We were lucky enough to spend time with a true legend of our Football Club for WSB15 in Danny Wilson. As we approach the 20th anniversary of that Bradford game, we thought we’d share the interview online.
Forever Walking in a Wilson Wonderland
WSB: You joined as Assistant to Viv Anderson in the Summer of 1993 – talk me through your first impressions of the place?
DW: Viv was offered the job & didn’t want to take it unless I went with him so we had to have the agreement of Sheffield Wednesday to let us go. At the time, that was difficult as we’d been quite successful but we were coming towards of the end of our careers and Trevor Francis at the time was very good to let us both speak to Barnsley.
What Barnsley got at the time were two players & two managerial people for the price of one which was good business from the board’s point of view. We were still very fit – I was 34 & Viv slightly older. I knew I was good to play but whether or not I could combine everything is what would be difficult considering they were my first tentative steps in to coaching.
WSB: You had a difficult start at Oakwell didn’t you?
DW: It was tough all the way round. The rivalry between clubs is obviously there & we had to win the fans round which you do at any club. They knew about us both anyway because of the Wednesday link & they gave us a good run for our money – they grilled us intensely in matches, in our performances, the teams – it was under lots of scrutiny.
We also knew that the squad needed improving & it was a difficult time at the club considering the Taylor report & 3 sides of the ground closed. The atmosphere wasn’t the best, the fans were frustrated that they couldn’t stand up & it was very difficult.
WSB: You were named player of the season after that difficult start wasn’t you?
DW: Yeah, and I finished on that high because when I did take over as Player-Manager the workload was just impossible. No matter how fit I was & how much I’d enjoyed it there weren’t enough hours in the day. You couldn’t watch games midweek, get home at 1/2 in the morning & then be up for training the next day & be expected to give your all playing, coaching & lead the rest of the staff. That’s when I decided to retire.
WSB: How did you become Player Manager that summer of 94/95?
DW: I was expecting Viv to leave – he & Bryan Robson at that time were close friends & Viv had always said he’d told Bryan before he got the Barnsley job that when the time came for him to step in to management he’d go along with him & obviously Middlesbrough offered him the job.
That wasn’t surprising but what was surprising was me being offered the job. We’d put a lot of things in motion that season & spoken to the board about continuity. Whilst we’d both joined as players neither of us were playing anymore so we’d lost two players & then were potentially losing two staff members & John didn’t want that.
I was confident I could do the job – I sat with John & said I’d be prepared to do it & he offered me the job.
WSB: You had a great first season, finishing 6th in Division 1. What did you change to turn round the same group of players that finished 18th the previous year?
DW: Mentality. We had some good players anyway & they just got the belief as the fans did. The East Stand opened up & psychologically had a big impact. Also, when you stood back to look at the stand then you were very proud of it which then had another big impact which you shouldn’t under estimated.
Yes, we brought a bit of steel in but overall it’s the players – they just took to what we asked them to do. We were also playing some really big teams in that league which again gives you a lift, especially when you’re at home against them & if you get the odd result then confidence is sky high.
WSB: 1995/96, another solid finish in 10th without a massive amount of changes before significant changes in the summer of 96/97
DW: The younger ones coming through was the biggest thing. We made lots of changes at the end of 1995/96 with players coming to the end of their contracts & we’d seen one or two of the lads we wanted to bring in – Clint/Appleby/Thompson etc – and we knew we wanted to bring them in because they had a little more quality.
There were lots of reasons to do it but finances especially. We had to trim the squad & we went in to the 96/97 season with around 20 players. I just felt it was better to get a core group together with more quality than have more bodies in & have to chop & change it round and John & the board bought into it. Any chairman wants to cut everything so it was music to his ears when I said we’d have less bodies but it was the sensible thing to do. Generally, any team that’s successful uses a minimum amount of players & luckily we had very few injuries or suspensions which really helped us.
WSB: Do you think bringing in the experience of Thompson/Wilkinson & Hendrie had a big impact on the younger players who were coming through?
DW: They had a massive influence on Nicky, Andy Liddell, Dave Watson etc. They were good pros who had seen it and done it but were still very ambitious. Paul Wilkinson came in & did brilliant for us but we always felt he needed that sidekick & we knew it was John Hendrie. We struggled to get him first but we persevered & to come back and play alongside Wilko is what John wanted as much as anything. That work ethic those lads showed gave an example to the young lads of what was required to get to the top.
You’re forever saying, even now, to lads that it’s all about work rate. You give examples of players who were gifted & worked hard and they look at you gone out & think work rate comes secondary which it doesn’t.
WSB: The young lads had also had a good grounding with Eric too in the youth team – what impact did Eric have?
DW: Eric was brilliant. He’s like Rimmo, Barnsley through & through. Him knowing the kids once they’d got to the first time was great because he knew how far he could push them. Sometimes if I thought he was being a bit harsh he’d say ‘No, they’ve done it before & they can do it again’. He pushed them & helped them maintain their place which was fantastic.
Eric was great. He was tough but he was funny, had a serious side when he needed but all the young lads respected him.
WSB: It’s interesting to see the relationship he commands still today from his players, just like Rimmo did when you consider the wonderful turnout for his funeral.
DW: I was only talking to Mick a few weeks before and talking about ‘my mate’ & Mick was talking about Rimmo in the same way. The thing I liked so much about Norman was he’d speak to everyone the same way. It didn’t matter if he was talking to the Chairman, the ground staff or the Queen Mum, he’d speak to them in the same way. I loved that about him. He was also very honest & very transparent – if we’d not played well on the Saturday then we knew about it Monday. Not just me but the players too. He’d walk round telling them they’d been rubbish so if they’d had bad game they’d keep out of his way!
WSB: It was a who’s who of football at the funeral so it shows how much respect he commanded.
DW: Anyone that came to Barnsley games would always see Norman. Everybody knew him. He’d walk in to your office at any given time, no matter what was being discussed in terms of confidential subjects, no one would break their stride & continue chatting because he was that type of man – trustworthy, honest in his opinion & he’s such a big miss for me personally.
WSB: Did you see him after you left Oakwell?
DW: All the time, used to visit him all the time.
WSB: Back to the promotion season – when did you know we were on to something?
DW: There were different phases. Sometimes I can’t remember celebrations, for obvious reasons, but I can remember results & games. We went to WBA on the first game & won 2-1 – we played so well. A friend of mine who has nothing to do with football was in the stands & came after the game and just said ‘wow – what a performance’. We went there and murdered them.
After 3 or 4 games we beat Man City & Main Road & thought after that it wasn’t going to be a season of struggle. You get to Christmas time when we play Sheffield United at Bramall Lane & to go there & win like we did made me sit up & take notice.
We had a moderate spell after Christmas but I remember we played WBA at home which set us on another little run & that put us right up there. One game towards the end was Portsmouth away which we lost & I think everyone then thought we’d blown it. I remember being on the coach on the way back, a long drive, & thinking that it would be brilliant for us as the pressure was no longer on us – we weren’t nervous all week to win the game on Saturday & all the pressure was pushed back to Wolves.
WSB: Bradford. How did you approach the occasion?
DW: What we always did was make sure we prepared the team and gave guidance on the weaknesses of the opposition. However, we had lots of talented, off the cuff players like Marcelle, Bullock & Hendrie – he would do things you wouldn’t expect & out of the blue. You couldn’t tell them what to do in certain areas as they’d just do it anyway so we had to make them relaxed. I think the day before we had a fun day, bit of a laugh, gave the lads the opportunity to have a beer at home if they wanted to and tried to instil a ‘what will be will be’ mentality to relieve the pressure.
But, when we did get there, you could see one or two nerves because the fans expected it – we were getting 10k max towards the end of the season and suddenly we had 18,000 with fans spilling over behind the goals etc. We knew then we had to keep our nerve & play how we knew we could.
WSB: I still think it was written in the stars we’d win, especially considering him missing an open goal from 3 yards.
DW: I played with John Dreyer at Luton. I was delighted a defender got that chance as any striker would’ve scored it.
We still had a long way to go at 1-0 and it wouldn’t have been enough going into the last few moments & when you consider one goal may stop you getting promoted the nerves would’ve been kicking in.
WSB: Clint goes through, little stutter & pops it into the corner – how does that feel.
DW: Heaven. That’s the dream isn’t it? Everyone went bananas! The emotions were ridiculous, we were high as kites. Whilst you’re trying to keep calm & give instructions you know in the back of your mind that you’re up & you’ve done it. Brilliant.
WSB: Ref blows up – what then?
DW: We couldn’t get off the pitch. I’ve got blokes snogging me and the emotion was unreal. When I look back at the whole picture, especially those like John Dennis who have been at the club all their lives will you better but the transition in those 3 years was just incredible & happened so quickly. All the hard times were forgotten – protests about the Taylor report, the hard times in the Town etc were forgotten.
WSB: And considering the tough times the Town had been through with the Strike…
DW: It was incredible. The football club is always at the heart of every community but we did see it then. In adversity, with people on the dole & the world falling down around them with work, the club galvanising the place can’t be taken lightly. It proved that football is the centre of communities.
WSB: Where do you even start in terms of planning how to tackle the Premier League?
DW: We started straight away, I promise you. We had a few drinks after and I remember saying to Eric ‘Fuck me, we need some players now!’ Eric started laughing & said let’s have a drink first before thinking about that!
It was so quick as we knew we didn’t have a lot of time. We had to get in quickly for players but we didn’t know what budget we were going to have – within a week we sat down with the Board to see what the budget would be. I think we spent somewhere in the region of £5 million in total over the entire season. I remember Man Utd signed Henning Berg that season for the same amount & Teddy Sheringham for £3.5m & I’m sat thinking ‘We’ve got a full squad to buy for that!’ It hit home then it’d be tough but we knew that & were up for the challenge.
WSB: What was it that attracted you to the players you brought in that pre-season?
DW: Price. Simple as. We had no choice. The homegrown players we wanted to get we had no chance of affording. Firstly we needed strikers – we knew you can shut up shop for so long but if you’ve no threat then you might as well not bother. We tried on a few occasions for some experienced lads but there was nothing doing. Players thought we’d be a one season wonder which was understandable. They’d look at our squad & there were no internationals and overall that was the biggest frustration – we had to go abroad. Then it’s off recommendations – a friend who’s been abroad to watch games on a regular basis for another club you’d tap into him as we did before with Clint & Jovo. We got recommendations from Bobby Robson & Charlie Woods, his right hand man. They were out in Porto and Bobby recommended Clint to us. You’ve got to trust their judgement & who wouldn’t trust Bobby Robson? You had to do that as we had no overseas scouting network.
It’s obviously very different to today where you can get clips & videos of lots of players. We did have footage but it was very difficult as you never knew when the footage was shot – when he comes through the door he’s an old man and the videos from ten years ago! You had to get them in the country for a trial which was always difficult as they wanted to sign straight away. And then you’re stuck because if they’re shit they’re shit & you’ve dropped one which was unfortunately the gamble we had to take at times.
WSB: West Ham at home – blazing sunshine, everyone high as a kite – did it feel different?
DW: Prior to that, everyone was talking about West Ham & thinking they were there for taking as they’d struggled the previous season. I’m trying to keep people calm, saying they were no mugs as they’d been in the division for years which we had to respect. I tried to keep feet on the ground – the fans, I had no chance but the players you could. The fans were up with the fairies for a season – they were unbelievable all year.
The one thing that smacked me straight in the face as we stood in the tunnel before the game was the size of West Ham. They were absolutely massive. We had an inkling the size of the players in the league when we played Aston Villa in the cup a couple of years before. We played Villa and got murdered – they out muscled us. You don’t get the right impression from the stands or TV – they’re giants some of them lads. We lost the game 2-1 & thought that might bring everyone down to earth a bit. They struggled the previous season but beat us & we had to get ready for the next challenge.
WSB: Is that why you brought in more physicality in the season with Ward & Fjortoft?
DW: We had to – we had no choice. If we hadn’t brought any physical presence in then we’d have been down at Christmas. Although we had good players the other sides had good players who were strong & quick to go with it. You could get away with the lack of physicality in Division 1 but there was no hiding place in the Premier League.
WSB: Would you change anything looking back on that season?
DW: Not really – as ever, it’s the players that dictate things. You’ve got to get the best out of the players you’ve got. If you have a team of flair players there’s no point putting men behind the ball & sitting back & that’s what we had. Good players who could get at people. We were always a threat to other sides & caused them problems. We were never fearful of the attacking side of the game – we were fearful of when we had to defend because we didn’t have the physicality to cope with corners & crosses going into the box.
We were a bit naïve sometimes, bombing forward with youthful enthusiasm which you can’t take away but there were times to do it & times not to which we got mixed up sometimes. But would I change anything? No, with the squad we had I wouldn’t change a lot – we made a real good go at it, especially after Christmas.
WSB: Liverpool at home brought that good run to an abrupt end – what’s your memories of that day?
DW: Bloody awful refereeing. I remember being stood with Roy Evans, their manager. We were stood on the slope on the tunnel, looking at each other asking each other what was going on. He’d lost complete control of the game.
We say that sometimes Referees don’t understand the consequences of their actions. I suppose they’re not that bothered, they have to do their job on the day and I get that. However, there comes a time when they’ve got to be understanding of ‘you know what, if I send this kid off for something innocuous they might lose him for three games & they might be done’. They don’t think that way – is it right or is it wrong? I think it’s a toss of a coin – there has to be an understanding of what the referee is taking on when they go out on to the pitch. On the day he got it wrong, really wrong and he did it early doors which meant we lost players we couldn’t afford to lose in Shez, Darren Barnard & Chris Morgan.
WSB: You’re stood in the dugout – what’s your reactions?
DW: It was an incompetent performance but the aftermath hurt us more. We could’ve lost that game – people expected us to lose anyway but you can take that on the chin & move on. We couldn’t because of losing those lads.
WSB: And then we didn’t have a great run to the end of the season did we?
DW: We lost momentum. We had lads who had never been in that position before who felt aggrieved & that the world was against them and carried those decisions with them through the week. You can’t do that – you’ve got to forget about them, dust it off & get ready for the next game & I don’t think one or two did that but it was difficult. You then start doubting where the result comes from & it took a little while to get the belief back. Some lost it but lots didn’t.
That game was absolutely a pivotal point, definitely.
WSB: What’s your abiding memory of the season?
DW: It’s difficult to say. I remember losing Sheffield Wednesday late on to a Paolo Di Canio goal. That put doubts in my mind then – we’d played well enough to win the game, I remember it vividly. If we’d got a point in that I felt we had a chance considering the tough few games we had coming up. That was a big game for me & rocked me as I fancied us to beat them.
OF the whole season, I just remember it being brilliant. Honestly, sitting there losing games & feeling the ups and down but every game the fans were absolutely enormous. I’ve never heard fans be like that consistently. Not a grumble either. It was a wonderful time.
WSB: Did you ever consider the magnitude of your achievements?
DW: No because as players & managers you’re expected to have success – we were very proud of our achievement but disappointed it wasn’t prolonged. It’s only looking back where you realised how big it was, against the odds.
Back to the fans, I also remember thinking how well they’d gelled with opposition fans too – I don’t remember a single bit of bother during games & everyone got on. It was a party atmosphere & that little bit of humility that we showed was brilliant & every fan warmed to us. We were everyone’s second team that year & everyone wanted us to stay up.
WSB: Leicester away was your last game in charge, how does your move to Wednesday come about?
DW: I didn’t know anything about it – if I remember rightly I got a call from John to say Sheffield Wednesday had come in & they’d agreed compensation. I always think once a club agrees compensation then they’re willing to let you go. I could’ve turned round & said no, I’m going nowhere but it was Sheffield Wednesday. That’s the only reason. I said at the time and I say it today that if it had been any other club in mid table Premier League it would never have happened. But I’d made so many friends over there, so many people were still involved, the fans were brilliant to me throughout my time & sometimes if you get an opportunity you might not get it again you have to take it. John had said to me if I wanted to go he wouldn’t stand in my way & that’s what happened.
WSB: How different a club was Wednesday to Barnsley?
DW: Two things – one the team had struggled like we had the season before, 5 points or so above us. Secondly, the expectation was ten times higher, simply because of the attendances. I knew what was expected. Then what comes with that is the type of player you have, a different type of approach. You’ve not got players who are happy to try & stay up – these are established players, internationals, who needed something different. First season we did ok, finished mid table which was an improvement. Then after that it all went tits up – players leaving, having to a cut a wage bill, promises that weren’t kept and that really frustrated me.
WSB: Did you ever want to take anyone from Barnsley with you?
DW: I’d have loved to have brought Eric with me. But Eric was Barnsley through & through & I didn’t think it was fair. I mentioned it to him but never really said he could come. You have to remember it happened so quickly – if I remember rightly, John was appointing John Hendrie & he needed help and I think he was kept to help John.
WSB: Just over 15 years later, you’re back at Oakwell for your second spell. How did that happen?
DW: I got a phone call, I was sat at home to see if I’d come in for a chat with Patrick Cryne, Maurice Watkins & Barry Taylor. We went to the owners house, had a chat & they offered me the job. Told me what to expect – tough job, maybe the squad wasn’t good enough which I agreed but we’d try & make a fist of it. Unfortunately, it was never going to happen. There was too much going on at that club at the time. There were players who the fans didn’t want to be there, some of the players didn’t want to be there either and found it difficult to play at home – all things you had to contend with before you even got on the pitch.
WSB: Ever worried about the old ‘never go back’ stuff?
DW: After all the times we’d had there was never a doubt in my mind but there was always a doubt in the fans. We’re doing a job – we have to try & remove ourselves from the emotions & focus on the task in hand. The emotive side is the ‘don’t come back, you left us’ and all that but you have to put that behind you. You have to be Rhino skinned and I am. Big style. And from that point of view it has to help you in your management & decision making. Everyone has an opinion & lots of people will say ‘I told you so’ but haven’t a bloody clue what they’re talking about. Going back was never a problem for me.
WSB: How had it changed?
DW: The whole shell had changed. What we’d managed to achieve, which John will say more than I will, was we’d left a legacy & it’s there to be seen in the stadium & the facilities. When I look back and say we only spent £5 million, we could’ve spent double that and still been relegated with nothing to show for it. I think that was good business from the board.
When I walked back in, I was very proud & I thought we’d helped to make all this happen as now without a very rich benefactor you’d never have a facility like that & the Premier League gave us it.
WSB: What did Rimmo have to say to you when you first walked back in?
DW: I used to speak to him all the time – it was if I’d never been away. He’d just wander in to the office with a brew as if I’d never been away. Honestly, it was funny in that respect. Every morning, guaranteed, he’d come strolling in at half 8 giving it the ‘now then Danny lad how tha doin, ar tha laikin’? First thing he said to me was ‘how yer laikin?’ and I never had a clue what he was on about.
WSB: Was it a difficult situation to go back in to?
DW: It was because that situation had already developed & I felt one or two players didn’t feel wanted and couldn’t wait to get away. If they weren’t playing they were moaning & groaning & that doesn’t help a team that’s not winning games. By the way, we had some good players & I do think that one or two got treated harshly because of the situation that had developed. I know that Keith & Flicker brought some good players but when I took over they were very low on confidence which had to be rectified straight away but some fans had made up their mind which was difficult for some of the players.
WSB: Big shake up that January – were you confident at the end of January we had a chance?
DW: It was the last throw of the dice and we had to take what was available to us. We also had to get the wage bill down which was within the remit too. My argument was we could stay up but you have to freshen it up because the players we had then wouldn’t do that. Even if it’s someone who can come in & give you 5 games – it doesn’t matter. 5 games of winning could be the difference and we brought players in that we felt might have given us a lift. It worked in a couple of games.
One or two players who came from the Premier League maybe thought it was beneath them playing in the Championship and didn’t do as well as you’d expect but if you’ve got that attitude you don’t last in football & some have drifted away anyway.
WSB: Was it always a longer term view from you? Did you ever doubt if you’d be in charge the following year?
DW: There was always doubt when you get relegated. I’m never scared of putting my neck above the parapet – if I’m there, I’m there to be shot at and a lot of people are like turtles, you don’t see them until things go well again. I remember Arsene Wenger saying ‘as a coach, you’re the face of the team and if you can’t be seen by anyone you’re not a leader’. Even in adversity, you’ve got to stand up to be counted which is what I wanted the players to do.
We knew there needed to be massive changes as the wage bill was massive – we had to get it down & under no uncertain terms I was told it had to come down. What happens then though is that whilst you may not have the quality for the Champiosnhip you have it for League One. So if you started again, bringing cheaper players in all the time then results will suffer. We couldn’t keep the ones we wanted to keep & then you try to replace them & you never get what you want.
WSB: Looking back, it was only towards the end of preseason you could bring anyone in
DW: Well we couldn’t until Chris had gone. Steele yes he was going abroad but Chris was the main one we had to get off the wage bill. All that’s understandable – you’ve got to be sustainable. Today they call it a model that works & at that time we were losing money.
Every club will wait until the last minute to get the very best deal and then all the wiggle room is gone & you’ve got to do what you can, that’s the problem.
WSB: By the end of preseason you’d brought in Conor, Adam Davies, Sam Winnall, James Bailey etc – were these the lads you wanted or was it more down to what was available at the time?
DW: We had to bring in younger players to the club where there’s some potential value. I remember saying to Patrick at the time that Peterborough’s model had served them well & to take a look at them and I think that opened his eyes, he’s done it since & it’s worked very, very well for them.
They’ve sold very well & that’s the approach they needed – bringing in younger players, develop them and sell them on whilst getting good deals.
WSB: The board were clear at the time they were going to do things differently with this strategy – were you frustrated not to get more of an opportunity to see that project through?
DW: Yes, of course. We’d put all the ideas to each other. However, there is a time where one side of the club wants to take on more responsibility for that side of things that you have to stand your ground and say ‘I don’t think that’s right’. For example, if I said I didn’t think that player was right yet, I’d be told that he would be right in 12 months’ time – the challenge then is to not expect them to go straight into the team and flourish because it’s a tough league & you have to have some sort of success on the pitch for the fans.
You’re always educating the fans though – now they know that system works & they accept it, is it only a short term thing or will it work over a longer period of time I don’t know. It’s going to be difficult to keep bringing in younger players from down the leagues & selling them on but the model’s a good idea on paper.
WSB: Did you know Conor was going to be as good as he turned out to be for us?
DW: Yes. I said to him from day 1 – I remember meeting him in a hotel & I told him then that he could get another move if he performed anywhere near like he can consistently which he has. He can be a top premier league player & there’s no reason why he won’t be, either with Villa or another side.
If he performs again consistently with Villa then he’ll no doubt get a move to the Premier League. Conor needs to be playing at the highest level he can – the lower down the league he goes, the less of an impact he’ll have on games. He needs to be playing where teams are better than just banging it long – he needs to be on the ball & have players who can find him because he always knows where the next pass is going to go and that’s the biggest compliment I can pay him. The higher he goes, the bigger the impact.
WSB: Speaking of someone who turned out to be half decent – you had Hecky on your staff?
DW: I did – he is an outstanding coach and has worked very hard to get to the position he is at now. All the players he has worked with have the upmost respect for him. He is intelligent, a student of the game but is strong in his principles. In my opinion he will be one of the talked about coaches when big jobs get banded about and rightly so. I’m very pleased for him.
WSB: Your second spell ended quite abruptly – how does that come about? A knock on the door? A phone call?
DW: Yeah, a knock on the office from Maurice – who’s the nicest gentleman I’ve ever met – and Ben Mansford. Both came in, Ben was very sheepish so I knew straight away. I can sense these things, I probably knew a week before – things you want done that don’t happen – you know it’s coming.
I’m not one to rant & rave when it does happen because I understand it – it’s football. It’s what our industry has been made into these days. It frustrates me like mad, makes me angry for a few days too but then I get over it because that’s what you have to do. I have that mentality – I can focus on the good that’s going to come & I always will. I’m certainly not one to go to newspapers saying it’s a shit club etc and I never would. For me, it’s a privilege to be asked to lead something that everyone loves. It doesn’t work all the time, football has more disappointments than success, but that little bit of success is worth all the shit that gets thrown at you.
WSB: Still feel an affection towards Barnsley?
DW: Oh God yeah. The memories I have of that club will be imprinted on my mind until the day I die.