by Chris Brookes
For all its less than desirable aspects, football is about those great moments you can think back to and instantly feel that same rush all over again. The very best of them send shivers down the spine. As Sheffield Wednesday go about the business of releasing certain out-of-contract players, there is one departing individual in particular who is sure to always be associated with some picture-book memories – defender Miguel Llera.
The 2013/14 season has left the stage, and before the show begins again cast changes are inevitable. For Sheffield Wednesday, it was to be a campaign in which the overriding feeling in the end was one of relief. A run of just one victory in the first 16 league games brought an end to manager Dave Jones’ time in charge and left his replacement with the task of securing Championship safety from six points adrift.
Ex-Southampton manager Stuart Gray, brought in by Jones to join his coaching staff, moved into caretaker control of the team. The upturn in results in December and into January, including an unforgettable 6-0 embarrassment of Leeds United, got him the job full-time. Safety was mathematically assured with three games to spare but in truth, it had looked a formality for a little while previous.
As Gray now sets about putting his squad together for Wednesday’s third season back in the second tier we have come to the ‘retained list’ point. Of the first-team players with contracts expiring, goalkeeper Chris Kirkland, defenders Oguchi Onyewu and Glenn Loovens, and midfielder Jose Semedo have been offered new deals. Captain and long-term absentee Anthony Gardner, midfielder David Prutton, winger Jermaine Johnson, and defenders Martin Taylor, Reda Johnson and Miguel Llera were let go.
It is possible to pick out three or four from those released and to give them the focus but I wanted this one to be about Llera. The 34-year-old Spanish centre-back leaves after two and a half years at Hillsborough, joining initially on loan from Blackpool during the Owls’ League One promotion campaign. That season, he had to bide his time for an extended opportunity in the side as the consistency of on-loan Wolves youngster Danny Batth and captain Rob Jones largely kept him out.
In a 2-0 win at home to Preston North End on March 31st 2012, Llera started as Dave Jones chose not to risk Batth after a minor injury. It was a yellow card for Rob Jones in the closing stages that meant a suspension and a chance for Llera to keep his place. In the final six games of the season, Llera’s popularity rocketed as Wednesday overhauled city rivals United at the last in the race for the second automatic promotion place.
Ex-MK Dons and Charlton defender Llera scored a free-kick in a 2-0 win at fellow promotion chasers Huddersfield, a header in the 3-0 home victory over Oldham, the equaliser in a 1-1 draw at Colchester, and the crucial goal in the 2-1 win at Brentford. The latter of those, coupled with Sheffield United’s draw with Stevenage, set up what turned into the biggest party in S6 for a long, long time.
In front of 38,082 at Hillsborough, a 2-0 win over relegated Wycombe Wanderers secured promotion in what so far (at 24 years old) ranks as my best day as a Wednesday supporter. After two seasons in the Championship with the club, Llera has now been released but I want to recognise a player who for all his good and bad points had an impact on us.
Some will say that Llera is far from the greatest player we have ever had but look at the levels we’ve been at for the past 14 years. We’ve been a long way from the elite. One way or another, there have been plenty of moments to talk about with him. Llera turns 35 in August and he has certainly been caught out on a few occasions in the Championship. Playing against opponents with pace can leave him wanting and he was outdone by Leeds’ Ross McCormack so blatantly that Llera just had to reach out with both hands and drag him back, thankfully just for a yellow card!
There was also the disallowed Gary Madine goal in our 3-2 defeat at home to Bristol City last season. Madine’s legitimate effort was ruled out as the referee stopped play due to Llera taking his protests for a penalty too far and putting his hands on him. The knives were certainly out for Llera after that one but alongside the mishaps there have been many positives too.
In the 2012/13 season, we saw off the threat of relegation on the final day of an extraordinary campaign for high point tallies from the lower teams. Llera featured 46 times in all competitions that season and undoubtedly played his part in keeping us in the division. The turning point was the 1-0 win over Barnsley in December 2012 to end an incredible run of seven successive defeats. That game was a true scrap and Llera was one who threw everything on the line to get us those points.
His partnership with one-cap England international Anthony Gardner was impressive for much of the time and Llera’s six goals were priceless in the final reckoning. Every single point mattered and his double at home to Millwall in a 3-2 win, the clincher in the 2-1 against Peterborough, and the equaliser from 2-0 down at home to Derby made a huge amount of difference.
This article is not about acclaiming Llera as a Spanish Franco Baresi or Paolo Maldini, but simply remembering the good he’s been involved in at our club. In football, ‘passion’ is a word that is used so much it almost strangely ends up being seen as a weak point in any debate. It is something that you truly get to understand though when you put so much of your life into supporting a team. Not casually keeping an eye on the club’s fortunes or watching them on TV now and again, but when every little thing your team does, however big or small, has an impact that you can feel. I don’t believe anyone who ever watched Llera with the Owls badge on his chest can deny that it clearly meant so much to him. For embracing what it means to represent Sheffield Wednesday he deserves fond memories.
I always like to look further than just the on-pitch matters when assessing players. With Llera, he is one who had a modest career in Spanish football and eventually, late in his career, found his way to a club and a community in Wednesday who welcomed him. I think that’s a great story. For a player who was picked up from Blackpool for nothing he gave us 91 games and 11 goals. A smart bit of business, Gary Megson!
For a veteran defender, he certainly knew how to come up with a goal. With Llera and now-departed defensive colleague Reda Johnson, I always had hope we could find a goal. There are many of us who follow Wednesday who never had what could be considered the real ‘good times’. Plenty of us weren’t around for the Boxing Day Massacre and many missed all those trips to Wembley in the early 90s. With that in mind, our promotions from League One in 2005 and 2012 are the best we have. The spine-tingling celebrations that came with that final whistle against Wycombe two years ago have Llera at the heart of it. The images of him being held aloft by Wednesdayites after the game are iconic in our recent history and they’ll live forever. So too will his goal and celebration at Brentford on the emotional rollercoaster of a day in which we finally put those from across the city back below us, where they remain.
I feel the time had come to let him leave but it is necessary to also acknowledge that Llera was in and out of the team this season and it is extremely difficult to find consistency in that scenario. To finish nine points clear of relegation and in 16th is something I’ll gladly take, although 22 goals conceded in the final eight games hints at some work to be done! It remains to be seen who will stay out of goalkeeper Chris Kirkland, defenders Glenn Loovens and Oguchi Onyewu, and midfielder Jose Semedo. I’d see Kirkland and Semedo as the most likely and although we have quite a few to bring in, the likes of midfielder / full-back Liam Palmer, forwards Caolan Lavery and Chris Maguire, and midfielder Kieran Lee are reasons to be positive.
The transfer rumour mill is gathering pace already but one name I want to add in as a suggestion for us is Coventry’s attacking midfielder Franck Moussa. The 24-year-old Belgian scored 14 for the Sky Blues in 2013/14 and manager Steven Pressley is resigned to losing him. He is out of contract and I want us to be the club who gets him. I really believe in taking a chance on up-and-coming players like this and anyone who saw his sublime goal against Leyton Orient with minimal space in which to work will know he can produce the spectacular.
This month we’ve said goodbye to some favourites. I’m sad to see Reda and Jermaine Johnson leave but their association with the club will last. With Reda, he was a superb ambassador for Wednesday and at his best, an attacking juggernaut of a left-back. The sad thing was we just couldn’t get him fit for long enough. With JJ, it was seven entertaining years. Red cards and wayward attempts at goal, but outweighed for me by the excitement I felt when he got possession, the wonderful goals, and most importantly, the heart he played with for this club. I have nothing but great wishes to those two in their future in the game.
In football and in life, some will try to put a negative angle on everything, but I prefer a different way. It’s about celebrating and enjoying every moment you can and with Sheffield Wednesday there’s a lot to be proud about. When it’s bad it hurts and we all share that, but with this club, when it’s good it’s absolutely fantastic. Revel in the fact you support Sheffield Wednesday and not a Manchester United (or one of the top teams…). It’s about a Chris Maguire winner in the 97th minute against Barnsley and it’s about the look on Paddy Kenny’s face when the sixth goes in against Leeds. It’s alright to show thanks to players like Llera, Gardner, Prutton, Reda and JJ who gave everything to our team because that’s far from a given in football. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Any memories that made you smile are worth holding on to.
The club is in the heart of Miguel Llera and he’ll always be welcome in the away end with the Wednesdayites. Even if his chant meant he became ‘Liera’ to some and joined the likes of ‘Richard Woods’, ‘Marcus Tudguy’ and ‘Nuhui’! In addition to sourcing quality, we’ve got a job to replace the characters we’ve let go. It’s no coincidence that the promotion teams of 2005 and 2012 were full of spirit. It is time for a new group to come in but at Wednesday we don’t forget those who gave their all for us.
I have had a season ticket since 2004 but was a regular at Hillsborough some time before that. Atdhe Nuhiu’s injury-time equaliser in the 3-3 with Blackburn was my last action of the season before I headed to America to gain some press team experience with the Boston Breakers. My 2014/15 season ticket was secured before I went though and like every other Wednesday fan the dreaming starts all over again in August. I have followed every kick of our games while I’ve been away and ‘Singing The Blues’ has been playing loud and proud.
To Llera, thank you for the sincerity you played with when you wore our colours. Dave Jones might not have liked the headguard but between that and much more in your time with us, you made it interesting and brought enthusiasm to the game. Wednesdayites might also want to thank you for that dig on ex-Blade Michael Brown in the Leeds game (football has its karma too)! The best of luck in wherever your journey takes you next. The memories of May 5th 2012 and your part in those amazing celebrations can never be wiped away. As I finish up this article, I have just read the sad news that one of our supporters, Kevin Asquith, who suffered a heart attack while in Ipswich for Saturday’s game has passed away. Thoughts and sympathies to all who knew Kevin. R.I.P. We’re all Wednesday, and that bond lives forever.