by Chris Brookes
Those unspoken vows before the marriage to your football club are all-important. Your team will make no such promise to you in return but pledging to stick by it for better or for worse invariably means much more of the latter. Every moment to celebrate should be taken advantage of and Sheffield Wednesday supporters know this as well as anyone. After a desperate season so far, Saturday brought the kind of result often only found in Owls fans’ imaginations – a 6-0 win over rivals Leeds United. The whole of the blue and white orchestra were in sync but midfielder Kieran Lee was the master as he directed a devastatingly irresistible performance.
As December began, time ran out on Wednesday manager Dave Jones after a terrible run of one league win in 16 games. One of Jones’ coaches, former Southampton and Northampton Town manager Stuart Gray, stepped in to steady the ship as caretaker. Eight league games later, four wins and two draws have dragged Wednesday four points clear of the Championship relegation zone having initially been six adrift.
The most recent of his games in charge was the weekend’s demolition job of Brian McDermott’s Leeds as home fans at Hillsborough saw their side hit six without reply. The season’s struggles were laughed out of town, for the time being at least, as Owls supremacy took over. With notable contributions all through the team, Kieran Lee produced a performance from the middle of the park his opponents simply couldn’t touch.
The 25-year-old had been out with a hip injury for the opening months of the season but returned for caretaker Gray’s first match in charge – a 2-1 win over leaders Leicester in early December. Ex-Oldham Athletic Player of the Year Lee signed as a right-back in 2012 but has mostly featured as a right-midfielder. A switch to a central role appears to have unlocked something however, and he grabbed two assists along the way as Leeds suffered their worst defeat for 55 years.
After teeing up Reda Johnson for the opener, Lee showed the kind of awareness and assurance for the second goal that we are so often starved of from our players at Hillsborough. His performance was full of energy and effort but as he left the Leeds defenders trailing he shunned a shot at goal, instead choosing to selflessly pick out striker Atdhe Nuhiu with a perfect pass. We have been crying out for someone to create chances from the midfield for so long but sometimes what you are searching so hard for can be right before your eyes.
When I watch players, I class a certain few as thoroughbreds – those who seem to be tuned into a higher level of understanding on the field. I feel like I always have to qualify any mention of the best Wednesday players I’ve seen by saying I’m only 23, so there it is again! Those I’ve seen in the blue and white with the kind of qualities I talk about include Chris Brunt, Ben Marshall, Deon Burton and Steve Watson, to name but a few of, well, not very many. Kieran Lee is on a similar wavelength and when you see your team’s players exuding such authority and skill it gives you the sort of buzz that every supporter craves.
Too many Wednesday players throughout the last decade and a half have been uncomfortable in possession, especially at Hillsborough. Lee showed on Saturday how it should be done. Recently departed midfielder Seyi Olofinjana is a great example to youngsters with the attitude he takes but the 33-year-old wasn’t what we needed this year. With Lee moved into the middle you can see the difference and we’re also starting to see now that there are some accomplished technical players in this squad. I put Chris Maguire, Liam Palmer, Rhys McCabe and Jacques Maghoma in this category for example and although it’s not the first time Lee has played centrally it feels like a new signing.
Although Dave Jones signed him from Oldham after promotion to the Championship in May 2012, he left Lee out for almost the first two months of last season. He impressed at right-back against Bolton but Jones eventually recognised him as a valuable right-sided midfielder. I believe he made plenty of mistakes as Wednesday manager but it is necessary to acknowledge that he didn’t have Lee available this season. Now he is proving his worth and that football fan compulsion to label someone the new version of a legend is back! He’s not John Sheridan but he’s a pretty good Kieran Lee. He doesn’t seem one to court the limelight but in an unstoppable team display on Saturday he was the one who shone the brightest.
Leyton Orient forward Robbie Simpson was a teammate of Lee at Oldham and also spent time with Wednesday on trial earlier this season. I got his take on what the Stalybridge-born former Manchester United reserve team captain is like to work with.
“Kee is a very quiet lad; he just goes about his own business. If we were in at 10am he would get in at 9.59am, be the best player in training and then he would be the first to leave!
“That’s what he is like – comes in, does his job and leaves. No drama, no questions asked.
“Nice and relaxed, no stress – it’s quite an enviable way of going about it to be honest! Great lad, lovely and down to earth and a massive Man United fan as well.
“Almost the first thing he would ask after a game would be the United score!”
While Lee was running the show against Leeds there was a man alongside him linking up wonderfully. Jose Semedo was sensational two seasons ago as we finished 2nd in League One with a fantastic 93 points and the chant about never getting past him was no word of a lie that year. There have been quite a few times since then that people have tried to write him off as a Championship player but he was the commander in Saturday’s game. It was his 29th birthday and besides how well he played I feel strongly that we need people like him at the club.
After promotion, we lost characters and part of the team ethic and that’s not easy to replace. Semedo is the beating heart of that spirit in the current squad and I wouldn’t be so quick to think about letting him go. Players who can do the job and know and love the club aren’t something you can find just anywhere. I love that he was out there for an occasion as special as Saturday’s win.
Saturday evening brought the announcement of a new signing – USA international centre-back Oguchi Onyewu. The ex-AC Milan, Newcastle and Sporting Lisbon man has joined until the end of the season after leaving QPR and while the 31-year-old has seen his playing time decimated by injury in recent years he also has top-level experience and renewed vigour. He is a player whose career I have followed since he was with Standard Liege as I started noticing his name with the US team and I’m quite excited about how he could do for us.
Onyewu wants to put himself in contention for Jurgen Klinsmann’s World Cup squad and he has said he has never been so motivated to prove any doubters wrong. He’s another American to go with past favourites John Harkes and Frank Simek and as with the loan signing of Stuart Holden last season he will bring much wider interest to the club, which I love. Considering he has lived in Lisbon, Milan and Malaga and is studying for a degree in Language and International Trade I wonder how he’ll take to the Sheffield accent!
The question of whether Stuart Gray gets given the manager’s job permanently rumbles on for now at least. I have to admit he has never been my choice for the role and watching us struggle to a draw away to Macclesfield of the Conference last week with one isolated striker in Atdhe Nuhiu left me frustrated to say the least. I do think however that there’s a lot to be said for a man in charge who the players enjoy working with and Gray has just presided over one of my all-time best days watching Wednesday. He has got things in order and given us a real chance going forward from here so let’s respect the job he’s done. I wouldn’t hand out a three-year contract but sticking with him and Lee Bullen as assistant for a little bit longer really doesn’t seem all that bad. Injured midfielder David Prutton spoke very well in the Sky Sports studio for Saturday’s coverage and as with other players who’ve talked about Gray there seems a genuine liking and will to play for him.
It doesn’t matter how many hours have now passed since the final whistle went at the weekend, I just keep reading the score! You have to stop and enjoy these moments as a Wednesdayite. It was a completely dominant display before and after Leeds’ Matt Smith was sent off less than a minute after coming on for the second half. Seeing the entire away end in numb silence or ironically cheering while Wednesday fans went wild time and time again was worth savouring. Some Leeds fans were walking out after the third goal and players slumped to the turf as the fifth (or was it the fourth or sixth?) went in.
Knowing there’s nothing Leeds supporters could legitimately fire back after what their manager described as ‘public humiliation’ is highly satisfying. Connor Wickham got his 8th in 10 games for us and for however long he stays on loan with us from Sunderland there is just something about him and Wednesday that fits and seems right. The two goals from young Caolan Lavery off the bench are cause for more optimism and although it’s the Championship and not League One the livewire element he has reminds me a little bit of Drew Talbot when he broke through at the club in 2004/2005. A mention also for Leeds keeper Paddy Kenny, who takes more than his share of highly personal chants from Wednesday fans but always handles it with humour. An ex-Blade he’ll always be but after having six put past him he still had the grace to turn and give his gloves to a young Wednesday supporter and applaud the home fans at the final whistle.
You can take your pick of memories from the game – maybe Jermaine Johnson sitting Cameron Stewart on the floor with a dummy late in the second half will be in there. When I think back to last season’s corresponding fixture and all that went with it I remember another of Leeds’ former Sheffield United players, Michael Brown, putting his studs into Chris O’Grady. How I would have loved to have seen his face on Saturday, sat on the away bench as the goals flew in one after another. I hope Chris Kirkland, with a clean sheet to his name, enjoyed it too after what he went through last time.
Leeds last lost like this so long ago that Bobby Charlton was on the scoresheet for Manchester United, so keep celebrating! It was Wednesday pride at its best and a day I’ll never forget. Whether you were there, watching on TV from somewhere around the world, or keeping track online, you were part of it as a Wednesdayite. We’ve had more than enough to feel down about and to divide the fanbase this season so don’t stop making the most of this one just yet. The fight goes on but there’s no reason not to believe in the light at the end of the tunnel for our club. Your days in the sun as a Wednesday fan might not come around too often but this was one where the beers and the hammocks were out and we had a party. The day we sent Leeds ‘marching on together’ with six boots up the arse. Olé, olé!