NO-NONESENSE working class bloke from Sheffield. Pulled himself up by his bootstraps. A die-hard Blade who relishes giving a straight answer to a straight question and views dissenting voices as a challenge not a criticism. One who lives and breathes Sheffield United and still has to occasionally pinch himself. Getting paid to play a prominent role in the life of a football club he has loved from being a nipper.
Acknowledging there is another team in the city could be an issue. In fact it may be enough to preclude him from ever getting a similar role on the dark side. I could be easily be talking about Chris Wilder but I’m not.
The description also fits Danny Hall, author of He’s one of our own, to be published in September, an extraordinary insight into Wilder's first two years in charge at S2.
If ever there was a man who encompassed all of what the ideal of being Sheffield-born-and-bred really means, you’ll realise that Dan’s your man within five minutes of first meeting him, as I did for this interview.
In February the journalist, just turned 28 who covers the Blades for local paper The Star alongside lead correspondent James Shield, had a proposal accepted by a publisher and was commissioned to tell a behind-the-scenes tale of the revolution which took place at Bramall Lane. Ninety thousand words to be delivered just three months later.
Hall not only met the daunting deadline while holding down his demanding full time job at the paper – “they’ve been great in supporting me,” he says – and getting engaged to be married, he produced a well thought out, labour intensive documentary-style book which tells the story from the perspectives of the manager’s office, key players, ex-Blades as well as fans in the stands. Along with contributions from former Blades and others associated with the club.
“The thinking was that I couldn't tell the story of what has really happened at United since Wilder arrived without contributions from him, obviously, but the players and the supporters as well,” says Hall. “The story has to be told from every perspective.”
He adds: “It kind of fell into my lap with the success of that first campaign. I should have maybe thought about it after that, but it suddenly it hit me this year - it has been so good under Chris Wilder, it needs committing to paper. I thought this could be a decent book to really get under the skin of him and write not only what he’s done, but how he’s done it.
“We’ve always explored that in The Star but to really understand it you need a lot more wordage and a lot more space.”
So is the Blades manager as easy to deal with as he appears to be in public? “I get on well with Chris. He might say differently! But he’s really good and the best I’ve dealt with. James [Shield] who has worked with many more than I have says Neil Warnock was very good.”
What about Wilder’s immediate predecessors Nigel Adkins and Nigel Clough? “Both Nigels were interesting for different reasons. I think Cloughy could turn very quickly. You never knew which one would turn up.
“Nigel Adkins just said the same thing week after week. It was almost a case of the first Press conference of the season, you could have recorded that and then played every week until the last game of the season and just changed the name of the team United were playing.
“Then Chris came in and you couldn’t really get two different people. Gone was all that kind of rubbish about the ‘wisdom of geese’ and ‘which is the biggest room in your house?’ [room for improvement]. I was there at the Press conference when he said that to Radio Sheffield’s Johnny Buchan and Johnny laughed, kind of awkwardly, and everyone else in the room just wanted the floor to swallow them up.
“Chris always answers the question. Other people will try to avoid it but you don’t get that with Chris. Then when the cameras and recorders are off and notebooks put away he has a chat with us, an opportunity to know him as a person a bit more. With previous managers, the cameras were switched off and that was it...done.”
Hall continues: “After the scenes when Chris took United up he said you’ve got to make the most of it because you’re only ever four or five games away from being the enemy again. It seems ridiculous now to think when they lost to Southend [3-0 at Bramall Lane] Chris was getting pelters.
“After the Millwall away game when United went bottom of League One and a guy from Sky asked him ‘do you fear for your job, Chris?’ – that was his fourth or fifth game in charge – he didn’t take that very well.
“But you can understand why the question was asked because that’s how ridiculous football is now. A lot of people remember the appointment of Micky Adams, quite similar to Chris in terms of background. A big Blades fan, managed at some decent clubs and worked his way up. Of course, it went horribly wrong and there were a few people worried that maybe the club had done it again. It shows you the value of patience.”
For an old school journalist like myself, and also a dyed-in-the-wool Blade, it’s good to see that Hall, despite his allegiance, takes a more balanced approach when wearing his professional hat. Although it’s a safe bet The Star’s Sheffield Wednesday – there, I’ve said it – correspondent Dom Howson is not looking over his shoulder.
One of Hall’s jobs on match days is to provide player evaluations and mark their performances out of ten. “I’ve been quite lucky, I haven’t had to give too many bad marks. Maybe if I’d been doing it in the Adkins season it would have been a little bit different!
“I’m assured that they all read them. James tells me that Paddy Kenny [United’s former goalkeeper] was really keen on reading his ratings and wasn’t shy about telling him if he didn’t agree with it. But no, I’ve been lucky so far. To be fair, professional footballers know when they’ve had a bad game. You’re not talking out of turn. But 90 per cent of the time it has been really positive. Touch wood.”
Agreeing with my assertion that Mark Duffy was United’s player of the season just gone, not just for what happened at Hillsborough in the Steel City derby but for his consistent contribution, Hall says: “When United were at Forest he got one of the few nines I’ve ever given. He was absolutely unreal and when you think the guy's 32...brilliant.”
One of the most intriguing chapters in the book concerns Wilder’s relationship with his No2 Alan Knill. “I kind of knew when I asked the question what he was going to say but I still find it interesting that they don’t socialise.
“Like he says, though, it probably helps because it’s purely a business relationship and when he wants to tell Chris something, he does. Because he’s not worrying about upsetting him. It’s quite an interesting dynamic for me, especially in the part of the book where he talks about Chris being his No2 at Bury.
“At a lot of clubs there’s a No1 and a No2 and the roles are really defined. But at United it's not really like that. Of course Chris is the manager and he makes the decisions and if it all goes wrong it goes on his head. But Chris, Knilly and Matt Prestridge are all part of the brains trust if you like. Knilly’s been everywhere with Chris and the fact that they’re not close friends... I find that fascinating.”
All manager’s worth their salt read what the local paper is saying about their club but some are so insecure they won’t admit to it. Does Wilder devour The Star? “Yes, Chris reads a lot of the stuff,” says Hall. “He doesn’t pull people up but he’ll mention it. He’ll kind of laugh it off if there is something he doesn’t agree with.
“I think he recognises that there is a job to do. We have a manager and journalist Christmas party every year for the whole of Yorkshire and he’s been coming since he was at Halifax. Even when he was at Oxford and Northampton he came every year so the local writers got to know him before he got the Blades job.
“He has an understanding of us as journalists. Some people keep their distance because they don’t understand the job but luckily Chris does. If he doesn’t agree with anything he’ll tell us because he’s an opinionated bloke but it’s not one of those things where he’ll bear a grudge.”
Hall, who worked as a shelf stacker at Tesco whilst at the same time cutting his teeth as a journalist doing regular casual shifts at The Star before earning a staff job, doesn’t bear a grudge either.
He’s forgiven his parents – “I was born in Longley, five minutes from Hillsborough. On a big night at Hillsborough I could here the crowd if I opened the door. Almost everyone at my school was a Wednesday fan.” But he remains thankful that his dad brought him up to support a proper club.
No hard feelings for his English and media studies teacher at Parkwood High School – “at the time the worst rated in Sheffield and one of the lowest in the north,” – who, Danny recalls, told him he would never do anything with his life.
The school’s poor performance didn’t concern Hall. “I thought it was brilliant. I wouldn’t swap it to go to Silverdale or ’owt like that. The kind of things you learn and the people you meet, the life lessons and not having everything given to you, I really enjoyed it. Even though there were so many Wednesday fans!"
The teacher to whom Hall referred was in football parlance clearly having a stinker. Hall left with 13 GCSE’s and added three A levels at Longley Park Sixth Form College – “it is just a bit further away from Hillsborough, so I knew I was going the right way” – before graduating from Sheffield Hallam University with a first class BA honours degree in journalism.
He has since been recognised nationally by the Society of Editors who named him Sports Journalist of the Year as well as winning a Yorkshire regional crown. It was always on the cards. The youngster, aged 11 who already knew he wanted to be a journalist, was named Sports Journalist of the Future by Yorkshire County Cricket Club.
“If I saw her now she’d probably say it was a clever ploy to get the best out of me. But no, she meant it. I’ve not met her since but I’d love to. Not long after I left, the school became an academy and she got binned off, so I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusion.
“I love stuff like that. People saying that they doubt you. That’s why I don’t mind talking about the school that I went to. It was in Shirecliffe where Kell Brook grew up [and where United’s training complex is]. I did a piece with him a couple of years ago about what it’s like being from a neighbourhood like that.
“It’s not poverty don’t get me wrong but it’s also not Dore. He said boxing saved his life because so many people he went to school and grew up with were either dead or in prison. It’s maybe not as black and white as that but I quite enjoy the whole working class hero thing.
“One of my favourite artists, Pete McKee, did a whole exhibition on it recently and I found it fascinating. It reinforced the message that being working class isn't something to be ashamed of.”
Hall’s introduction to the world of newspapers came at Longley Primary. “We used to do painting so they would cover the desks with The Star, of all things. At the end of the time the teacher would come round to have a look at what was done and I’d done nothing because I used to put the painting aside and just look at the pages.
“That was the first time I knew it was an actual job. People actually get paid to watch football and write about it. At that age when you play football and realise you are not going to be a professional, I thought: ‘I’ll have some of that’.”
To order a copy of Danny Hall's He's one of our own, which was published in early September, click on the image of the book here.