The moment when Derek Dooley's football career was cut short
BY Marvin Close
15th Nov 2023 Sport
4 min read
Football legend Derek Dooley went into the hospital with a fractured leg, only to then discover that he would have to lose the entire limb–or his life
Derek Dooley, "The Thug"
It was Valentine’s Day and Sheffield Wednesday striker Derek Dooley was on cloud nine. Newly married and deeply in love, he’d started to find his feet in the top division and by February 14, 1953 he had managed to score 16 goals.
Still only 23 years old, Dooley’s astonishing 46 goals the previous season had powered Wednesday to promotion from the Second Division and, though it had taken him a while to get used to the higher standard of football at the top level, he was now as happy as a pig in muck.
"Dooley’s astonishing 46 goals the previous season had powered Wednesday to promotion from the Second Division"
Some quarters of the footballing press were talking him up as a potential England number nine; Manchester United and England defender Roger Byrne named him as the most awkward forward he’d ever played against.
His highly muscular and elbows-out style was not universally loved. Wolverhampton Wanderers manager Stan Cullis dubbed Dooley "a thug", which the young striker gleefully regarded as a badge of honour.
If he was riling top managers like Cullis, then Dooley was doing his job. Wednesday had just given him a pay rise and life for Derek Dooley was sweet.
The Preston game
Big-framed and muscular with huge feet, Dooley was a 6ft 3in battering ram—hated by the opposition and their fans, but adored by the Hillsborough faithful.
He could never be described as graceful nor was he particularly pacy; his greatest power was a bullish sheer force of will. He scared teams to death and, crucially, scored goals—lots of them. Derek Dooley was dangerous with a capital DD.
He was looking forward to the February 14 match up against Preston North End at Deepdale. Dooley was always happy to return to the grand old ground, for it was there where he had made his professional debut for Wednesday back in March 1950.
"He scared teams to death and, crucially, scored goals—lots of them"
It was also an important away game for Wednesday. After a moderately decent first half to the season, the newly promoted Owls were coming into the Preston encounter sliding down the First Division table.
Dooley knew his side needed goals and he was desperate to get on the score sheet at Deepdale.
The match proved to be fairly uneventful until the 59th minute.
Wednesday’s clever little winger Albert Quixall directed a long pass towards Dooley up front. Preston goalkeeper George Thompson was always favourite to reach the ball first, but a brave and inveterate chaser of lost causes, Dooley switched on the gas and powered towards goal.
The two players collided on the edge of the box and as Thompson clattered into Dooley, the big man fell to the ground clutching his leg. Being such a fearless big lump of a lad, it was seldom that he didn’t bounce straight back to his feet after a tackle or a collision.
But this time Dooley stayed down.
"From the worried looks on their faces it was clear to fans that something was badly wrong"
The crowd gradually fell silent, as concerned players from both sides crowded around him. From the worried looks on their faces it was clear to fans that something was badly wrong.
The referee urgently waved on the medical staff and Dooley was stretchered off in agony. But on his way off the pitch, he still managed a wave to the supporters in the away end.
As he was carried off towards the touchline, a Wednesday fan shouted, "Derek, get yourself better, lad."
He shouted back, "Don’t you worry, son. I’ll be back soon enough."
As he was taken to the Preston hospital, Dooley’s biggest worry was that, down to ten men, Wednesday had now lost their fifth match on the trot 1-0.
Medical staff examined his injury and the prognosis was not promising. It turned out to be a particularly bad double leg fracture so he was plastered up and given painkillers. But worse was to follow. After a couple of days in hospital, medical staff made a frightening discovery.
Affable and always up for a laugh, Dooley was getting along supremely well with the staff, and he asked a nurse to sign his cast. She inked her moniker on the plaster, and as they shared some banter, she jokingly tickled his toes.
The smile soon left her face when she realised that Dooley couldn’t feel a thing. She tickled him again; once more, no reaction.
This was not good. A doctor was called who immediately cut off the cast.
The darkest night
Nurse and doctor both recoiled at the telltale stench. After further investigation, it was discovered that Dooley had a small cut on the back of his leg that had become infected—possibly, it’s been suggested by some sources, by whitewash from the pitch markings at Deepdale.
The frightening diagnosis was that Dooley’s leg was suffering from gas gangrene and it was moving, potentially lethally, up towards his knee and beyond.
Derek’s new wife, Sylvia, and his parents were immediately summoned to the hospital. A medical conference was swiftly arranged.
It was decided that there was no alternative—First Division footballer and potential England international Derek Dooley would have to lose his right leg.
"The operation had to happen immediately because the gangrene was spreading quickly"
It was not a decision that was taken lightly. They knew that this would rob Dooley of his playing career, but it was clear that the toxic damage to his leg was so advanced with the gangrene migrating up through his body that to not amputate would have threatened his life.
The surgeon who would perform the operation told Dooley he would save as much of his limb as was possible, but it was likely that the amputation, currently, would be made around six inches above his right knee.
He was also warned that, depending upon the healing process and any further potential infection, more surgery may be needed down the line.
The operation had to happen immediately because the gangrene was spreading quickly. It was 4am.
1953: Life In Football Seventy Years Ago by Marvin Close is available now (Pitch Publishing, £14.99)
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