THE man whose controversial sacking arguably triggered the recent decline of Hucknall Town returns to Watnall Road on Boxing Day for a Christmas cracker of a local derby.
When Kevin Wilson was shown the door in January 2007, Town were sitting as high as seventh in the Conference North (the second tier of non-league football).
When he walks back as manager of local rivals Ilkeston next Monday afternoon, he will find The Yellows in a very different position, struggling to cling on to their promotion ambitions in what is the fourth tier of non-league football.
Wilson (now 50), who was appointed by Town in February 2006 to replace FA Trophy hero Dean Barrick, did not have an outstanding record in 11 months at the helm. Of 45 matches, he won 16 and lost 17.
But The Yellows were only four points off second place in a league that fed into the Conference itself. And he boasted a glittering pedigree and CV. As a player, he won 42 international caps for Northern Ireland and played more than 600 games for the likes of Chelsea, Derby County, Ipswich Town and Notts County, scoring 149 goals. As a manager, he bossed Northampton Town in the Football League.
The decision to sack him was ostensibly made by then chairman Brian Holmes, who has since gone on record as saying it was one of his biggest mistakes. But it was unanimously endorsed at the time by Town’s executive committee, which comprised president Glen Lathall, vice-chairman Dave Gamble, secretary Brian Scothern, treasurer Pete Chapman, Dave Green and Nigel Bramley.
The reason they gave was that Wilson “had not moved the club forward”. “We are treading water or moving sideways,” said Lathall.
However Wilson himself was staggered by the decision. His replacement, ex-Wales international Andy Legg, was a flop and started a spiral of decline that led to four successive bottom-four finishes and two relegations.
Of course, Town’s fortunes were hardly helped either by failing finances as Holmes’s business empire suffered. And they hit rock-bottom when landed with a VAT bill of more than £80,000 that almost sent them to the wall earlier this year and led to the takeover by Steve Greaves and Michael Johnson.
Ironically, Ilkeston were also burdened with a VAT bill — for £47,000 — 18 months ago while in the Conference North and they DID go bust. But they later reformed and were allowed to take their place in the Evo-Stik League.
Wilson was boss at the time of the winding-up order but decided to stay loyal to the club and has led a spectacular revival, which now sees The Robins among the leading contenders for the title. The squad he brings to Hucknall on Boxing Day will include several ex-Yellows, including veteran striker Gary Ricketts, fellow frontman Daryll Thomas and defenders James Cullingworth and another FA Trophy hero, Russell Cooke. The club’s player/coach is ex-Notts County and Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Darren Caskey.
After four successive defeats, Town are desperately hoping the derby attracts a big crowd and kick-starts their season again under new manager Lyttle.
Considering they are near-neighbours, it is a surprise there have been so few clashes between the two clubs over the years. But one readily springs to mind — back in 2000 when they met in the fourth and final qualifying round of the FA Cup.
A record crowd of 1,436 packed into Watnall Road for what was described as the biggest match in the Dispatch district for 50 years.
Yellows fans were confident that John Ramshaw’s side could qualify for the First Round proper of the competition for the first time. But Ilkeston pinched a 1-0 victory, despite being reduced to ten men by a red card as early as the 33rd minute. The goal was scored by Chris Timons, who went on to captain Town in the Trophy final at Villa Park five years later.