by Chris Brookes
Whether as a player, manager or supporter, frustration is something you accept as part of football. We long for those moments of elation that wash all that feeling of struggle away, if only for a short while. Nothing quite tops the rush of a last-minute winner, and Claude Dielna’s strike for Sheffield Wednesday to see off Blackburn Rovers at the weekend may be the spark for something more than just Saturday’s delirious away-end celebrations.
Despite the protracted distraction of Hafiz Mammadov’s ultimately failed takeover of the club, Wednesday began this season in very impressive form, occupying a Championship play-off place towards the end of September. What followed for Stuart Gray’s side was a run of ten league games without a win, yielding just four goals until the 2-1 home victory over Wigan Athletic to round off November.
With the shot in the arm of that success against the Latics, The Owls took on high-flying Blackburn on Saturday and grabbed all three points at Ewood Park. The winner arrived in the final minute of the game as French defender Claude Dielna, brought on to help safeguard a draw just two minutes previously, made himself a hero with a deflected effort from outside the box. It was a goal to delight Wednesday fans everywhere and was a moment so welcome that it sent Owls forward Chris Maguire flying and Dielna’s shorts down in the ensuing frenzy!
It is another dramatic winner to add to the list we’ve enjoyed through the years as Wednesdayites and they’ve each had their own level of importance. Few, if any, will ever beat the scenes of Michail Antonio’s goal against Carlisle United in April 2012 en route to snatching League One promotion away from our rivals Sheffield United, but the momentum gathered from Dielna’s winner could be pivotal moving forward.
The opening weeks of this season had us all dreaming, but an extraordinary lack of goals and chance creation over the past two months has been extremely tough to endure. Up until the most recent home game, we had scored just three league goals at Hillsborough in nine matches, and none from open play. Even season ticket holders have been trying out Saturday afternoon alternatives to a regular first-hand viewing of ‘The Owls 0…’, but hope has arrived.
The issues that have hampered us are not all sorted with two wins, but I’ve felt a lot better just lately as we’ve lined up with a wealth of attacking options. On-loan Watford midfielder Lewis McGugan has joined widemen Chris Maguire and Royston Drenthe (on loan from Reading) behind strikers Stevie May and Atdhe Nuhiu, while two more creative outlets in midfielder Kieran Lee and forward Caolan Lavery have returned from injury. Against Wigan, you could see that extra effort to stream forward as even the defensive-minded Jose Semedo hit the post and was later caught offside!
The picture changes so quickly in football and while that means many disposable opinions it also frequently presents you with another chance to right the wrongs of the games that have gone before. The shortage of wins had some calling Stuart Gray’s management into question, but with just four league defeats all season and the second-best defensive record in the Championship, back-to-back wins have put us into 12th and just four points from the play-offs.
Something that has characterised our club throughout the minimal highs and well-documented lows since we left the top flight in 2000 is the loyal support. Whether dipping below the 20,000 mark at home or the times we’ve far exceeded it, Wednesday fans have stuck by the team, but I don’t blame anyone who’s felt like not attending games this season. It doesn’t mean you’re not a ‘true supporter’. Everyone has their own circumstances and commitments, and when goals, chances and attacking intent are at such a premium it’s no surprise that some will start to cut out games. An afternoon watching Championship football isn’t cheap but it’s about giving people reasons to put Sheffield Wednesday first. It shouldn’t be about blind faith alone.
One value Stuart Gray’s Wednesday have had in abundance since he took over last season is hard work and while that gets spoken of in football as a quality that should be fundamental, we know that’s far from a given. Gray describes the spirit in the team as ‘unbelievable’ and as easy as it would be for any manager to say that, I genuinely believe him. We’ve got a group that plays for each other, the manager, the supporters, and the badge. Defensive solidity is a great foundation but we’ve seen the perils of an overcautious approach this season. When something starts to go wrong it’s natural to lose confidence, but it’s flowing again after these two wins. I’ve seen growing signs of late that I hope people have been encouraged by: Kieran Lee’s brilliant turn that should have won him a penalty against Rotherham, Atdhe Nuhiu’s deft set-up for Stevie May against Wigan, and the growing confidence of the latter as we start to get him in behind defences and back on the goal trail.
There’s a lot to say for those who’ve held it together at the back for us, but I want to highlight Royston Drenthe (see pic above) as well. While he may be the subject of the copy-and-paste-style ‘humour’ of ‘footy / LAD’ Twitter accounts for going from Real Madrid to Wednesday in recent times, the Dutch winger has impressed me since he joined us. He’s always intrigued me since the early part of his career, gaining attention for his unpredictability but undoubted flair and talent. I don’t want to speculate about any off-field issues he may have had, but it’s fair to say he’s firmly out of favour at parent club Reading. I judge players on what they do for Sheffield Wednesday and after he joined on loan he patiently waited for his chance while immediately making an effort to integrate himself into the team dynamic.
He appears to be really enjoying it at the club and although he may not always get it right with his play, with him on the pitch we’ve got a chance of getting beyond defenders, whipping a dangerous cross or corner in, or finding the back of the net. For me, you’ve always got to have these players; the ones who entertain and aren’t afraid to fail by trying something to win you a game. I hope he starts sticking to standing tackles only but I’d really like to keep him with us. At 27, only he knows how much he’s learned from the ups and downs of his career, but a Wednesday line-up with Drenthe in just has that extra bit of possibility and excitement.
I keep hearing how we’re ‘not that far away’ from being a leading contender in this division. I long for the day we finally bridge that gap but I also think it’s worth stopping to take stock of where we are at the moment. We’re still losing £6million each year according to chairman Milan Mandaric, and although we’re craving that additional firepower that costs significant figures, I look at the state of numerous clubs and feel glad that we’re on a relatively sturdy footing.
Heading into this Christmas period of games, let’s ramp up that interest again. We’ve not had a Boxing Day fixture at home since Newcastle United in 2009 and even if 24th-placed Blackpool won’t bring the same cup-tie feel of that league game it would be great to go into it with a big crowd, off the back of a really promising run of results. We’ve got four games left this year and each is against a team below us in the table. Handing Blackburn their first defeat in ten might just have swayed a few more to come to the Wolves game this Saturday and it is a chance to urge the team on to a victory that could put us within touching distance of the top six.
For now, keep enjoying that Dielna winner from the weekend. Take great heart from the fact we just beat a team with multi-million pound players on their own patch, and remember that we’re a point behind huge-spending Nottingham Forest. After 20 games, we’re four points from the play-offs and ten clear of the relegation zone, and Gray deserves plenty of credit for that. An extended winless run will plant doubts in supporters’ minds but his many good points didn’t suddenly become void in that time. He’s a terrific man-manager, someone who creates an environment people actually want to be in, a person who doesn’t cast players aside just because they’re not starting, and he’s a manager who represents our club in the right way. There are 24 Championship teams fighting for results, trying to be as good as they can, and not everyone can win consistently. We can all be more forgiving when players make honest mistakes. Maybe it sounds simplistic but sometimes it does need a wider perspective like that and an understanding of how we’re all trying to do our best. Wednesday will drive you insane otherwise!
It can be easily forgotten when you’re walking away frustrated from a freezing game, but there are always reasons to be proud of being a Wednesdayite. We can have different routines when it comes to following the club – some of us are thousands of miles from Sheffield – but it’s a spirit you carry with you no matter where you are. That time spent at a game, or even just tracking it online and interacting with other fans, can be someone’s escape. Those hours on match day might be the rare opportunity someone gets to spend with their kids as they’re getting older, or that walk over to Hillsborough could have you feeling bonded together again with friends or family who live a different life from you for the rest of the week. I know I can think back to Wednesday games over the years when I had personal things on my mind and how being at the game was that time away from worries. It makes it all that bit more special if there’s a good performance and result, or even a spectacular finale like on Saturday. Along with other reasons, that’s why I feel we owe it to ourselves to go for it at home. Roll the dice and have some faith. It won’t always go our way but we might just get an atmosphere or a moment that makes a young fan’s mind up that Wednesday are for them. Regardless of era and league standing, a John Harkes or John Sheridan moment can last a lifetime. Truthfully, this season has had its hard times, but that Dielna winner and the joy that followed for every Wednesdayite is a reminder of how it can be, and that’s why we never truly walk away.