by Chris Brookes
There isn’t a supporter of any club who doesn’t believe that their team puts them through the mill with the mentally, physically and financially draining aspects you accept as a formality when you sign up to being a football fan. It may be non-league supporters whose dedication is of such amplified importance that if only a relatively small number of them were to withdraw their backing the very future of the club would be placed in jeopardy. Conversely, even some fans of top Premier League clubs who may have merely slipped up in the odd game here and there will say ‘we never do it the easy way’. True followers of each club will tell you as best they can though what it means to be one of them, and it is different for each example. For Sheffield Wednesday, Michail Antonio’s 94th-minute winner in this weekend’s potentially crucial win over Carlisle United spawned a video from the stands that I believe truly captures what it means to be a Wednesdayite.
Warning! Contains language of a blue and white nature!
The situation at present in League One has Wednesday and Sheffield United trading punches in a battle that has gone the distance, although the knockout blow is about to be landed in the next two games. With Charlton confirmed as champions, United are 2nd with 88 points and Wednesday are 3rd with 87. The season has swung back and forth in the race for the coveted last automatic promotion place with the Blades back in February able to go as far as 11 points clear with their lead at that point and with their games in hand, so the very fact that the Owls are so close at this stage is testament to the resilience and quality they have shown over the campaign. Before Saturday’s games United were four points clear but their 1-0 defeat at MK Dons and Wednesday’s 2-1 win at home to Carlisle has cut the gap to a solitary point.
The emotions at Hillsborough during the weekend’s match were of the archetypal rollercoaster nature. Early on in proceedings word had come in from Milton Keynes that United had fallen behind and there was the usual anticipation when the veteran scoreboard (you’ll know if you have seen it that it is a bit of an old timer compared to newer models) displayed the ‘Shhhhhhh!’ graphic. This was followed by the inevitable yet joy-inducing scoreflash ‘MK DONS 1 SHEFF UTD 0’ and the roar that rang around the home areas of the ground was huge – I’d describe it as like half a Wednesday goal in usual circumstances, but in this one it probably amounted to 75% of one! Around ten minutes after this came our opening goal by Chris Lines and the positive feeling was tangible for a while after. In the game though we dominated but couldn’t find the ruthlessness to bury Carlisle, and we looked to have been punished in the last ten minutes. The Cumbrians’ James Berrett equalised in front of the travelling supporters at the Leppings Lane end and there was anxiousness bordering on all-out despair for Wednesdayites in the minutes that followed as it looked for all the world like we had blown the opportunity.
The unerring spirit and determination however has been in evidence throughout the season: from Gary Madine’s late equaliser from 2-0 down in the derby at Bramall Lane, to his injury-time equaliser at home to Walsall that felt only mildly significant at the time but could well be paramount in the final reckoning. As on-loan Reading winger Michail Antonio buried his 4th goal in 12 games for the club, inside the far post in front of the Kop almost five minutes into the six added on at the end, there was unbridled delirium.
I have witnessed some last-gasp winners at the famous old stadium in the past – Graeme Lee’s header against Bristol City, Steve MacLean against Crystal Palace, Chris Brunt’s stunning volley to beat Barnsley, Luke Varney’s against Watford that had me sure we’d stay in the Championship (we didn’t). At 22 though the only real ‘good times’ I’ve experienced as a fan are play-off success from this division in 2005 and a play-off push for the top flight in 2007, so as someone not fortunate enough to have been part of the real glory days I’d go as far as to say that this season has been the most enjoyable. The togetherness at all levels ignited by Gary Megson and the players on the field and carried on to an even greater level since Dave Jones’ appointment, the anticipation instead of pessimism going into each game, the pride at being part of Sheffield Wednesday that has been overshadowed in many ways for so long. For these reasons and more Antonio’s winner on Saturday meant so much more than the usual.
When you go through relegation more than once and see your club on the brink of ruin you start to question why you ever wanted to buy into all of it. On so many occasions I have seen Hillsborough dejected and angry and the only joy on the day coming from the away supporters. This season has shown a real glimpse of what this club can be, and what Milan Mandaric saw when he stepped in at the back end of 2010 to buy The Owls. Some opposition fans have heard the ‘massive’ in-joke that Wednesdayites have said to each other this season and some have completely misunderstood and taken offence at the perceived arrogance – they couldn’t be more wrong. The supporters are just revelling in the fact we finally have reason again to feel that spine-tingling aura of being one of the blue and white community, and when you have the crowds we have despite being in League One and in a two-club city, as well as fans camping outside the ground for away game and derby day tickets, it’s impossible not to suggest we’re quite a sizeable proposition!
With Brentford away next for Wednesday, a side in play-off contention all season although five points away now, the challenge is a significant one but there is every reason to believe we can win at Griffin Park. United face Stevenage at home who have re-emerged strongly to move into the play-offs, so again there is hope for Owls fans. Of course the Blades’ 35-goal top scorer Ched Evans has been jailed and it is impossible for that not to be some sort of factor in the equation. In the final game Wednesday have Wycombe at Hillsborough who may still be in with a shout of avoiding relegation at that time, while United are at Exeter who are two points more likely than Wycombe to be relegated by then. If we have to go into the play-offs we do so knowing that we have amassed between 87 and 93 points, a simply magnificent total and testament to the quality of teams in the promotion race this year. Additionally, we have won nine and drawn three of the last twelve games, with goals and assists capable of coming from all over the team and there is no doubt that the backing of the breathtaking support will be quite something to behold too.
Whatever happens, it has been a hell of a season and one that has given more smiles than the last few campaigns combined. The genuine affection between the players and fans is evident by the large amount of chants for individuals in the team, something else we haven’t had in recent times. The playing personnel seem to grasp the concept of representing Wednesday and the inter-squad chemistry looks to be at an all-time high. The fact it is the neighbours from across the city who we’ve been in direct competition with has heightened everything. As a result, when we’ve lost ground it’s hurt all the more and when it’s gone our way it’s been a million times more meaningful – a double-edged sword hopefully blunted in our favour in a couple of weeks. Gary Megson had his critics but I’ll always be grateful for the job he did in turning us around and for reinstalling that notion that to play for or support this club is something to shout about. Mandaric made a generally unpopular decision in sacking him just days after the Steel City derby win in February but we have had a freshness about us since Dave Jones arrived and we’ve undoubtedly stepped it up a notch, losing some of the fear factor that at times hampered us. If it’s the play-offs then so be it, although when events like Alan Smith’s first goal in five years are going in your favour you just get the feeling that one way or another it will happen for Sheffield Wednesday this year.
The video at the start of this piece says everything about being a Wednesdayite – hugging everyone in sight, falling over seats, all kinds of supporter injuries that nobody seems to mind, emotion even The Green Mile couldn’t give you and three sides of Hillsborough bouncing. If I could bottle and sell the feeling when Antonio’s shot hit the Kop net I’d be a millionaire. Hearing so many fan stories about what they did when he scored, from ones who were at the game to others all over the world, reminds you again of the irrepressible hold the club has over people. During some of the really hard times I’ve wondered why we as supporters let ourselves get so deeply into the emotions which mirror the team’s fortunes, you wonder why you got so annoyed when Exeter and Stevenage beat us 5-1 or why the thought of extinction was so indescribably terrifying – moments like this weekend are the answer. I never thought a goal against Carlisle this season would top the buzz of Chris O’Grady’s winner against United but it somehow did. It’s something you cannot truly describe to be part of this amazing club, in many ways fans of some of the ‘bigger’ clubs in the country won’t understand it, but it’s magical and I love it. ‘You don’t choose Sheffield Wednesday, Sheffield Wednesday chooses you’.
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