If there is one tale that encapsulates why David Hirst is a cult hero among Sheffield Wednesday fans — myself included — it is this.
At 8.30am on the morning of New Year’s Day, 1990, Hirst and the rest of his Wednesday team-mates had checked out of their rooms in a Sheffield hotel and had headed downstairs to the restaurant.
The Wednesday players needed a good breakfast inside them as they would be playing Manchester City at Hillsborough at noon, but their manager Ron Atkinson had left a little treat out for them too.
“I put a bottle of pink champagne on every table,” Atkinson recalls 29 years on. “I said to the lads: ‘Right everyone, have a glass each and wish each other a happy new year. Come on, it won’t hurt us. Then we’ll get off to the game.’”
As Wednesday fans will know, Hirst is a man who loves a good swill, so he gladly accepted Atkinson’s offer. What “Big Ron” did not know was that Hirst did not have one glass of champagne. He had upwards of six. Roland Nilsson, the Swedish right back, and a few other Wednesday players were not big drinkers. They had not touched their glasses, so Hirst embarked upon what he described to team-mates as a “minesweeping operation” to scoop up any untouched champagne, and he struck gold. “I had probably six or seven or maybe eight glasses that morning,” Hirst would later recall.
This would ordinarily be enough to make a 22-year-old man pine for his bed, but not “Hirsty”. He was a well-built 5ft 11in unit who could handle his booze, so he thought nothing of getting on that coach to Hillsborough.
What followed further underlines his status as a Wednesday legend. Not only did Hirst put Wednesday ahead, he also came to his team’s rescue at the other end of the pitch by taking the goalkeeper’s gloves after Kevin Pressman went off injured following a tackle by David Oldfield.
Hirst broke a finger but still managed to keep a clean sheet and Wednesday won 2-0 against one of their rivals in the battle for top-flight survival.
Hirst holds the world record for the fastest recorded shot in historyJULIAN HERBERT FOR THE TIMES
“We didn’t have any substitute goalies then,” Atkinson explains. “Carlton Palmer was just about to put the goalie’s shirt on and then all of a sudden Hirsty flies down the field, knocks him out of the way, grabs the shirt and puts it on.
“At the end of the game he takes a bow in the middle of the pitch to all corners of the ground. It was only a couple of years later that the lads told me the real reason he wanted to go in net — because he was knackered after his minesweeping episode.”
Hirst scored 106 goals in 294 appearances for the club he loved. He had all the attributes that top strikers dream of. He was aggressive, tenacious, a superb header of the ball and could strike venomously from range and close distance with either foot. In 1996, the left-foot volley that he struck the crossbar against Arsenal at Highbury was clocked at 114mph. It remains the fastest recorded shot in history and Hirst has a certificate from the Guinness Book of Records in his downstairs toilet to prove it.
As a boy, I remember hanging around the car park behind the South Stand with my dad hoping to get players’ autographs as they arrived. Hirst’s was the one I’d cherish above most. We are not related, but I would sometimes tell my school friends that he was my uncle.
Hirst had a penchant for scoring spectacular goals from long distance. Whenever the ball dropped at his feet the Hillsborough Kop held its breath.
“I remember playing at Newcastle once and Hirsty picked the ball up on the halfway line with his back to goal,” recalls Chris Turner, the former Wednesday goalkeeper.
“It was injury time, and we were 2-1 up so you think he’s going to run it into the corner, but instead he cuts inside, starts running towards goal and he smashes it right in the top corner. That was Hirsty.”
Hirst had pace in abundance too. Whether over short or long distances, he would regularly win athletics competitions at school. He scored some important goals too, like the equaliser against Arsenal that took the 1993 FA Cup final to a replay, which Wednesday ultimately lost, and the second goal in the 1991 Rumbelows Cup semi-final first leg win over Chelsea. Wednesday would go on to win the cup after defeating Manchester United in the final even though they were in the second division at the time.
Sir Alex Ferguson tried to sign him six times, but on each occasion, the then-United manager received the same response: “He is not for sale.”
Had he not suffered a series of ankle and knee injuries, Hirst would have replaced Gary Lineker as England’s primary attacker in the early 1990s. He ended his career with just three caps.
The reason why Wednesday fans hold Hirst in such high regard is not because he did not push to leave for United, nor is it because of the volume of goals that he scored. He is adored because he embodies the dreams of every Wednesday fan. He is a working-class lad who grew up in Cudworth, an impoverished Barnsley village. His father was a miner and his mother worked in a bakery.
During his school years, Hirst would play Sunday and Saturday league football with grown men. He went through Barnsley’s youth system and had one year in the first team before Howard Wilkinson paid £250,000 to bring Hirst to Hillsborough, which was a huge amount in 1986, especially for an 18-year-old.
He immediately became a popular figure within the dressing room. “Hirsty is arguably the funniest footballer I’ve ever come across,” said Atkinson, who managed Hirst for two years at Wednesday. “His one liners were brilliant.”
When it came down to business, he took his job seriously, but off the pitch, he was a bit of a wind-up merchant. Hirst would cut holes in the socks of his team-mates when they were in the showers to wind them up. He would regularly mock John Harkes’ American accent on trips to games.
Hirst was old school by today’s standards. On Saturday nights he would pop up in drinking establishments across south Yorkshire. Wilkinson, Atkinson, and his successor Trevor Francis knew this, but as long as he kept scoring goals, they had no problem with him doing so.
Hirst was also a regular in the pub when he was injured. Rumour has it that during one layoff, the Wednesday medical staff were worried that Hirst was putting weight on. They knew that keeping Hirst out of the pub was going to be difficult so rather than try to ban him from doing so, they advised him to change his tipple from Barnsley Bitter to gin and tonic.
For Wednesdayites, Hirst symbolises the club’s most successful era in recent times. With Hirst in the team, Wednesday visited Wembley four times in three years. As well as winning the Rumbelows Cup — their most recent piece of major silverware — they qualified for Europe after finishing third in the top flight.
They were simply irresistible to watch. Carlton Palmer worked tirelessly. John Sheridan, probably the best midfielder in the club’s history, developed a telepathic relationship with Hirst. Chris Waddle would later arrive to add more stardust from the wing.
It was also the most romantic era of the club’s recent history. On the week of the Rumbelows Cup final, they travelled down to London on two coaches — one for the squad and another for the wives and girlfriends. Atkinson held a champagne reception at the Lancaster Hotel on the Friday night after conducting an impromptu training session in Hyde Park.
The night before the final, Hirst and Turner, who roomed together on away trips, took a few cans of lager to bed with them
“In that cup run we’d always had a couple of beers in the room the night before the games,” Turner says. “We thought: ‘We’ve won every game so far doing this, we can’t stop now, so we took three or four cans out of the fridge and drank them even though we were playing in the final the day after. That’s just how we were.”
On the morning of the final, Hirst played snooker with Viv Anderson. After the 1-0 win, he was sinking cans of Hoffmeister in the dressing room with Stan Boardman, the Liverpudlian comedian who was friends with Atkinson. Earlier that day on the team coach, Boardman grabbed the microphone, told a few jokes to relax the players. Upon seeing a sea of blue and white shirts as they turned on to Wembley Way, Boardman remarked: “This lot here have used all their giro to get here today so make sure you don’t let them down.”
Hirst left for Southampton in 1997 and would retire three years later. He started working the hospitality suites at Hillsborough and joined the academy’s coaching staff in 2013, but left four years later following a conflict with the club, some say because of their treatment of his son George Hirst, who was not getting any first team action under Carlos Carvalhal despite excelling in the youth teams.
George Hirst left for OH Leuven, the Belgian club last summer. His father rejected an invitation to Wednesday’s 150th anniversary dinner in 2017. “It’s a great pity that his relationship [with the club] has soured,” Atkinson says.
Hirst’s relationship with the club’s supporters will never be broken though.