Sheffield United nostalgia: Jason Holyhead’s book chronicles Blades’ 1982 championship-winning season
The author’s only disappointment about writing Ain’t Got a Barrell of Money was that the passage of time left him unable to tap into more memories.
“From a lot of the people I’ve spoken to on Twitter, it seems for most fans around my age – I’m 51 – the Fourth Division was the best season in memory for most of us, at least until the last few seasons,” says Holyhead, who works in finance.
“Although it was the season in the lowest division ever (in the club’s 133-year history), because we won and we won regularly and won well, people loved it.
“I think people are really nostalgic about football and because we’d not won anything for so long, people look fondly on when we did.”
What started out as a blog became a book when Holyhead found himself with some unwanted time off, and he confirms the hints within its pages are true – he already has plans for more, quite possibly a trilogy. But he chose the break-up of the great team featuring the likes of Tony Currie as his starting point.
“At the time I started writing it we were doing really well and on course to go into the Premier League,” he recalls.
“I was sat in the South Stand with my dad thinking next season we were probably going to be whipping boys.
“That set me thinking because I’d been writing blogs and various other things for sites like Over the Bar.
“Then I slipped three discs and was off sick for three months and that’s when what started out as a blog became a book.
“The difficulty I had writing it didn’t really dawn on me until I started trying to talk to people and realised most of them are dead.
“I spoke to one or two, though.
“Ted Hemsley was brilliant, I went to his house and spent a couple of hours sat in his conservatory, which was lovely, but that took two years to set up and it was originally meant to be him and Len Badger but unfortunately Len got quite ill and died (in May 2021), so that was quite sad.
“Before I spoke to Bill Dearden I spoke to a few people in the game who said he has good days and bad days and some days his memory’s not very good and he’s struggling but I was lucky I got him on a good day.
“It was difficult and lovely to speak to them but sad at the same time because you remember them as your sporting heroes and now they are old men who can’t remember things.
“All of them were as happy to talk about it as I was, though – I think they just like to be remembered.”
He has tried to write the book in a way that jogs memories.
“I think what makes it a little bit different to other books is I’ve put news snippets in for people to relate to because although some of the games I remember incidents or goals but get confused about who it was or what I did afterwards,” he explains. “If you can link it to the day after Elvis died or the miner’s strikes or whatever it was, people can relate to it more.”
As with so many walks of life, Covid-19 added complications, although it helped in other ways.
“Covid made it a lot harder but it did have its advantages,” he points out.
“I talked to Mick Speight at length over various media but he lives in Norway now so going to speak to him in person was never going to be an option. So in some ways Covid helped, because it made it more normal to do things on Teams and so on.
“But trying to do it all by email or over the phone is not as good as doing it in person, so I tried to do it that way where I could.”
History repeated itself as he wrote the book, with the Blades again pushing for European qualification in the Covid-hit 2019-20, only to be relegated the next season. It seems the appointment of Paul Heckingbottom has quickly stopped the slide but Holyhead hopes the lessons of the past are taken on board.
“I think there are warnings there,” he says.
“As a fan you want them to do well but I was thinking if we follow the same trajectory as in my book, it almost becomes a prophecy! Fingers crossed that won’t happen!
“There’s a lot of debate about ‘The Poundship Prince’ (owner Prince Abdullah bin Musaid Al Saud) as a lot of fans call him but you never really know what to believe. It’s not that clear to the public whether he’s got any more or is willing to back the club and I think if they start deciding they want to develop things (plans for a new training ground have been much talked about, for example) and sell players to do that, it’s a downward trend.
“Building the South Stand (in 1975) to make an arena fit for the players we had meant we had to sell those players.
“As Malcolm Allison said, if you buy Third Division players, you end up in the Third Division. That’s what happened to us.
“I thought Heckingbottom was on a hiding to nothing (when he was appointed caretaker manager in March 2021) because whoever took over from Chris Wilder was never going to be liked. Heckingbottom coming in (temporarily) when he did was probably the right thing then and to replace him with somebody bad (Slavisa Jokanovic) and then bring him back has worked well. What I like about Heckingbottom is him bringing in Stuart McCall (as his assistant) with his connection to the club.
“I think what made Wilder so popular was the connection to the fans so I think the leadership team we’ve got now will be good.”
The whole exercise has whetted his appetite for more and there should be some happier storylines to come, although readers will have to wait for them.
“I loved doing it and I’m planning on doing a sequel or two,” he revealed.
“The plan at the moment is to start with the Fourth Division season of 1981-82 and that would lead up nicely to when the Premier League started. Brian Deane scoring the first Premier League goal would be a nice way to end that book, I think.
“Then there’s 92-2002 and so on until you get up to date but it takes three years to do so it’ll be a while!”
Ain’t Got a Barrel of Money: Sheffield United is published by Pitch.