A week after being sacked by West Brom in 2019, Darren Moore arrived at Kenya’s Giotto rubbish mountain. His dismissal had been both hurtful and highly controversial but it also created an opportunity for the suddenly unemployed football manager to visit the giant tip in Nakuru, meet the children who call it home and help the charity, Inspire Africa, with a school-building scheme.
“It flipped me round and put everything in context,” said Moore. “Any worries about your life are quickly extinguished when you meet 50 or 60 children living in a rubbish heap with a school in the middle of it.”
In a different country, and a very different context, he is now, as the manager of Sheffield Wednesday, immersed in another project designed to create an oasis of order, education and hope amid a chaotically messy landscape.
As Wednesday limber up for their first competitive game of the new season – a home League Cup tie against Huddersfield on Sunday lunchtime – things do not look quite as hopeless at Hillsborough as they seemed only weeks ago.
In June, as Wednesday confronted the realities of relegation to League One and a raft of out-of-contract players departed, the captain, Barry Bannan, hinted at serious trouble ahead. “It’s not a great place to be at the minute,” said the midfield playmaker. “There’s a lot up in the air and a lot of people behind the scenes leaving. It’s been tough. Last year was hard. We had the points deduction [a 12-point cut, reduced to six on appeal, in the wake of Wednesday’s circumvention of the EFL’s profit and sustainability regulations] and got relegated.”
If the decision of Dejphon Chansiri, Wednesday’s owner, to sell Hillsborough to himself and then fail to lease the stadium back to the club within the timeframe required to exploit a regulatory loophole was misguided, its repercussions were worse. The growing disgruntlement surrounding delayed payment of players’ wages meant Moore was apparently trapped in the eye of a perfect storm. At one point he was left with only 12 senior professionals.
Fast forward a few weeks though and, for the moment at least, the turbulence is abating. Wages have finally hit bank accounts and the manager’s network of stellar contacts appears to have secured several promising free transfer and loan signings. Significantly, most new recruits have points to prove.
Admittedly, pre-season is often a time when vaulting optimism should be treated with a degree of healthy scepticism but there was real sincerity in the voice of Bailey Peacock-Farrell as Wednesday’s new goalkeeper, signed on a season-long loan from Burnley, spoke about the campaign ahead. “After talking to the gaffer, coming here was a no-brainer,” said the former Leeds goalkeeper. “I’m here to succeed and help get us promoted. I had other options but you can’t ignore Sheffield Wednesday. This is a huge club and I’m excited to be part of it.”
In explaining his reasons for pursuing Peacock-Farrell, Moore emphasised the keeper’s impressive footwork and its importance to his wider tactical vision. This involves constructing an attacking side capable of playing out from a defence already featuring Dominic Iorfa’s helpful pace.
Implementing an expansive footballing philosophy on a shoestring budget is never easy but the financial fall-out from the pandemic dictates that money is in short supply across the third tier and managerial acumen matters more than ever.
Like Peacock-Farrell and the borrowed QPR winger Olamide Shodipo, Middlesbrough’s attacking midfielder Lewis Wing looks a typically smart loan acquisition on Moore’s part. Meanwhile, the recent hamstring injury sustained by Wednesday’s influential forward Josh Windass could yet stave off bids from Championship clubs before the transfer window’s closure.
Neil Warnock, Boro’s manager, said Wing “pleaded” with him to approve his loan and, given their history as four-times champions of England and three times FA Cup winners, Wednesday will always possess a certain pulling power. That allure waned appreciably during the kamikaze months last season in which Garry Monk, Tony Pulis and Neil Thompson took turns in charge before Moore’s arrival from Doncaster in March.
Even then relegation might have been avoided had the 47-year-old not succumbed to complications of Covid, including pneumonia and blood clots on the lungs, forcing him to miss seven second-tier matches. Happily restored to full health, Moore is back in his tracksuit and fresh from a team-bonding training camp in south Wales where he has reputedly exhibited the qualities his old friend, and the former West Brom assistant, Graeme Jones, has long associated with him.
“Darren’s the kind of leader you want to fight for,” said Jones, now assisting Steve Bruce at Newcastle as well as England’s Gareth Southgate. “He’s a natural leader; he’s genuine, honest, consistent and knowledgeable.”
Wednesday fans trust the former West Brom centre-half who once blocked the path of many an awkward striker will, when necessary, be able to stand his ground with Chansiri. Perhaps usefully, Moore holds a diploma in football administration.
Dubbed an out-of-the-box thinker by peers after serving on the PFA’s governing committee, he also possesses an interesting hinterland shaped variously by his Christian faith, anti-racism campaigning and charity fund-raising.
After acquiring his Uefa A coaching licence at 25, Moore has had a lengthy struggle to become a still all too rare black manager and is desperate to make the most of this admittedly high-risk opportunity. There have been several detours along the road to Hillsborough but they could yet equip him well for the multi-faceted challenge of reviving one of English football’s doziest sleeping giants.