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THE FUTURE FOOTBALL AGENCY
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OUR BLOG

Here you’ll find our latest stories, interviews & write-ups. First up it’s our podcast with Danny Wilson….

A NEW CHALLENGE

Gareth Roberts, Head of Content, The Fans’ Agency: Why have you decided to swap the touchline for this new role with The Fans’ Agency?

Danny Wilson, Player Acquisition and Player Care, The Fans’ Agency: Just over a year ago I had a conversation with Phil Smith (founder and director of The Fans’ Agency), I’d just left Chesterfield and after more than 1,000 games as a manager it was maybe taking its toll a little bit and I wanted a little bit of a break from football.

We sat down and had a long conversation in London and then the ideas sprang up about The Fans’ Agency later via Jon Smith (founder and chairman of The Fans’ Agency).

That’s how I got into it and I’m really enjoying it now. There’s still a bit of pressure, but nothing like there was on the touchline.

GRASSROOTS

GR: So you’re going out there now, speaking to players, trying to get them on board, trying to explain what The Fans’ Agency is all about, and one of the things it is about, and one of the things it wants to do, is give a percentage of profits back to grassroots football.

Danny, you start your career playing football for Wigan Athletic, then in the Northern Premier League, but can you remember where it all started as a kid? Teams that you started kicking a ball for? And why that’s important?

DW: It is important and I think we can too easily dismiss the work non-league managers, coaches and those at grass roots level do.

Some are picking kids up from houses where they can’t afford to get a train or a bus – they’re doing thousands of miles a year just to get the lads to have a game with a decent team. I was no different, my mum and dad didn’t have a car and I used to get picked up by a couple of guys who ran a football club called The Double Seven (a youth club in Ince) which was just outside of Wigan and they used to bring me in for training and matches. Without them, perhaps the route [to professional football] would never have started in the first place from my point of view.

They are the lifeblood of players coming through, identifying them. Some people might think people they can’t assess a player, but they can. This is one of the ideas behind The Fans’ Agency – shareholders, people who come on board, they can identify someone out of the blue, say, ‘Listen, go and watch this kid’. We’ll go out and watch them, and maybe they’ve gone unnoticed before. One could turn out to be a diamond for us.

GR: It does seem to have gone down a cut-throat route football now, in terms of kids at a really young age are swept up into the academy system, they are coached through that system and a lot of them are then rejected at 16, 17, 18.

They’ll think I didn’t make it for Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham, Arsenal, whoever, and just leave the game. Again, that’s where grassroots is important because that’s where those lads might rediscover the love for the game, recover and end up with a career lower down the ladder.

DW: That’s spot on. I think the boys that are missed, or for whatever reason are released from a football club – there’s not just one reason, it maybe style of football, size – but there is always a reason why they may be able to get back in.

It can be heartbreaking for those that miss out on professional forms at that age but if they feel there’s no route back in I think you lose a hell of a lot of players that could come back second time round and make a career for themselves.

That’s something we’ll look at it. I’ve been one in the past to release boys and they’ve come back – it does happen, you make mistakes sometimes. We will hopefully be able to pounce on some mistakes other coaches have made.

THE PLAYING DAYS

GR: Ok, let’s talk about some of the highlights for you as a player, we could go all day if we went through your whole career, over 600 games, so let’s do some of the highlights.

We’ve got to do the League Cup finals, 1988 – Luton Town 3 Arsenal 2 – a huge, huge shock, 97,000 at Wembley, how was that to be involved in?

DW: At the end of the game I think we were rubbing our eyes – we couldn’t believe it, because we were massive underdogs. Arsenal had an array of talent, they were flying in the league at the time and little old Luton had come as far as people expected us to, they thought we’d fall at the last hurdle. But we had a talented team and we were underestimated in the league and the cup games.

We had Ricky Hill and Brian Stein – England internationals – Mick Harford, Steve Foster; we had a very good side but we went under the radar a bit because we were a small club. That suited us down to the ground and we had a fantastic camaraderie.

It was a really good game – one of the best cup finals for a while, end to end stuff, it went to the last minute and it was big shock to everyone.

GR: It is remembered as one of the great League Cup finals – and that Arsenal side were no mugs: John Lukic in goal, Winterburn, Samson, Thomas, Ceaser, Adams, Rocastle, Davis, Smith, Groves, Richardson – names a lot of people will remember. And Danny’s got the medal from winning that game.

GR: Also then, 1991, the League Cup final, but first the semi final…Danny scores a belter of a goal in the second leg of a 5-1 aggregate win over Chelsea, a lovely right-foot volley after Carlton Palmer’s cushioned header into his path. Quite a sweet goal that, and when you listen to the commentary it’s the one where the commentator is saying ‘that’s it, they’re there’ – is that how you felt at the time?

DW: Yes, we did. We were a little bit of a bogey side to Chelsea over two or three seasons in the league and the cup and they never really seemed to get one over us. Good side though. That goal did seal it though and was the end of the tie as such – they were never going to come back after that.

GR: It was Sheffield Wednesday’s first trip to Wembley in 25 years, in the final against Manchester United, 77,000 at Wembley that time around. Wednesday, under Ron Atkinson, were Second Division at the time, and also got promoted that year. Again, to emphasise this as an achievement, you get promoted, you win that cup – Manchester United a month later are beating Barcelona in the Cup Winners’ Cup Final. It must be something you are immensely proud of and still look back at you medal and think ‘I was part of that’.

DW: It is, but I don’t think we would have beaten Barcelona by the way! I’d like to think we would but I don’t think we would, I think we had our day then! But it was a great achievement, and maybe that’s spurred Manchester United on at the time – they lost a final, which is not particularly satisfying. I remember Alex Ferguson saying don’t let that other team be walking away with the cup at the time, but we did. That maybe focussed them a bit more on the Barcelona game.

GR: United’s team that day, again lots of names people will remember: Les Sealey in goal, Denis Irwin, Clayton Blackmore, Steve Bruce, Neil Webb, Gary Pallister, the great Bryan Robson, Paul Ince, Brian McClair, Mark Hughes and Lee Sharpe. What do you remember about the game, obviously Wednesday win 1-0 but I’m guessing it was pretty tough?

DW: Well it was. Every player we had on the pitch in our team had to be at their best – that was no mugs’ team you just mentioned there, it was the strongest team Manchester United could put out at that time and we saw the line up we thought ‘well they’re not messing around’.

We went into the game with absolutely no fear, it was amazing. Big Ron had psychologically had got us in the right frame of mind and it wasn’t focusing on the game, it was perhaps the opposite – we were thinking about the birds in the sky!

We’d been out – Trevor Francis had a birthday party down there on the Friday night in London. We’d all had a few glasses of wine, a few beers, and we were relaxed.

We got on a coach, we had a training session in Hyde Park, which was the worst training session I had ever been in – and prior to a cup final! We were just bouncing around the horse manure, it was unbelievable.

Then we get back on the coach and we have a comedian on the coach, Stan Boardman. So we’re going to Wembley, driving up Wembley Way, and laughing our heads off at his antics and his jokes – we couldn’t have got in there more relaxed and we didn’t really have time to have any fear.

If we had kept on staring at that teamsheet we could have scared the life out of ourselves. But when the whistle went we were ready – it was a masterstroke by Big Ron.

GR: Was it the case as well that you didn’t really feel any expectation because you were in the Second Division and you were playing Manchester United, do you think that helped everyone to just play their natural game?

DW: Yeah, course it did, there was no doubt about that. We had that edge really in that for us it was ‘well, if we get beat, we get beat’. But that maybe was how fans looked at it, we were a good side as well, we had internationals in the side. They shocked themselves by being relegated in the first place but bounced back straight away.

There was a lot of quality in the side. We didn’t think we should be in that division. We had Chris Waddle, John Sherdian, David Hirst – quality players.

We didn’t feel overwhelmed when we got on the pitch, we thought we could hold our own. But it was a tough game, we had to be at our best and United put us under a great pressure. It was a tremendous result and massive for the club at that time.

GR: What other standout moments are there for you from your playing career?

DW: I always enjoyed the managers I played for. We had some very good teams who could play football. It’s a bit of a myth when people say ‘could you have done this in those days?’ – yes, we could, we had some talented players.

You can’t say George Best wouldn’t have been a good enough level for football nowadays, he would have been. The managers I played for were always open, attacking-minded, positive in their play, which was great from my point of my view because a lot of my game was based on that. To play for a manager with the same mindset as you, you didn’t have to revert to anything different from what you already were naturally doing.

There are lots of games I can back on and people won’t remember them but they were important games. Going back to Luton days, we avoided relegation on the last day of the season on two occasions.

Those games were pressure games – we had to win them. One was against Norwich, which we won and stayed up, and the other was against Derby County away, they had a great side then.

They were fantastic atmospheres and no one expected us to stay up, we did it against all the odds. They are ones that people may not remember. It was up and down, a real rollercoaster, but it was all very memorable.

DANNY’S DREAM FIVE-A-SIDE TEAM

GR: If I asked you to name a five-a-side team of the best players you played with during your career, who would you go for?

DW: I can do it, but I’m sure I’ll leave somebody out!

I think Chris Woods in goal, who I played with at Sheffield Wednesday, he was an England goalkeeper.

The four playing out: Roland Nilsson, he was a Swedish international and what a fantastic player he was.

I have to say my mate, Viv Anderson, he’s been my big buddy in football for the last 30-odd years, first black player to play for England, he’s been an inspiration to everybody but what a player. I played with him at Forest, Sheffield Wednesday and Barnsley.

John Robertson, Forest winger, legend – a fantastic talent. Brian Clough said he was the best player he’d ever managed.

Chris Waddle, very similar, an England international and eventually went over to France to play for Marseille.

And a striker (we’re allowing Danny a sub! – ed), David Hirst – he had everything.

Sadly he finished with a knee injury and didn’t really fulfil his potential. But when Man United come knocking on your door and offer £4million, which is what Sir Alex Ferguson did at the time when were vying with Manchester United for the Championship, I think he wanted to dilute our chances of doing it as well as enhance theirs, you know he was a great player.

I’m not saying that team could defend a lot, but it wouldn’t half be good going forward!

THE MANAGER DAYS

GR: Moving into the managerial days and pulling out some of the highlights, one of the obvious ones is 1996-7 with Barnsley and achieving promotion to the Premier League. I don’t think anyone was giving you a chance to do that, and that is also the year you get the managerial award because everyone looked in and thought, wow, promotion to the top flight with those resources was something else.

DW: The achievement of getting promotion was tremendous, from back to front. We were under enormous pressure at the club anyway because The Taylor Report had come out and standing was no longer allowed.

At Barnsley, they shut three sides of the ground down and we were playing in front of three to four thousand people. It was difficult, and times were hard, but the chairman, John Dennis, was brilliant, kept us all together, gave us a little bit of money – virtually nothing really – or, he would tell you if you knocked on his door and asked for money, ‘sod off, there isn’t any!’

It galvanised everyone. The Miners’ Strike was going on at the time, the community was really suffering with money going out and none coming in but they still found that support for the football club, the community came out and supported us and it was magnificent.

We gave them a bit of pride for the town – they had that much going on politically it was important they had something they could enjoy and football was their release at that time.

Getting promoted was great and acknowledgment after that from your own peers, particularly when Manager Of The Year is nearly always somebody who has won The Premier League, I was absolutely gobsmacked. I didn’t expect it and I didn’t know it was going on.

GR: And as you say quite a romantic story – football can seem a bit short of those at times; you see the same teams winning over and over again. But it’s stories like that where whoever you support you can’t help but be warmed by them.

DW: There’s a film about it, Daydream Believers, which sums it all up really – no one believed it apart from us! It’s a good watch, and politically it goes through all the stuff I spoke about. When you sit back and watch it, it’s unreal really. Dreams are achieved still – we saw that with Leicester with the Premier League too.

GR: And another dream for Barnsley fans was seeing their team play in the Premier League, you achieved that, but also in The FA Cup, another big moment, defeating Manchester United in the fifth round, they were favourites to win the cup…again it must be something you look back on and say ‘wow’. What do you say to your team in the dressing room that day when they know they are playing against Manchester United given the calibre of the opposition?

DW: You have to have a threat if you’re going to beat any team. If you negate that and just put out a team that is going to defend then you’re not going to have a mindset to win the game. So we went out in both games – we played at Old Trafford first, drew 1-1 and should have won it; we had a penalty appeal in the 80th-odd minute, I can see it now, Andy Liddell got hacked down and the referee didn’t give it, it was a stonewall penalty at The Stretford End, I think he might have had a little bit of a wobble…

We went in 1-1, took them back to Oakwell and it was 3-2. That gave us a belief, that first performance, and from Manchester United’s point of view they knew it wasn’t going to be easy.  

A packed Oakwell is a very intimidating place to go, the fans are brilliant at home. And that’s how it was. We got quite lucky with a couple of situations in front of goal but we defended very well as you have to against a team of that quality.

CROSSING THE SHEFFIELD DIVIDE

GR: As I’m a footie fan, when I think Danny Wilson, there are a couple of things that spring to mind so I’ve got to ask you them. One of the things about The Fans’ Agency is that we want football fans involved – many are already as they have invested in it at the crowdfunding stage – and we want them involved in the future when we launch our trading platform, more on that when we have more to say.

So as a footie fan..you’ve played for Sheffield Wednesday, you’ve managed Sheffield Wednesday, and then you go and manage… Sheffield United.

That’s quite a brave move, and you’re the only man to manage both clubs. How was that experience, and how was it when you first got the call, did you think ‘ooh – I don’t know about that’?

DW: I didn’t think twice about it! Throughout my career I never minded a challenge. If I think I can do the job, I’ll do it. I’m not one to scare to things. If I’m not committed to things in the first seconds of being asked then I know it’s not going to be right.

The first few months were difficult because I got the job over the summer and it was nothing but – how can I say – negative comments! There was a little bit of a protest outside when it was announced, which was quite ironic because the fans who were protesting outside were protesting around a statue of an ex-Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United player who then went upstairs as chairman, Derek Dooley.

It took a lot of work to be fair. I used to go out to pubs and clubs and meet fans and put my view over. It wasn’t always accepted, it wasn’t always straightforward but at least I was being honest with them. The biggest thing is, you have to win games, you can’t hide behind bad results. We had to hit the ground running and we did, we had a host of wins and we got ourselves in a decent position and throughout the season we did quite well and we had a good brand of football with some good players in there. I knew I had to get results and play good football there to win the fans over.

After a few months they were fantastic with me and to this day they still are, absolutely brilliant.

The Sheffield Wednesday fans were brilliant too, all the way through. They used to call me ‘Agent Wilson’ for going over to the other side but I understood it, I had great times there as well. I could never ever speak ill of either set of supporters, they were fantastic with me. I still live not far away and they’ve always been brilliant.

GR: When it was initially announced there was a banner outside the ground, ‘Love United, Hate Wilson’, there was a group of fans singing ‘We hate Wilson’ and ‘Wilson out’. So you’ve done well to come full circle and have both sets of fans say ‘he’s alright, Danny’.

DW: I wasn’t prepared to walk away. We had a good set of players and the players were very understanding of the situation. They were talented and I knew if you put them out on the pitch they would win games.

I knew there’d be games where they would play well and lose and the fans would be ready for you – and it happened – but we didn’t lose our focus and we carried on going. I’d never criticise the fans, it’s not in my makeup to do that anyway and they pay good good money every week to watch.

As I said with the Barnsley fans, often they have plenty of issues away from the match and they’re entitled to come and have a bit of a moan sometimes but thankfully there weren’t too many of those and thankfully for them they got promotion a few years later.

MANAGING A MAVERICK

GR: The other one then, the one I’ve got to ask: you’re manager of Sheffield Wednesday and in your dressing room, on your training ground, in your team, you’ve got Paolo di Canio and Benito Carbone. Anyone who remembers this era will remember that they were both talented players, both capable of absolute genius with the ball at times but also, surely, not the easiest people to manage?

DW: No, they weren’t. I have to say at this juncture that I was quite young myself at the time when I took the job at Sheffield Wednesday coming from Barnsley, late 30s I think I was. Experience-wise I hadn’t handled some of the bigger players and this was the first time I was involved with the kind of talent you just spoke about. But it was good, the first year we did OK. There are so many stories you can tell, some you can, some have to remain private.

Benito Carbone was a talent, a genius with the football. The problem was his consistency, he could do something magical but then we didn’t have a team that could carry players and you could go four, five or six games where he’d not really get a kick of the ball. When he did, at times, it was magical but we didn’t have the luxury of carrying anyone at the time.

Paolo was different, is different and always will be different! We didn’t see eye to eye on certain things, other times I’d just sit back in awe of him.

A nice story was when I was asked to take over the job at Wednesday. Ron Atkinson had just left and it was pre season so I phoned up Ron to see what everything had been like there. Ron had been my manager as a player and he just said, ‘Dan, you’ve got to take it. The fans know you, they love you, you know the club inside out, you know the chairman, they’ve got a good bunch of players, they need handling but you’ll be alright’. So I thought, ‘I’ll have a go’.

The first day of training Paolo doesn’t show up, so I had two choices, I either phone Ron up and say ‘what’s happening’ or phone Paolo up. I phoned Paolo and said, ‘You’re supposed to be training today’.

“Oh, no, no, no, mister, Big Ron, he said I can have an extra two weeks off.”

Again, I thought, I’ve got a choice, do I phone Ron up and ask him if that was the case, or do I say right, see you in two weeks?

I thought, Ron is going to say, ‘No, I didn’t’ and straight away I’d have a conflict so I wasn’t going to have that so I let him go. Two weeks later, on the Monday, he reported to Bisham Abbey and by that time the lads are well into their pre-season training, running hard, they’ve done all the long-distance stuff and starting to shorten down but very difficult sessions to come.

Paolo comes in – “Morning, mister” – we shake hands, and I say, ‘Right, Paolo, I want you to go with the fitness coach because you are two weeks behind the rest of the boys’.

“No, no, no, no, mister, I’m not doing that, I’m with the players, I want to go with the players.”

I say: “Paolo, I can’t afford for you to get injured, you’re one of our better players, you’ve got to look after yourself.”

“No, no, no – I’m the fittest man here.”

He wouldn’t have it. Anyway, so I thought, we’ll have to see, the proof will be in the pudding. So the boys are doing track work and so we’ve got 800 metres, 400s, 200s, 100s and 50s then back up again. It’s really demanding from a players’ point of view.

So I put Paolo in the fastest group, in with Carlton Palmer and Roland Nilsson, boys who really could run. We finished all the running, and the lads are absolutely whacked, and Paolo comes over to me and says ‘thanks for that, mister’.

He’d won every race bar one. And my respect went right up there. He’d put himself in a position with his mouth shooting up but he came up with the goods.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sVgS7ynSVsUE

He was fantastic, fit as a fiddle as well as a magician with the ball. From that, I thought he’s never going to be a problem from a fitness point of view. But then problems did arise, the altercation with the referee, and that was the beginning of the end.

GR: Yes, the incident with Paul Alcock, he gets an 11-match ban. Looking back at that incident, it taints his time at Sheffield Wednesday and in fact Dave Richards the chairman came out and said both Carbone and Di Canio hadn’t helped the situation at the club and later they couldn’t really get their money back on those players.

I lot of words were said after that, not least from Di Canio who was quite scathing about you in a book. A long time later you ended up facing him as a manager – you as manager of Sheffield United and him at Swindon Town – how did that go?

DW: Brilliantly. We all grow up and we all understand. Paolo coming onto the other side of the touchline maybe understood some of the problems you can get, it’s not just about playing and going home. The manager has to discuss lots of things with people above, supporters, shareholders – that side of it, I think he started to appreciate that. But when we played each other he was fantastic, no problem, we had a big embrace.

Listen, he could probably see what I was going through with Sheffield United – a few words aren’t going to bother me! I respected him as a player.

His next club after Sheffield Wednesday was West Ham under Harry Redknapp and he got the bargain of the century. They hardly paid any money for him, just over a million pound, something like that, and he was well worth five or six million pound at that time. He became a cult hero at West Ham, and rightly so – he was an immense talent.

– Football Insiders will be a regular podcast from The Fans’ Agency, bringing you stories from inside football from Danny, our football agents, the players we sign and interesting figures from around the football world. Sign up for our newsletter to make sure you never miss an episode.