Derek Dooley’s life was changed forever on Valentine’s Day, 1953.
During a game against Preston at Deepdale, the Sheffield Wednesday centre-forward collided
with goalkeeper George Thompson, breaking his leg in two places.
It was a serious injury, but it needn’t have finished his career.
Dooley was taken to Preston Royal Infirmary and his leg was operated on and then set in
Three days later, however, when Dooley was due to be discharged, nurses noticed that
his toes were ice cold.
He also reported having no feeling in his right foot and the doctors were rightly concerned.
Dooley had suffered a cut on the calf earlier in the Preston game and, the theory remains,
the open wound had been exposed to chemicals used to treat the frozen Deepdale pitch.
The effect was devastating.
Untreated, the leg had turned gangrenous and with the infection rising up his body, the
surgeons were left with no option but to amputate Dooley’s right leg to save his life.
His career had really just begun.
But, at just 23, it was already over.
Dooley had been born in Sheffield in 1929, into a world of terraced housing, outdoor
toilets and where formative football experiences occurred either on the streets, or on the
local recreation grounds, with its pitches of ash and cinder.
This was not an era of social mobility and Dooley’s choices in life were limited.
He was the son of a steelworker, both of his parents had been factory workers in fact and,
most likely, he would either follow in their path or make it as a footballer.
At first, it was the former.
Having left school at 14, he was already working in a hearing-aid factory, nursing his sporting
ambition on his own time, in junior football and, later, with Sheffield YMCA.
At 15, he would catch his first break, with amateur side Lincoln City, who were playing
in the Third Division (North).
He would play mainly for the club’s reserves, but it was still a formative experience.
By 16, Dooley was over 6ft tall, at a time when the male national average was below 5ft7in.
Fully grown, he would reach over 6ft3in, and that frame – with his speed and size 12
feet – would be toughened by early exposure to a hugely physical form of the game.
“There was a fair bit of shoe dished out” he would tell Arthur Hopcraft in The Football
“It taught me how to take care of myself.
I had to take a fair bit of boot.
I was much younger, you see.
They were trying to intimidate me.”
‘They’ would help to create a battering ram of a centre-ram.
Dooley would spend two years with Lincoln before becoming a professional, joining Sheffield
Wednesday at 17 in 1947.
It would take until October 1951 for him to become a first-team regular, but when he did,
it was an opportunity he grasped with a run of form which was barely believable.
He scored 46 goals from just 30 games to power Wednesday to the Division Two title in 1952.
The next season, in the First Division in 1952-53, a tally of 16 goals from 24 games
had added to a burgeoning reputation and calls for Dooley to be included in the England.
But then: Deepdale and – ultimately - tragedy.
Dooley’s post-injury prospects were bleak.
As he himself would remember, “I was 23, I’d been married the June before.
I’d no house, no trade.
I was living with my parents.
I’d banked a bit of money, but it wasn’t much.”
Not much at all, in fact.
The maximum wage at the time of Dooley’s injury had been £14 per week.
The season before, he had earned a bonus of just £42 for winning Division Two; this was
not an age of decadent wealthy by any means.
In fact, it was an era in which even professional players who had enjoyed full and successful
careers would often return to their original trades after retirement.
The football community stood by Dooley, though.
A benefit game was held at Hillsborough, with 55,000 fans cramming in to watch the first
match to be played under the newly installed floodlights.
Local newspapers also organised fundraising campaigns, with the PFA also donating £200
and – in a tale which describes the esteem in which the player was held – a pools winner
wrote to Dooley, enclosing some of his winnings.
Cumulatively, it was enough for he and his wife Sylvia to buy the semi-detached house
in which they’d live for the rest of their lives.
For eight years after his accident, Dooley would scout for Sheffield Wednesday at weekends.
But from Monday to Friday, he manned the switchboard at a bakery belonging to a club director,
eventually earning promotion all the way up to assistant manager.
In 1962, however, he returned to Hillsborough in a full-time capacity, taking charge of
the club’s development lottery, as well as coaching the youth players.
In 1971, despite no prior experience, Dooley was appointed manager of the first team, in
a populist move intended to re-inflate a sagging side.
Wednesday were by then back in the Second Division and although Dooley kept them free
of relegation in his first year and safe in mid-table for the following two, a downturn
in results at the beginning of 1973-74 would compel the Wednesday board to act: they sacked
Dooley on Christmas Eve, provoking shock and outrage across the city.
Not least from Dooley himself, who was deeply wounded by what he perceived as a betrayal
and who wouldn’t step foot inside Hillsborough again for nearly twenty years.
It would prove another juncture in this highly unusual football career.
Dooley briefly left the game behind, taking a job with a PR job with a bootmaker in Leeds,
before being offered a return to the sport by an unlikely source.
In November 1974, Dooley accepted the role of commercial director at Sheffield United.
He was highly successful and would rise through the executive structure at Bramall Lane, serving
as a director, a managing director, and eventually chief executive.
In 1992, as part of United’s travelling party for the Sheffield derby, he would finally
return to Hillsborough after 19 years, receiving a standing ovation from all four sides of
In 1999, after retiring from his full-time role, he returned as chairman, and he would
be a key voice in the appointment of Bury manager Neil Warnock, who would lead the club
to League and FA Cup semi-finals in 2003, a First Divisions Play-Off final in the same
year and, eventually, promotion back to the Premier League in 2006.
Dooley’s administrative career would earn him an MBE in 2003, having already been awarded
the Freedom of Sheffield ten years earlier.
He would pass away in March 2008, at the age of 78, leaving his wife, Sylvia, and two children.
Today, his statue stands outside Bramall Lane, in the red half of town, but he remains a
transcendent figure across the city, his life and its many parables ensuring both a lasting
affection and an enduring relevance.