My Hero: David Hirst

FHM Cover featuring David Hirst

It’s September 1992.  The Premier League is a few weeks into it’s inception and the Murdoch’s begin their stranglehold over the British game and televised the first matches live on BskyB.  Media groups just can’t get enough of the sexy new image of football.

In September 1992 it is a footballer that graces the cover of FHM not a film star or singer.   Sheffield Wednesday and England striker David Hirst is chosen as the magazine’s rising star of Premier League era.

Twenty years later and the Premier League is an untouchable entity.  The Murdoch’s are embroiled in sleazy tactics and media inquiries but still maintain their grip on Premiership football and David Hirst has disappeared out of the consciousness of the game.  Hirst remains hidden in the hearts of many Sheffield Wednesday fan.

I came across the FHM magazine a few years ago when I temporarily moved back in with my parents.  It was in a box of Sheffield Wednesday memories I had collected over the years and in a particularly low moment I sat on the attic floor and read through the programmes, scrapbooks and the forgotten magazine to remind myself of better times.

Dressed in a sharp suit and the obligatory oversized knotted tie (seriously footballers should be taught how to tie one properly), Hirsty looks confident on the cover, a pose that befits the headline, Hirst Rate – Rise of the Goal King.

It’s almost heartbreaking to read the article again.  It is a snapshot of a time in football when there could have been a different face in the news reels of USA 94 and Euro 96.  The article is full of optimism and grandiose statements about David Hirst’s projected football career.  In the opening paragraphs FHM describe him as the ‘perfect centre forward’ and ‘the man most likely to occupy England’s number 9 shirt following Gary Lineker’s much lamented retirement from international football

Even in double denim David Hirst had the football establishment and sporting media at his feet.

In 1992, I was relatively new to attending matches.  I still tell people that I have been spoiled by this era.  Ron Atkinson’s Sheffield Wednesday may not have had the most individually talented players but they were the greatest team I have seen grace the Hillsborough turf.  This era sparked my devotion to the game and my love for the Owls Number 9.

I’ve never really stopped adoring David Hirst.  I remember him as a man who always had time to talk to the fans.  He could often be seen walking through the Hillsborough car parks and he would always say hello and smile at you.  I have Hirsty’s autograph about 30 times, purely because he was so easy to approach.  I have a signed piece of sample wallpaper from B&Q because it was the only thing in my handbag that I had for him to sign.

I believe his grounded approach was part of his success at Hillsborough.  Howard Wilkinson signed Hirst from Barnsley in 1986.  Despite his initial reservations about signing for a rival club, the move turned out to be a lasting relationship.  He even hosts his own match day events in Hirsty’s Bar in the South Stand.  Paid or unpaid, there are very few Sheffield Wednesday matches where you won’t see David Hirst supporting the team.

Many fans identified with Hirsty because he was a local lad who still frequented the pubs and working men’s clubs in the area, he liked a drink and never shied away from a conversation about football.  When I told a colleague I was writing this article he told me he used to have a kick about with Hirsty during the week then they would go to the pub after and round off the evening in the chippy across the road from the pub.

It’s unthinkable these days that a professional player would be allowed to have a kick about with friends the night before a game.  Players are the club’s greatest commodities and the thought of one of their team getting injured in a game of ‘Wembley’ must bring the accountants out in a cold sweat but that was David Hirst, a local lad who got felt he’d got lucky and didn’t change his lifestyle.

Hirst’s down to earth demeanour was to play an integral part in his own career and the future of Manchester United.  Sir Alex Ferguson tried to sign Hirst a reputed six times but each time he refused to move.  The last bid was around the £4 million mark and if it had been accepted would have been a new transfer record.

After his final bid, Ferguson looked elsewhere and within a few weeks he signed Eric Cantona from Leeds for £1.2 million.  The rest as they say is history.  Hirst himself still jokes with Manchester United fans that they have him to thank for their unparalleled success.  How different would it have been if he’d signed!

Hirst could have moved to Manchester United for the money but he chose to stay with the Owls.  It may have been a foolish career move but his decision to stay endeared him to Sheffield Wednesday fans and increased his legendary status.

Ferguson for all his failings as a human being, is a very astute football manager, and what he saw in Hirst is what every Sheffield Wednesday fan still remembers him for.  He had speed, no actually that’s wrong he had acceleration.  To this day I haven’t seen another player who can collect the ball with his back to goal, turn and run in the way that Hirsty used to.  His body strength and power were quite frankly frightening.  He remains in the top five fastest recorded shots at 114mph when it rattled the crossbar at Highbury in 1992.  Little did David Hirst know but this game would prove to be a pivotal one in his career.

The epitome of David Hirst the goal scorer can be seen in Sheffield Wednesday’s 5-1 win against Hull City in the 1990/1991 season.  Hirst scored four goals in the game, his first a stunning volley on the turn, the second an instinctive poachers goal, the third (and the most stunning) Hirst picks the ball up from the half way line and with his trademark turn accelerates towards the goal and deftly passes it past the keeper, his fourth is an easy tap in.

Each goal shows his skill but also his versatility, Hirst could score from anywhere on the pitch.  Add into this repertoire a bullet header and you can see why Sir Alex felt the need to keep coming back for further rejection.

The FA had taken notice of Hirst’s ability to score.  He made his international debut in 1991 and was capped three times.  Hirst scored his one and only England goal in a 2-0 win against New Zealand, keeping Alan Shearer out of the team.  Ex England captain Bryan Robson said ‘It’s not a question of who will replace Lineker but who will partner David Hirst.’  Alan Shearer has David Hirst’s Achilles to thank for his England career.

The sadness of the article is not evoked by the content of the FHM article but at the irony of it’s timing.  The interview appears to have been conducted during the close season because by the end of August 1992, David Hirst was at the beginning of the end of his career, thanks to Arsenal defender Steve Bould.  In the same match where he made history for the fastest recorded shot, a cynical tackle from behind by Bould broke Hirst’s ankle and by the time the magazine hit the newsstands Hirsty was already ruled out for six months.

Hirsty never recovered from this injury.  Despite his contributions to the epic 1993 cup runs against Arsenal and our venture into Europe, he began to lose pace and pick up further injuries.  As a Sheffield Wednesday fan you began to dread Hirst pulling up on the pitch because as we drew collective breath we knew that it meant at least six weeks out of the team.

Over the next four years Hirst struggled for fitness and his Owls career came to an unceremonious end when David Pleat sold him to Southampton for £2 million in 1997.  Pleat’s tenure as Sheffield Wednesday manager has many regrettable memories, most of which nearly bankrupted the club but his decision to sell David Hirst was unforgivable.  David Hirst’s loyalty was sold on.

David Hirst retired as a player in 2000 at the age of 33.  No longer the goal king and struggling with his fitness and weight, he disappeared into obscurity.

The FHM article is the essence of David Hirst, flash on the outside, humble on the inside.  Even twenty years later he can still evoke memories and feelings in me from a time where I saw my club on top of its game.

I will always be thankful to David Hirst because without him I wouldn’t have been the football fan I am today.

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