Derek & Sylvia Dooley, 6th April 1953

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
January 5, 2019

“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.” Derek Dooley

When Derek Dooley collided with Preston goalkeeper George Thompson on Valentine’s Day 1953, his leg broke in two places. The previous season, 46 of Dooley’s goals had powered Sheffield Wednesday to promotion and then, back in the First Divsion for 1952-53, a tally of 16 from 24 had added to a burgeoning reputation.

The double fracture needn’t have finished his career, but a gas gangrine infection in his right leg was the end and necessitated an amputation above the knee. At just 23, Dooley was no longer a footballer and his life had changed forever.

Interviewed by Arthur Hopcraft in The Football Man, Dooley comes across as good humoured and self-effacing. His injury evidently didn’t leave any lingering bitterness, at least none that he was prepared to share, and he would – of course – live a full and complete life. Football looked after him, too: his benefit game was the first to be played under Hillsborough’s floodlights and he bought the house in which he would live for the rest of his life from the proceeds.

“Of course it was hard at first. But when you’re standing on a touchline on a freezing day and someone next to you says: `God, it’s so cold both my feet have gone numb,’ you just have to laugh and say: `Yeah, but it’s only half as bad for me.'”

By the time of his passing, in 2008, he had managed Wednesday and then, part instructed by an acrimonious departure, rose through the executive structure across town at Brammall Lane. He was awarded the Freedom Of Sheffield in 1993, became an MBE in 2003 and, a decade after his death, remains a transcendant hero in the city. His statue stands in the red half of town, but he’s loved in every part of the Steel City.

This photograph, though, captures Dooley at what must have been the most uncertain point of his life. He and Sylvia are on their way home together for the first time since losing his leg and, while he wears a brave smile, her expression is entirely different. For her, the future looks terrifying. The couple do not have a home of their own, are not wealthy by any means, and her footballer husband of less than a year is now unskilled, unemployed and disabled.

Dooley grew up poor, both his parents were factory workers and, in those days, even a full and successful career wouldn’t have prevented him from having to return to working life in his thirties. Beyond the finances though, a dream had died: he had at least a decade of football ahead of him, most likely some semblance of an international career too, and that was snatched away by nothing more than bad luck.

Football wasn’t a ticket to the stars in the 1950s, the maximum wage wouldn’t be abolished until 1961, but it certainly offered a degree of mobility – a challenge to what, in The Football Man, Hopcraft referred to as the static nature of working class life. Presumably, it’s to those realities that Sylvia thinks they’re returning. Life has changed; it is no longer what it was supposed to be.

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