one of the most inspirational and moving pre-match talks in Wednesday's history was delivered by, er, Stan Boardman.
There is, as far as I am concerned, a long overdue reminder of how good the Wilkinson team actually was. It has become fashionable to dismiss his team and tactics out of hand, although I would gladly swap what we have now for the commitment, pride and skill that the team showed during his first 3 seasons in charge. As is pointed out, some of Wilkinson's tactical innovations are now widely accepted parts of the game, although when Wednesday employed Mel Sterland as an attacking wide player, it was labelled "a five man defence" by the media, whereas Chelsea's adoption of the same tactic a few seasons ago was hailed as a triumph and suddenly became "wing backs".
Although "Blue and White Wizards" contains plenty of original and revealing material, there are still a few stones which (by necessity) remain unturned. How would Chris Waddle, then one of the most senior and respected players at the club, explain his involvement in a night club excursion on the eve of a match? Was there any truth in the popularly held theory for Roland Nilsson's departure? ("So, Roly, did you get a Christmas card from the Pemberton's this year?" On second thoughts that's maybe not such a good idea). Also, David Pleat's opinions on the criticism that is happily chucked his way by all and sundry may be of interest.
The strength of BWW revolves around Dan's ability to ask the right questions of players and then to weave their answers into an entertaining and readable narrative - a seemingly easy, but rare, skill.
Dan does however offer us some hope as Wednesday stand on the threshold of the Nationwide League. The events and personalities described would have been unimaginable to the faithful few who turned up at Hillsborough in the mid 1970's. Whatever happens, the football fan can always fall back on hope, and it isn't always misplaced.
If you buy this book you will not be disappointed.