by Chris Brookes
The end of the line has come for Ross Wallace at Sheffield Wednesday, with the vastly-experienced Scottish winger to be let go this summer as manager Jos Luhukay gets his first pre-season in S6. Through crucial goals, assists, spirit and mischief, however, Wallace ensured his impact went together with the club’s awakening as sweetly as his left foot through a ball.
As a new dawn began to break at Wednesday over the summer of 2015, in the first few months after Dejphon Chansiri’s takeover, Wallace was one of the first few players in through the door. 30 at the time, the diminutive wideman was snapped up after playing 15 times for Burnley as the Clarets were unable to stave off relegation from the Premier League.
By his own admission, he had been in need of a fresh beginning somewhere, and in so many ways, Ross Wallace was exactly what we had been missing at Wednesday. A creative source with an eye for the spectacular, as a young player at Sunderland he wasn’t shy to give some back when his manager Roy Keane had some choice words to say to him, which the Manchester United icon respected him for. A lively personality and we certainly saw that in the blue and white, didn’t we?!
In a summer where what had become so alien to Wednesday fans – spending money on players – finally started again, there was no transfer fee for Wallace, but his capture felt like a shift of sorts. Someone capable of the kind of game-changing ‘where did that come from?’ flash of brilliance that we’d started to get used to missing out on. Look no further than his goal to start us on our way to a 5-1 Championship thrashing of Norwich last March; razor-sharp thinking and execution to send a 40-yarder past keeper John Ruddy after he was caught out. The man with the number 33 on his back was a symbol of the climb back into the light under Chansiri and the management of Carlos Carvalhal.
Wallace’s arrowed finish past Arsenal’s Petr Cech into the bottom corner in the last 16 of the League Cup in October 2015, on a night where we made light work of dispatching Arsene Wenger’s side, was another ‘hold on, something might be starting again for us here’ moment. In those first two seasons, he was his own corner of the many still-frame spectaculars we enjoyed, while every bit an integral part of the team’s. There was the assist treble in one Hillsborough game against Fulham, the crossbar-kissing rocket from way out against the same opposition, and the comedy we were regularly treated to. Fernando Forestieri convincing him for a second that his opener in the Championship semi-final first leg against Brighton had been disallowed, in the heat of a game like that, was the epitome. To watch it back now brings not just a laugh but an ocean of nostalgia just two years on. The world-class Scottish stealth to briefly steal the notes delivered from the Huddersfield bench to Elias Kachunga in another televised game goes right alongside it.
Like how he tearfully limped out of the action just minutes into the play-off semi return leg at home to Huddersfield a year ago, this season ended for him in February after lending his experience and versatility as Jos Luhukay cobbled together a line-up each game for weeks after his January appointment as Owls manager. The Dutch boss has opted to bid farewell to Wallace, but his three years have brought well over 100 games and an impact even those who remember him at Sunderland, Preston, Burnley, or for Martin O’Neill’s Celtic in the Champions League once upon a different-striped time, might not have foreseen. We were suddenly packed with quality again – from Keiren Westwood in goal, through to Gary Hooper and Forestieri wreaking havoc at the other end – and Wallace fit superbly into the energetic, free-flowing Wednesday of Carlos’ first season. When the opposition defences started building a fort each week at Hillsborough in season two, the weightlessness the team had dazzled under during 2015/16 was replaced by much more of a grind, but we ultimately found a way, finishing two places higher in 4th and with Wallace once again a mainstay (45 games, 5 goals).
Everything else I remember about Ross Wallace and Sheffield Wednesday as a partnership will come just after that Brighton first-leg goal in the 2016 play-offs, on a Hillsborough night that was just a little bit different to any other I’ve known. If you were there, or even if you watched it on TV and saw those bouncing, illuminating images, you will know just what I mean. At 28, and without a time-travel licence as yet, I wouldn’t be qualified to judge how highly it ranks in a ‘best ever’ list of afternoons and evenings at our famous home in history, but something just felt on its own level that night. A shared S6 awakening as the mobile-phone-powered ‘Friday night lights’ went together with a team pressing home its advantage and creating its own unique capsule in Wednesday time. With not a spare seat around, everyone on their feet, looking straight ahead towards the Leppings Lane end, I saw Wallace on the ball on the right. What came next through a crowd of players was a bulge of the net and a blue and white eruption of noise that I reckon will be somewhere in the montage if my life ever flashes before my eyes.
And who was captain that May evening? Glenn Loovens. The veteran Dutch defender was there throughout all those same memories, as a bridge from the end of Dave Jones’ largely-arduous time in charge, into the uplifting Stuart Gray beginnings when he finally got to make his debut. He remained the on-field leader when Carlos arrived, and truly, he deserves his own headline billing in a farewell article.
I was three years old near the end of our season of four trips to Wembley, was one when a Mancunian-Irishman ‘dinked’ St. Sheridan’s Day into Wednesday folklore, and my true beginnings following us were set amongst dropping out of the top flight, and then down again three years later in 2003. I’d come to see Wembley as something far off in the distance; something other teams got to go and experience, but just never us. The day we had all that again, Loovens was the man leading us out. Same laid-back smile as always, in front of a Wednesday-dominated 70,189 at Wembley against Hull in the 2016 Championship play-off final. A brilliant captain; from the composure to the timing of the challenge which so sadly deserted him this season as injury succession and his advancing years seemingly transpired against him. Loovens will leave us after this Sunday’s season-closer at home to fellow mid-table (think we just about qualify) occupants Norwich, and he goes with the memory of being the leader of the team spirit that became so heartening to see alongside the winning football as we rose up again. And who can forget, scorer of that headed winner at Newcastle to put in our proud Boxing Day archive? The pictures he shared of his family alongside him in Wednesday kits towards the end of last season will stay in the mind as well, and hopefully they will always remain honorary Wednesdayites.
While we put some trust now in Jos to shape what comes next, let us be in no doubt what Wallace and Loovens have given to our team and club in these past few seasons. It’s never a bad thing to express fond memories, or to say that someone had a hand in making you smile. There’s enough derision and negativity in football and in life to go around already, of that I’m certain.
This season has been one where it felt like the rug was pulled from under us after the two previous years knocking at the door of the Premier League. Robbed of more and more key players as an already-stuttering campaign progressed, Carlos went just in time for Christmas, and so did thoughts of promotion or even scrambling into 6th to extend our season. I’ve been through the relegations, staying up on the last day, the 5-1 batterings at Stevenage and Exeter, the home humblings towards the bottom end of Division Two/League One, so lower-mid-table in the Championship doesn’t quite compare. Because of the upturn in more recent weeks, I can say that from a more comfortable position now! It’s amazing what a returning Forestieri here, a Barry Bannan and a Tom Lees there can do, but it’s a season to learn from.
At Preston in August, it felt as if the first whistle blew on the season with us still asleep somewhere back in June. From the kits to the team itself, it just didn’t seem like we were ready. These will have been an intense first four months for Jos, but I’m very keen to see what happens over the next three with a man who led Hertha Berlin and Augsburg into the Bundesliga. Even after a season that at times has had all the positive feeling of a traffic jam or an accidental bite of your gum, the beauty of this game we love is that hope will be reset to maximum now. There’s always the next chance, and even in the struggles, there have been shining lights, with the rejuvenation of Portuguese striker Lucas João, his partner in crime and Kosovan darling of the Kop these days, Atdhe Nuhiu, getting into double figures, and the emergence of several youngsters. Then we’ve still got half a team to return.
I read one fan message about Wallace leaving yesterday, saying that he’ll be generally well remembered. I laughed a little bit because for me, the way he’s thought of by our club should be as emphatic as that thunderbolt he served up down at Craven Cottage. The Instagram story video of him with Bannan and Nuhiu in the back of a taxi, heads bobbing to Daft Punk (or Bannan’s loose interpretation of it…) after we’d secured a play-off place in 2017 is yet another for the Wallace at Wednesday scrapbook. His ‘spiky’ reaction to being told to get up by the opposition as the minutes gloriously ebbed away at Brighton in the second leg, a game in which his goal-bound cross threw us back some control in the most uncomfortable match I’ve ever had as a Wednesdayite, is also a personal favourite for me.
The goals, the laughs, the assists – the backdrop to memories. You take them with you as a little bit of home and belonging. I know I have as I’ve moved my life away in the last few months. As lost as you might feel sometimes, there’s always Wednesday as one piece of it all to remind you of who you are. ‘Steel City Blues Part 3’ on YouTube, the last minute or so of it – if you ever need those blue and white tingles to come rushing back in an instant.
Cast your mind back to that Huddersfield second leg last season. No, not the penalties or the delightful struggle to get out of the ground at the end, but the Steven Fletcher goal to put us one up on the night. It was our only real moment to enjoy of that tie, but the celebrations around me on the Kop were out of this world and felt like they lasted forever. It was delirium, it was carnage in the stands, and it will come again.
Ross Wallace and Glenn Loovens have been huge for a team that showed us that Wednesday can have a future as well as a past. The greatest sadness is that they leave the stage before we truly do find ‘our way back.’ For a free transfer, ‘Rossco’ (as Nando calls him) has given us 124 games, 13 goals, a barrel-load of assists, and just as many brilliantly devilish exploits. Stats could never say what I felt, and what the majority of the 34,000 at Hillsborough and thousands more watching from afar felt when he scored those play-off goals. So unlike those tactical notes Huddersfield had written down on that little sheet of paper, Mr. Wallace, this one really is for you.