With the Wednesdayites sharing their manager’s dream Chris Brookes pays homage to a game-changer leading the charge for promotion.
Though the 2015/16 Championship season is into its final months, the Sheffield Wednesday chorus is only growing louder as The Owls target a return to the Premier League under Carlos Carvalhal after 16 long years away. Wednesdayites have been riding the loop of the season’s anthem, ‘Carlos Had a Dream’, for the past few months, with the Portuguese head coach and his staff’s vision so far providing a fitting framework for a wholehearted and talented team. Within that, the artists in the side like midfielder Barry Bannan and forward Fernando Forestieri have been painting their own interpretation of the game. Even with such a strong team dynamic it is arguably the latter of those who symbolises this exciting new dawn most spectacularly.
It is little over a year since Dejphon Chansiri’s Thai consortium completed its takeover from previous owner Milan Mandaric at Wednesday. From a change in head coach (Stuart Gray to Carvalhal), Hillsborough pitch, scoreboard, a number of the playing personnel, and most recently the badge (albeit with a strong traditional link), supporters are looking at an increasingly attractive club. The progress has moved up through the gears over the course of the current campaign, with a current standing in the final Championship play-off spot in a season that has also seen Capital One Cup eliminations of top-flight Arsenal and Newcastle United.
While the table may say 6th with 50 points after 30 games, no statistics can accurately tell you the feelings this season has awakened for us as Wednesdayites. Chansiri has been going about delivering his promises without fuss, ex-Besiktas and Sporting CP coach Carvalhal has been leading his side with enthusiasm and shrewd intelligence, and the players have been achieving the results a promotion bid demands along with the entertainment supporters crave. The squad, made up of a British base and several international names, has displayed cohesion and work rate in abundance and the four chief attacking players – Fernando Forestieri (11), Gary Hooper (9), Lucas Joao (7) and Atdhe Nuhiu (4) – have provided 31 goals in all.
Forestieri was perhaps the standout of the 15 summer signings made, joining from Watford for a reported £3million, and the Argentine-born former Italy Under-21 international has hit it off in S6 from the outset. During his three years at Watford – in which three of his 21 goals were against Wednesday – the 26-year-old was somewhat on the periphery with the likes of Troy Deeney, Odion Ighalo and Matej Vydra in the ranks and couldn’t quite find the consistency to go with the talent and industry Hornets fans were so fond of, also having his progress disrupted by injury. Of his 91 appearances, 36 were from the bench, but he has started 23 times for Wednesday this season, coming on at Middlesbrough as a half-time sub in December for his other appearance.
Just as Wednesday’s league position doesn’t do justice to the enjoyment of recent months, Forestieri’s facts and figures don’t tell the whole story of the vigour he’s played with and how supporters and teammates have taken to him since he became an Owl. There’s something mesmeric about watching players who have a clear mastery over the ball and you can tell it came from an inseparable connection with it growing up. Forestieri is from Rosario, as are a number of notable players including Angel Di Maria and someone with a name rhyming with Forestieri’s moniker of ‘Fessi’. He describes playing the game as his life, coming from an area in Argentina obsessed with football and a family background which was challenging as his parents worked to make resources stretch for him and his two brothers.
His move to Italy at 16 with Genoa helped change their lives for the better, although his supreme ‘street footballer’ playing style is still there in all its glory. When I think of the players I watched at the top level as a kid – Paul Gascoigne, (the original) Ronaldo etc. – there was an effortless rhythm to how they moved with the ball and we’re seeing it at the moment with Riyad Mahrez at Leicester, for example. While I don’t believe in making direct comparisons between players – every player should be able to be themselves instead of ‘the new’ someone – Forestieri certainly has that kind of adventure and skill that turns games and makes you feel good about loving football.
An ex-Newell’s Old Boys and Boca Juniors youngster, his career has brought two loans from Genoa and a further four from Udinese, including the one which brought him to England. When he knew he was allowed to leave Vicarage Road he wanted a club who wanted him, and that’s exactly what he has here. He liked the quiet of Watford compared to London, although he’s always at the forefront when the goal celebrations get lively for us! Each time a teammate scores in front of Wednesday fans behind the goal, wherever the game may be, he is celebrating like he never wants the game to end.
Even when Forestieri isn’t scoring he’s generally affecting the game; he might not be getting any joy but defenders are so preoccupied by him that it frees up opportunities for others. Both of Gary Hooper’s goals in the 2-0 against Leeds last month came from his tenacity and directness, while there was the beautiful flick for Kieran Lee to score against Preston, as well as his purposeful dribbling to create the chance for Lucas Joao’s equaliser when we beat Huddersfield in November. That 3-1 home win against the Terriers also saw his close control, acceleration and eye for a pass assist Lee, and also Joao for his second. His assist for Hooper’s winner at Birmingham at the weekend also wasn’t a smash across goal, but a deliberate and excellent pick-out.
Simply put, Forestieri is something we haven’t had before. You can liken certain attributes to a small number of our past players but we’ve never had someone who’s quite the same as him. Although his highest goal tally in a season at Watford was eight (twice), he has shown an all-round instinct since he came to us that suggests he can far exceed what he’s managed previously. He netted a variety for the Hornets – with a superb volley at Huddersfield and a flying header past Leicester’s Kasper Schmeichel my personal favourites – and here he’s been putting away scrappy finishes, efforts from outside the box, as well as a header, a penalty and a great piece of improvisation to hook in against Hull. He drives at teams, he never stops trying and he earns his luck. When it’s not going all his way we need to support him all the more.
Aside from our number 45, what was an enticing new chapter also filled with a sense of the unknown for Wednesdayites has so far proved something to delight in. We are just six points off the top two at this stage and since losing to Middlesbrough on August 29th we have won 12 of our 25 league games and lost just four. Only Burnley with 48 have scored more than ourselves and Hull on 45 – we scored 43 in the whole of last season! Carvalhal and the staff deserve huge credit for how quickly they have brought the side together. It helps when you can buy good players but it’s never quite as simple as that. Like the Pozzo family at Watford, we seem to identify the right kind of personalities when we sign players, or ‘the right mentality’ as Forestieri would mischievously say.
Carvalhal was an unknown to fans when he was appointed in the summer but the Portuguese boss has gone to every effort to understand the club and its history and culture, marrying his entertaining football with a genuine personal bond with us. He always puts the emphasis on the team and how different players in the squad will be called upon for particular games, as they may be the specific solution we need for that opponent. For some, that may mean giant Austrian frontman Atdhe Nuhiu, who despite his struggle for goals remains a unique and valuable asset for the side. While most of us will never truly know what goes on behind the scenes, all the proof is there this season of a team that really is exactly that. No player sells the rest short with the effort they give and even with a dazzling talent like Forestieri the group is the real star of the show. I think of how the players defended each other on Saturday after Birmingham’s James Vaughan’s ultra-late foul on Ross Wallace, and maybe Daniel Pudil taking out Leeds’ Giuseppe Bellusci was a little bit of retribution for how he’d tried to rough up his friend and ex-Watford teammate Forestieri a few times in that game.
Some of the reaction after we lost at MK Dons in mid-December is a reminder of the need for perspective when results go against us. I always think this is needed but all the more so when things are as good as they are. As I look back on these past few years I realise it’s all been a process of finding what fits to move us along and a number of people have put forth something towards that. Regardless of your view on any individual, it was Mandaric steadying the ship, Gary Megson reigniting the club’s fractured spirit, Dave Jones finishing the promotion job, Stuart Gray picking us up after we’d faltered, and of course, fostering a team ethic that you still see the evidence of today.
Now it’s Carlos and it’s Chansiri, and whatever may come in the future I feel genuinely happy. You only have to look around at one or two other managers and chairmen and realise how good a situation we have. There’s no need to be so anxious if we lose some games here and there. The progress in the past year has been magnificent; a change in the whole complexion and feeling around our club. Celebrate it at every tiny opportunity and don’t place your satisfaction on every single game needing to be a win – there’s so much more to enjoy about being a Wednesdayite now. I always heard growing up that we just want a team that works for the shirt. Well we’ve got that, and a group filled with extremely good players. It’s all here. I wish I had a Wednesday like this when I was going through school…not that losing four times to Blackpool in one season and scraping Division Two survival didn’t make me proud. That’s why it meant so much when the Lee Bullens and the Jon Paul McGoverns of this Wednesday world came along and offered some hope. It makes me smile every time we’re doing well and I look over and see Bullen on the touchline as such a central part in all this now.
It’s my feeling to just let this season be what it will be. The Friday night we beat Rotherham in October it registered with me that these are the moments; when you feel so much pride and enthusiasm that it’s not even about needing to be back in the Premier League to make us properly happy. Of course it’s where we’re climbing to, but what we have at the moment is more than a bit magical and it should make you smile wider than anything about our club has for an incredibly long time.
I always look at football and specifically Wednesday as a metaphor for parts of life and I can see these players are trying to move mountains for us. When someone tries to do right and they make a mistake, cheer louder for them and make that what defines us as supporters. For all my years following us I’ve heard comments from opposing managers and players about trying to turn the Hillsborough crowd against Wednesday. Well it’s a hell of a prospect when we throw it behind our players and turn it against their team instead.
Regardless of what the next years and decades hold, we’re going to remember this season. It was the year when we began to step back into the light, and although we hope for even brighter, these days in the sun have been special. I love that the Wednesday name is spreading further again and that people I know in America told me they’d watched us beat Arsenal and seen our great goals this season on social media. The picture-book moments have been there: Carlos roaring the crowd on against Bolton, the ‘hands on head’ celebrations, Sam Hutchinson smiling in the Arsenal net after our third goal, or maybe Carlos’ face after his first authentic Steve Evans experience. Our soundtrack is rocking and if you’ve got the Hooper song out of your head then you’re doing better than me. I remember the bouncing for the minutes after Michail Antonio’s dramatic winner against Carlisle in 2012 and how time seemed to freeze. I felt like I could live a lifetime happily stuck in the feeling those minutes brought. This season has got everything that’s great about Wednesday in full flow again and I’m savouring every small step of it. This is our club and I’m so proud of it.