Nine games into the Championship season, the division is beginning to offer some glimpses into how the months to come will play out. In a league characterised by entertainment and unpredictability, Sheffield Wednesday know how tough the quest for consistency can be. With a Capital One Cup upset at Newcastle United in between victories over Fulham and Brentford, The Owls have made it three successive wins for the first time since December 2012. Still very much adapting to the playing and coaching personnel changes that took place this summer off the back of Dejphon Chansiri’s January takeover, Wednesday fans are starting to get a tantalising indicator of a future laden with possibility.
With The Owls almost twenty points from the Championship’s play-off and relegation places in 2014/15, the campaign was every bit as ‘middle of the road’ as the final place of 13th would suggest. It was however a season with more frustration than most, as the team registered just 43 league goals, with only the relegated trio of Millwall, Wigan Athletic and Blackpool managing less. Thai businessman Chansiri had taken over the club from Milan Mandaric in the final stages of the January transfer window and despite his respect and liking for head coach Stuart Gray he let the former Southampton boss go in the summer.
Gray’s replacement was ultimately Carlos Carvalhal, a Portuguese coach whose well-populated managerial CV includes spells – albeit relatively short ones – in charge at Braga, Sporting Clube de Portugal and Besiktas. As well as the new coach, 15 players (ten on permanent deals) have arrived in S6, as well as a brand new pitch and a scoreboard to add to the changing complexion of the club. Introducing such a high number of newcomers to the fold may often mean disjointed signs early on and with only one league win from the opening seven there was certainly a feeling of anxiousness from plenty of Wednesdayites. However, a 3-2 home win over Fulham, followed by a 1-0 success at Newcastle in the Capital One Cup, and a dramatic 2-1 victory at Brentford at the weekend have got the optimism bustling again.
As Wednesday fans, it is fair to say we headed into this pre-season feeling a great degree of uncertainty (with a lot of excitement) at the changes to come. There is still plenty of that feeling but these last three wins, and especially the manner of the Brentford victory, have helped to cement our early connection to the current crop of players, and to Carvalhal.
At Griffin Park on Saturday, Wednesday finally put away a Brentford side reduced to ten men in the first half with a 90th-minute winner from 22-year-old Portuguese striker Lucas Joao. The Bees’ James Tarkowski had been sent off for bringing down Atdhe Nuhiu on 37 minutes and it was the Wednesday frontman who put away the resulting penalty. Alan Judge cancelled out Nuhiu’s opener on 77 minutes but it was Joao who raced through to win the game for The Owls, who had lost Jeremy Helan to a red card late on.
As a fan and as a person I live on these moments that awaken inspiration. It doesn’t need Wednesday sweeping aside every opponent; just something that lights a fire for us. Despite some of the times of struggle since we returned to the Championship in 2012, the last three years have had these moments. A Leroy Lita header crashing in off the bar to beat Crystal Palace late on at Hillsborough, Miguel Llera and Reda Johnson heading home crucial goals, or a cool Kieran Lee finish to set it off in the away end at Rotherham. It’s that momentary invincibility that hits you and makes you feel, if just for a few seconds, that your team are above and beyond anyone else.
I love every Wednesday win, although last season had too few of them to really get us going and feeling good. We were always safe from relegation danger, although never close to challenging for the higher places in the Championship, and the shortage of goals, and even chances created, made it a strangely arduous season to follow. That said, under often tough circumstances Stuart Gray did a solid job in his eighteen months in charge and the way he’d hauled us away from trouble in the second half of 2013/14 and brought a tangible sense of pride back to the club will stay in my mind.
We’ve been away from the Premier League for long enough (15 years) to know that we don’t have any given right to beat every team we come up against at this level. What we can legitimately ask for is the adventure to try for the right things in our play; the risk in our game going forward that brings people to their feet and might just leave a memory to win a young fan’s heart from that point on. We’re far from the finished article as a team. In truth, even the most successful sides are never quite fully content with what they’ve got. I do, however, see that intention within us of late to get multiple players forward – perfectly illustrated in the first half against Fulham when six were racing on at one point to join the attack – and although we still seem some way from being able to properly control a game when in front, the potential and endeavour is cause for immense optimism. Step back and look at our squad and it’s pretty exciting – even teams who’ve had the beating of us in recent years are now casting envious eyes at us for some of the players we’ve brought in.
There are games where you take what you can get, but I didn’t fall in love with football as a kid from dreaming of a credible 0-0. Although it’s true we didn’t sign that ‘proven finisher’ every team seems to be searching for I believe we’ll get that player in the months to come. Now it’s a chance for the whole group to fill that void and we can play our part. In the Fulham game, new signing from Watford, Fernando Forestieri, tried a bit of skill which didn’t quite come off. I think it’s so important to keep encouraging that kind of invention. Many of the greatest football moments came from playing off sheer instinct and will to entertain (Marco Matias and Chris Brunt wonder goals at Elland Road, anyone?). If it’s with good intentions, applaud the conviction to try. It’s natural as fans to get frustrated but it makes such a difference when you turn that to encouragement instead. I go back to our former winger Michail Antonio, now in the Premier League with West Ham United. When he was confident he was unstoppable, but when the fortunes were against him he’d make mistakes and the crowd discontent would visibly make his head drop further. It ultimately rests with the player but I think we can all be better supporters sometimes; it’s a game played by people, not robots or characters on a video game.
On the subject of Forestieri, I’m as excited as I’ve ever been about a Wednesday signing with him. Most of us were sold on his ability the first time we saw him against us for Watford, when he scored at Hillsborough in a 4-1 win and then got both goals to beat us at Vicarage Road in 2012/13. He’s a terrific talent but as any Watford fan will tell you he’s an emotional player and person who cares deeply and one who needs support. We were singing his name after the goal against Fulham and it’s a chance to make a genuine gem of a player be one of ours. I hope we keep that backing for him and all of our other players, new and old, as well as Carvalhal, who deserves respect for his years in the game and his undoubted efforts to immerse himself in our club since he arrived. We might get the odd one-cap England forward on loan who doesn’t grasp it here, but they don’t know how spine-tingling it can be at Wednesday. Ask Jose Semedo what this club is. Ask Lee Peacock about the fans’ roar that he swears to this day made the team bus sway as it pulled down the street in Cardiff before the 2005 play-off final. It’s why even a (sort of…) young one like me at 25 can watch celebrations from that Mel Sterland penalty against Palace to win promotion back to the top flight and feel every shiver. We can take it for granted when we walk those Hillsborough steps or take our place in a Wednesday crowd away, but this isn’t an average club and it leaves an impact when people experience it for the first time. In those moments, the whole world becomes SWFC, with everything else fading to just a supporting act. I can tell you when I’ve interviewed ex-players like Lee Grant, Frank Simek, Deon Burton or Leroy Lita how their tone has lifted when the conversation turns to us and how they’ve began thinking back and describing their time here, only to pause and just say ‘wow’. The likes of John Harkes, Chris Waddle and the others from the golden early-90s era speak for themselves, but I think of U.S. midfielder Stuart Holden, who’s played in the Premier League and for his country at a World Cup and still once picked out his Wednesday debut and the Hillsborough atmosphere in that relegation fight with Barnsley in 2013 as one of the best in his career.
There’s beauty in the journey we’re on now and perhaps never more so than in those little passages of play when we nearly create something brilliant as a team, only to just miss the mark. Enjoy witnessing this work in progress, and when it doesn’t quite come off, remember – it’s a process and we’ll get there. When you see them working so hard for each other and for you it only makes you more delighted when the win is secured. It’s a time of a lot of change for the club but still little details are dotted around that instantly give you that sense of belonging and sense of ‘Wednesday’ – Lee Bullen assisting on the touchline, Semedo patrolling the midfield, and that last-minute winning rush we’ve felt numerous times before but will never fall out of love with. It’s a feeling I had recently watching Chris Maguire’s winner for us against Barnsley from two seasons ago and I think it’s because it took me straight back to that moment in the stands in the rain and reminded me of that specific time in my life away from football. I realise all the more now that these are moments of your life and Wednesday are providing the backdrop. I see old games and think of which stage of my life it was. That Maguire winner and the celebrations from Stuart Gray on the sideline and all the team diving into the corner brought back memories of that afternoon, and a certain someone from that time in my life at 23, and how it all just went together. In that sense, football is a true reflection of life. We lose people and relationships, just as Wednesday lose games, and it feels like everything at the time being lost, but there’s always something new in the future. There’s a Lucas Joao winning moment there for us all.
No matter how the exterior of our club changes in these years to come, the heart of Sheffield Wednesday is non-negotiable. I love that this is happening in a time when social media and the like elevates everything. Although that can work in different ways it makes sure that nobody gets left out on this journey for us when moments like Saturday’s win happen. Fans, players, staff – we all just want to be on the team in that way. It’s exciting to imagine the times that could be around the corner. Don’t wish them away, just enjoy them as they come and when you feel downhearted after we lose just try and bring back some perspective. In this month ahead, we’re at home four times, including in the cup against Arsenal. No matter how that game plays out I can’t wait to experience it and all that the future holds for us, in good and bad. You can keep all your other clubs, because when all’s said and done, it might just be football, but we know Wednesday mean that little bit more than that. There’ll be those bumps in the road along the way, though just maybe we can finally start moving. It’s been much too long.