THE RISE and fall of Sheffield Wednesday was one of the most alarming stories in the early years of the Premier League.
When it all kicked-off in 1992, the Owls had just finished third in the old First Division and had qualified for the UEFA Cup with runners-up Manchester United.
Eight years on, the Owls had been relegated to the Football League, strangled by debt.
Former chairman Dave Richards is often vilified by fans for his role in the decline but quit the Owls shortly before relegation to become chairman of the Premier League.
Richards, who was knighted for services to football in 2006, has rarely spoken about events at his former club since and was again ‘unavailable’ when invited to take part in this article.
But Graham Mackrell, one of his former allies at Hillsborough, is adamant that ‘Sir Dave’ does not deserve to carry the can.
Company secretary Mackrell also quit during the final season in the Premier League and is now director of administration at the League Managers’ Association.
Mackrell accepts, however, that the sacking of manager Trevor Francis in the summer of 1995 may have been harsh.
Only two years earlier, Francis had led the Owls to the finals of both the FA and the League Cup. The former England striker also steered the club to seventh spot in both 1993 and 1994 before dropping to 13th in his final campaign.
Compared to where the club has been since, these were heady days indeed.
Yet Richards, who famously conducted a ‘straw poll’ among supporters before wielding the axe, felt Francis was no longer the man for the job.
“It’s always easy to look back on events in hindsight but Trevor Francis’s record stands comparison with any other Sheffield Wednesday manager in history,” said Mackrell. “Only Howard Wilkinson had a better win ratio over the last 50 years and, with all respect to Howard, some of his time was not at the highest level.
“I have a lot of respect for the way Trevor did things at Hillsborough and his record was amazing. But once Trevor left, the club never seemed to get the momentum back.”
Under Francis, the Owls signed a string of top-class England internationals including Chris Woods, Des Walker and Chris Waddle. But he also developed lesser-known players into top performers, including Peter Atherton, Ian Nolan, and Paul Warhurst.
“When the Premier League started, Sheffield Wednesday were one of the best clubs around,” reflected Mackrell. “We had finished third in the last season of the Football League but, like Howard’s title success with Leeds, that is now often ignored.
“Where the club possibly went wrong was in trying to become one of the major players in the game. Over-ambition is not the worst thing in the world but they wanted to compete with the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal who had years and years of European experience and who were able to generate far more income. In my opinion, Dave Richards has been unfairly criticised.
“The decisions made by Sheffield Wednesday were decisions made by the board. There was a collective responsibility. At the end of the day, he had the club at heart. Maybe, because of the success the club had enjoyed in that period, decisions were made that were slightly more emotive than business-like.”
As money poured into football from Sky TV’s sponsorship of the Premier League, most clubs increased spending on player wages and there was a flood of new arrivals from the continent.
In the years after Francis’s departure from Hillsborough, the Owls took on many players who undoubtedly failed to justify the investment in their talent. Belgian striker Gilles De Bilde, French defender Patrick Blondeau, Dutch midfielder Wim Jonk were just a few of the big-name flops.
“It’s easy for me to say this now – and people will probably read this and say ‘Graham, why didn’t you speak up at the time?’ – but we possibly over-stretched ourselves in terms of trying to go the next step from being a mid-ranked Premier League club to one of the bigger players. The money involved in doing that is very significant and needed to be there.”
The Owls sold a 36.7 per cent stake in the club to venture capitalists Charterhouse which fuelled further spending and increased the debt. Only the unyielding support of the club’s biggest lenders, the Co-Operative Bank, prevented administration in the darkest days.
“At the time, it was in vogue, but it didn’t help,” says Mackrell. “A lot of clubs have de-listed in recent times as being a public company or being involved with venture capitalists is not necessarily the best model for a professional football club.
“Signing players such as Paolo Di Canio and Benito Carbone raised the profile of the club but a lot of expensive signings like De Bilde or Jonk then walked away for nothing. I was desperately disapppointed when the club got relegated but, unfortunately, it was not a great shock when you looked at the way the league positions had been going.”
Mackrell, 62, lives in Hertfordshire but is hoping to accept an invitation from the club’s current chief executive, Paul Aldridge, to attend a game at Hillsborough this season.
“Once the club was relegated to the Championship, things really started to go through the floor,” he added. “Those times in the early Nineties still bring back fond memories. It is going be difficult to get back into the Premier League but not impossible. However, I think it more likely under the current regime and the club doesn’t have the debts that other clubs now have.”