By Katie Whyatt
Dean Windass sips on a pint in a rustic pub in Thornton: roaring log fire, tapestried rugs, the works. His youngest son Jordan sits in an alcove on the other side of the pub, watching the coverage of the England-Slovenia game alongside Bradford City winger Ellis Hudson. They are here for the launch of the Wilsden Bantams’ new supporters’ hub, at the New Inn. Dean is on the phone to the landlord before his arrival, running through the menu, ordering a steak. In person, he is talkative, warm, open, friendly.
Phil Brown, in the foreword to Windass’ 2007 autobiography, recalls meeting Windass, ahead of the striker’s 2007 return to Hull City, and “looking into the whites of his eyes” to “see that ambition still burning fiercely.” Hull released him as apprentice at 18 – “football ability was second-to-none, but I just didn’t have the physicality,” Windass recalls – and spent the next two years playing non-league for North Ferriby United, working on a building site. “When you get told that you’re not good enough, your world collapses, because all I wanted to do was be a footballer. Then I took the opportunity with both hands. It did [hurt], but it was the right decision at that time.”
That steel set the tone for a playing career spanning over two decades. He played 236 times for his beloved Hull City and 216 for Bradford City, helping each to their finest hours. The conversation twists through unignorable names: Paul Gascoigne, Terry Venables, Bryan Robson – “I mean, bloody hell – a legend” – his relationships with Phil Brown and Neil Warnock. May 24th, 2008, brought his crowning moment, when he scored the volley in the Championship play off final at Wembley – “the dream that changed my life” – to seal Hull City’s promotion to the Premier League. Just under a decade earlier, under the tutelage of Paul Jewell, he had helped Bradford City do the same.
“I played against Paul when he was playing up front with Sean McCarthy at Bradford,” Windass begins. “I left Hull City in ’94, and my last goal was at Valley Parade, in front of the Kop end – I always remember the goal.
“Paul was Paul. He was very passionate, a Scouser, fiery. I walked into a dressing room where there were a lot of strong characters. Beags. Macca. Gary Walsh. Big Darren Moore, at centre half with John Dreyer. Gareth Whalley in midfield. Jamie Lawrence, Peter Beagrie. Mills and Blakey up front. Wayne Jacobs was a great left back. For me to go into that dressing room from Oxford United, as a young kid – it’s like going to a new school. Every changing room is like that – finding your feet, finding your teammates. I knew who these people were.
“I couldn’t get in the team when I first came. I was always on the bench, and I had to fight my way through. Then I became the main target, as a centre forward. But we had a good dressing room. Everybody got on well with everybody else, everybody respected each other. In those days you could go for a beer – football’s changed now, but big Darren Moore used to keep us together.
“We had some good players, some game changers. We had a lot of talent individually, but collectively we all knew our jobs. We had a great team spirit. You could go right through the team and there was no weakness. But what we had was a lot of strong characters in the changing room.”
City’s first season in the Premier League was a testing one. The BBC report from City’s breathless 4-4 draw with Derby County – in which Windass scored a first-half hat-trick – begins: “Bradford City went into this match knowing only a victory would keep their Premiership survival hopes alive… [This] share of the points may have consigned Bradford to the First Division next season.”
Pressure? “No, because Paul Jewell always said, from day one: ‘If we finish fourth from bottom, we’ve had a successful season. Anything above that’s a bonus,'” Windass says. “There was no pressure on Bradford City if we were getting relegated. Rodney Marsh was saying he was going to shave his head off if Bradford stayed in the Premier League. We had no illusions of what went on. We knew we were going to go to Man United and get beat 4-0. We got beat away at Everton 4-0.
“We knew we were going to get beat but Paul’s philosophy was, win as many home games as we can – and Valley Parade was like a fortress – and pick up points up on the road. But that speech from Paul on the first day, to Weathers scoring the goal on the last day, was exactly the same. It was a great journey.”
So to the moment ingrained in Bantams’ folklore. City hosted Gérard Houllier’s Liverpool on the final day needing to better Wimbledon’s result against Southampton to survive: David Wetherall’s header clinched survival – and denied Liverpool a Champions League spot. Windass celebrated on the field with his son Josh: then six, now a Rangers midfielder.
“It was a hot day,” Windass recalls. “Atmosphere was electric. Liverpool had an unbelievable football team – world-class players.” Sami Hyypia. Michael Owen. A young Steven Gerrard. “We were relying on Wimbledon and Southampton, but Jagger just said, first and foremost, let’s go out and try and win the game. And whatever happens, happens. But the scenes afterwards – I always remember I came off that pitch, and apart from my underpants, I didn’t have any kit on. People had taken my top off, my shorts, socks, boots – I walked in the changing rooms with only my underpants on. To beat teams like that, to come to Valley Parade and stay up, was incredible.
“We [Jewell and Windass] are still very good friends now – when I was living in Menston, when I was married, Paul lived round the corner, John Hendrie lived round the corner. For a young manager like that to come in after Chris Kamara and then get the club into the Premier League…He was on his way [in] his managerial career, and he went on to an unbelievable one in the sense of he was earning a lot of money – and now he just plays golf, I think.”
“If I had something to say, I’d say it, and Neil Warnock was like that as well. We didn’t clash in that sense, but I think that we were both well-driven by success.”
Paul Jewell left for Sheffield Wednesday at the end of the season, having guaranteed survival, and assistant manager Chris Hutchings took over.
“It was difficult, obviously,” Windass recalls. “He had a bit of a dispute with the chairman, because we had to go into the Intertoto Cup, and Paul didn’t want to go into that. Hutch got on well with the players but started to bring in Carbone, Stan Collymore, people like that, who probably weren’t Hutch’s choices – they were probably Geoffrey Richmond’s choice. And that’s why Paul left. Halfway through the season, they ended up selling me to Middlesbrough.”
Mixed feelings? “No, because Geoffrey Richmond offered me a new contract, but it was a Championship contract. I wanted to play in the Premier League and he knew he could get money for me. In the space of two weeks, they sold me to Middlesbrough, and Bradford City got relegated that season. That’s the reason he sold me – because he knew he couldn’t offer me a Premier League contract. The writing was on the wall in the sense that they were going to go down – second season syndrome, as they say – but that’s football. Terry Venables comes knocking on your door and you’re not going to say no.
“The first time I ever met [Terry Venables], we played at Valley Parade in the quarter finals of the FA Cup. We got beat 1-0, but after the game, as I walked down the tunnel, Terry Venables was stood at the end. He shook my hand. He said, ‘You were the best player on the park tonight.’ And I couldn’t believe it. Two weeks later, he signed me. [He was] brilliant – the best manager I’ve ever worked under. Man management was incredible. He was tactically very good. A gentleman.
“I was very disappointed when he left. They were struggling at the time and fair play to Robbo [Bryan Robson], bringing in Terry because he needed help, and we finished 14th. He knew he was leaving at the end of the season but he didn’t want to leave them relegated. They knew what the outcome was going to be. I knew Bryan was going to leave at the end of the season, but I thought Terry Venables would have stayed on for another two or three seasons. I think the chairman tried signing him up. But he’d done his job.”
Loans at the two Sheffield clubs punctuated Windass’ stint at the Riverside. Recovering from a back injury and in need of game-time, he had spoken to Gary McAllister, then at Coventry, about playing for the Sky Blues for a month – until Stuart McCall, by then a Sheffield United player, encouraged Windass to change direction.
He ultimately signed permanently, playing under Neil Warnock. What was their relationship like? “Good. I was a character, an opinionated footballer. If I had something to say, I’d say it, and Warnock was like that as well. We didn’t clash in that sense, but I think that we were both the same characters: well-driven by success.”
Famously, Warnock dropped Windass for the 2003 Championship play off final: Windass watched the game in a pub. “I’ve spoken to him since and he regrets doing it,” Windass says. “But he left Stuart McCall out the play off final – he ended up bringing Stuart on at half time and he never put me on the bench, because he wanted to put a goalkeeper on the bench. He had a decision to make, and he made it. He’s said since he made a mistake, but people make mistakes in life. That’s part of being a footballer and it’s a part of life. I’m not bitter and twisted about anything, and I’ve made a lot and lot of mistakes. He might have learned from that mistake and it will have stood him in good stead for later on. I had a great time at Sheffield United.”
What else is there to say on the goal – “it was a fairytale, Roy of the Rovers stuff” – that took Hull to the Premier League? “The only reason I left Bradford City – again – was because Julian Rhodes said they couldn’t afford to pay January or February’s wages,” Windass says. “They knew that they could get money for me – £350,000 – in a loan deal, and pay the players. It was Sunderland or Hull, so I went to Sunderland.” He stops. “Sorry, no – Hull!”
He only featured in five Premier League games for the Tigers. He said at the time that it “hurt like hell” to miss out – specifically, to be omitted from the squad that drew with Everton. But he wasn’t naive, he says. “I knew. I was 40 years old. I knew. I knew. I scored that goal at Wembley when I was 39 years old. I had a year left on my contract. Looking back now, if I hadn’t had that year left, I probably would have retired after that game. But Phil Brown said to me that I was still very, very fit – but I knew I wasn’t going to play. I might have got on for twenty minutes of games, or off the bench, but it didn’t work like that. That’s the way football is.
“Phil and me have spoken about it since. Just to have the privilege to get my hometown club in the Premier League was a massive achievement. I came on against Portsmouth and scored against them, but I knew then that I wouldn’t have lasted until the end of the season.
“Phil was a great man. I think he played until he was 38. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have achieved what I achieved at Hull second time round. We’re very good friends. We always talk on the phone. If I ever bump into him, we have a beer, talk about the old times.”
Windass’ first Premier League start – the 5-1 lost to Manchester City – is best remembered as the day Phil Brown gave the half-time team talk on the pitch. “Does Phil ever regret that? I’m sure he does, but I’ve never been a manager,” Windass reflects. “I’m sure it’s a passionate game – he was a passionate man. I think the reason he did it was because it was Boxing Day, and he’d given us Christmas Day off, and maybe he blamed himself for that and was frustrated with himself. But in my opinion? I’m not going to say was it right or was it wrong – that was his choice, and it’s only him who can answer the question.
“He was very successful to take Hull City into the Premier League – which nobody would ever have dreamed of – like Bradford, Blackpool, Bournemouth. And certainly nobody would ever have dreamed that Huddersfield Town would ever get in the Premier League. Everything’s possible if you’ve got a good changing room.”
“People look at me and go, ‘Dean Windass, the football player, the big hard lad!’ When I’m in the changing rooms, I’m the loudest man in the room. When I walk in the front door, I’m the quietest.”
Like most cult heroes, Windass’ on-field persona reinforced his popularity. A supporter recalls just how comical Windass could be: he’d hunt down backpasses with arms outstretched and tongue wagging; he seemed at one with the energy in the stands, the forefather of Tony McMahon. Bryan Robson, in the second foreword to Windass’ autobiography, writes: “Deano isn’t exactly the type of lad you forget in a hurry.”
Our conversation begins with Windass’ early football heroes and his answer is illuminating. “He’s only two years older than me, but Paul Gascoigne,” Windass begins. The pair faced each other frequently in Scotland – Windass at Aberdeen, Gascoigne at Rangers – and “started getting a bit friendly” after Stuart McCall’s testimonial. “I always watched, used to look up to [Gascoigne] – not so much as a footballer, but as a character. I was never, ever trying emulate myself as Paul Gascoigne, but I always tried to chill out on the pitch, have a laugh with the supporters. Gazza was like that.
“He’s a Newcastle lad, and he always wanted to play for Newcastle United, and that’s where he started as a kid – he’s of the same background as myself, in that I always wanted to play for Hull City. I used to watch him when he was playing in the Premier League and Gary Lineker and all them were playing. He’s just a normal lad, like myself. I do after dinner speaking and I’ve spoken when he’s speaking, introduced him to [fiancé] Francesca – he’s a living legend, and now he’s quite a good friend. He’s one of the best footballers to grace English football. What he’s done for his country and what’s happened to him since – it’s a shame, because it is very difficult when you retire. I’ve been there – I’ve worn the t-shirt.”
Windass has been open about the struggles, post-retirement, that led him to attempt suicide in 2012: first with tablets, then by hanging. He was stopped both times, by a former girlfriend and then by a friend. The end of his 18-year marriage and the death of his father John had made retirement even harder.
“I found it really tough,” Windass begins. “Going through a divorce, not seeing the kids – Josh and Jordan – going back to Hull… And I ended up in rehab, for depression. I knew that I was retiring, but I’d been through a bad time off the pitch – not so much the retirement, but the divorce and my dad passing away. It was an accumulation of things. I’m happy now, the kids are happy – the one thing about it is you’ve got to get on with your life.
“There’s a lot of footballers who are struggling. It’s very difficult when you come out of that [environment]. When you’ve been in the changing room for twenty years – and I was the joker of the pack, the Jack the Lad – it’s very difficult when you’re getting up in the morning and you don’t have to get up for anything. And that’s not just footballers – that’s everybody. People who work in the police, and they retire – there’s a gap that’s missing, and I found it very tough. I knew I was retiring, I knew – but I didn’t know what was coming with it, with the divorce and my dad passing. That was the nail in the coffin for me, really – I think if I didn’t get divorced and my dad didn’t die, I’d probably have been alright.
“I was on my own, in a sense. I spoke to counsellors – I tried to commit suicide, was drinking very heavily, and I never told anybody what problems I had. And then when I ended up in rehab for 26 days, I poured my emotions out. I told my counsellors, and I came out and I wished I’d done it years ago. Because I’m that lad in the changing rooms who – people laugh at this, but I am quite a quiet, shy lad, really, when I want to be. When people are around I always sit and listen.
“People look at me and go, ‘Dean Windass, the football player, the big hard lad, and blah, blah, blah…’ I’ll have my say, I’ll have my opinion, but my missus Francesca can’t believe how quiet I am. When I’m in the changing rooms, I’m the loudest man in the room; when I walk in the front door, I’m the quietest.”
He is back in Hull now, as a club ambassador. “Which I’m very proud of, and every time I’m out on the street, someone talks about that goal at Wembley. But my life moves on, I’ve changed, and we’ll see what happens.” He is marrying fiance Francesca “this year, or next year, or whenever it is.”
“We’ve got a few things to sort out, but we’re in no rush,” he smiles. “I’ve been with her for three years now, and she gets on very well with my two kids. Life’s all right at the minute.”
Dean Windass was the special guest for the launch of the Wilsden Bantams’ new supporters’ hub. The Wilsden Bantams are a supporters’ club based at The New Inn, Thornton, and organise Q&A evenings, away travel & charity events. For more information, visit www.wilsdenbantams.com or facebook.com/BradfordCitySupportersClub/