by Chris Brookes
The 29th of May 2005, a day etched into the memories of Sheffield Wednesday supporters the world over as Paul Sturrock’s side came through a nerve-jangling League One play-off final with Hartlepool United at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium to win 4-2 after extra-time. The quotes rang out in their numbers, ‘Sheffield Wednesday have reached their turning point’ and suchlike, and the one that has always stayed with me since that unforgettable Sunday afternoon: ‘this was the day the decline stopped’. After five years of struggle on and off the pitch since relegation from the top flight in 2000 everything suggested that one of England’s finest and most distinguished old names were on their way back to the big time. Only someone hadn’t read the script. Consolidation and seeming progression from 2005 onwards that had taken so much toil to gain was all undone as The Owls meekly surrendered Championship status in May 2010 at home to Crystal Palace. Now two years on from relegation we have a new day to remember, for all the right reasons this time, and that unmistakeable blue and white swarm is raging once more and this time it’s stronger than ever.
This Saturday heralded a 2-0 home victory over relegated Wycombe Wanderers in front of the biggest crowd outside the Premier League this season – 38,082, around 37,500 of which were Wednesday supporters. League One this season has been immensely strong, Charlton have been unstoppable from the outset with a remarkable 101 points as champions, but any followers of the domestic game will have been drawn to the titanic battle between the Sheffield clubs for the second automatic promotion place that went right down to the wire. Sheffield United held the advantage almost all of the way, at their best moment back in February they were five points clear of Wednesday with two games in hand, but the Steel City derby at the end of that month belonged to The Owls. That match, as has often been referred to, was Gary Megson’s last as Wednesday manager and it may have been settled by a solitary Chris O’Grady header but it was a marker, a shift in the city’s footballing supremacy for this season and the first warning shot of the blue and white’s ultimately overpowering pursuit of the enemy.
Dave Jones took charge properly for his first game against Bury in March and what has followed has been a breathtaking run of ten wins and two draws from twelve games. United’s lead began to dwindle but a recovery in their form had them four points clear of Wednesday with just three games remaining. Danny Wilson’s team however buckled when it mattered the most, losing at MK Dons and drawing at home to Stevenage while Wednesday overcame both Carlisle United and Brentford to finally overtake the unfriendly neighbours going into the final match. A point clear, Wednesday faced Wycombe at Hillsborough while United headed to Exeter City. Both the Sheffield clubs’ opponents were relegated already and the Blades needed a slip-up from S6 to stand any chance of automatic promotion, but it never arrived as an assured Owls team dominated and won 2-0 to secure a return to the Championship after two extremely eventful years in League One. The latter part of 2010 had Wednesday on their knees, decimated by long-standing debt and staring at the abyss they needed a saviour and when it came down to it ex-Portsmouth and Leicester City owner Milan Mandaric rose to the fore. The curtain very nearly came down on over 140 years of history at the South Yorkshire giant and that, allied with over a decade of predominant hardships, has meant that this season and a magical promotion party to end with have been all the more precious.
It started with flawless home form (seven Hillsborough league wins in a row) but some troublesome away days (three defeats on the road from the first four), and it ended with the most consistent winning football I have ever witnessed as a Wednesdayite. Gary Megson provided the launch pad before his February 29th sacking, although he has plenty of critics even now when his name is brought up I am in appreciation of him. He was the man who gave me back the pride of supporting Wednesday and the one who eradicated the playing squad of spare parts who would never have formed a successfully functioning promotion mechanism. If you ask me though ‘would we have finished 2nd with a record 93 points under his management?’ I would have to suggest not.
Under Dave Jones we have scaled new heights, playing with two orthodox wingers and displaying tangible freedom in our play has been a joy to witness and the dividends could hardly have been greater. I feel Megson deserves his due for the part he played though, but Jones and his staff’s input have been terrific. Advocating the dismissal of a manager who had his team in 3rd is hard for me to do and the timing of it felt crude while we were still delirious from defeating the Blades, but Mandaric made a hugely brave call and he deserves all the praise for his appointment of Jones. When Mandaric took over he stated that he may not always make popular decisions but that they would always be for the good of the club, well Milan you called it right and now I truly understand. He talked about considering walking away from the club this season and how the stress of his and Harry Redknapp’s court case left his enthusiasm tank temporarily empty. The fans singing his name and his joyous, pride-filled interview after the game on Saturday as he visibly fought back the tears though will be an enduring image of this time in the club’s history for forever more.
This season overall has galvanised the supporters and created more friendships and connections within the club’s fans along the way than any other in living memory, be it by old fashioned matchday camaraderie or by a shared dedication via social media across the globe, all through the campaign you could feel that togetherness and it came from all levels. Mandaric has overseen numerous necessary alterations in the way Wednesday operate but of course the most keenly viewed of these is out on the pitch and the knock-on effect emanating from a winning on-field product has led to a collective supporter emotion of ‘something special is happening here and we’re all part of it’.
I have loved it, so many moments I and thousands upon thousands will never forget: overcoming a crass lack of sportsmanship at Yeovil to win (a returned drop ball was chased down and converted by the home side), coming back from 2-0 down at the home of the enemy to snatch a late draw, Jose Semedo falling to his knees in prayer after Chris O’Grady buried his header past Steve Simonsen in the derby day win at Hillsborough, and that unstoppable momentum in the final run-in that has taken us all the way over the finish line.
I wrote an article on here a fortnight ago about the uncontrollable emotion deriving from Michail Antonio’s 94th-minute winner against Carlisle and that moment for me goes hand in hand with the final whistle sounding out against Wycombe on Saturday – something I’ll remember for the rest of my life. You dream about those kind of scenarios and yet when it finally comes to fruition it feels like it isn’t real but the 5th of May 2012 was and always will be something special. I was on the pitch at the end of the season in 2004 when Ian Holloway’s QPR won promotion against us, although it was merely due to my 14-year-old exuberance rather than as part of anything meaningful for Wednesday. This time we had another invasion, and it was joy-infused and all about Wednesday, and though I was an observer from the stand it was a hell of a sight to see the sheer volume of numbers in unison like that.
The day itself and the week leading up to it were bursting at the seams with excitement but undeniably nerves too for everyone concerned – I just wanted to get to the ground to make sure that it was really happening and to see that I wasn’t the only one going off the scale for anxiousness. Little moments along the way like the ‘Beattie’s been sent off’ chant to the ‘Give It Up’ tune (as word came in that the Blades striker had been dismissed at Exeter) and Antonio taking the ball into the corner and beating a number of Wycombe players only to do a full circle back around and into the same corner again seconds later lightened the emotional load. I think we knew deep down though that with this team and staff we were in safe hands. As someone brilliantly said, ‘League One is nice for a visit but you don’t want to live here’.
All through the season we have exhausted ourselves with the permutations of ‘if we do this and United do this, then we’ll need to do this etc.’ – all that counts now is that Wednesday did it. I walked out of the ground after relegation two years ago wanting to get as far away from it as possible, completely dejected at the state our club was in. I thought back to that very moment this weekend when I left at the end, this time full of joy and justified hope for the future. No debt, a totally ambitious chairman who realises he won’t be here for the long haul but has already made good on his promises, a team to be proud of and a fanbase together as one. Saturday was for every Owls fan all over the world however far from Hillsborough your path has taken you, it was for the young fans only just filling their footballing canvas, it was for the wise ones who’ve been there, got the t-shirt and complained about it but still never stopped pulling it on come matchday, and it was for all those who have sadly passed who loved this great club before they were taken from us. I know there were celebrations and smiles from up there beaming down when Antonio and Ranger scored.
Now is the time for the club to capitalise: put the promotion DVD together, get the season tickets back on sale and pushed and promoted everywhere, and keep this wave of optimism and interest going all the way back to the Premier League, because that is the only place a club that attracts a vociferous crowd of over 38,000 in League One belongs. It won’t be at all easy back in the Championship but now is no time for settling for treading water. Do all you can Milan to get the likes of Danny Batth and Michail Antonio signed permanently and just add a few enhancements of quality to an already incredibly spirited team. ‘Magic’ Portuguese midfield enforcer Jose Semedo won the fans’ and players’ Player of the Year award last night and he like so many others have been a joy to watch – a magnificent collective effort full of heart, sincerity and class.
We finally have a set of players who know what it means to wear that badge and who can face the fight. The soundtrack to this story has been provided by the likes of ‘you’ll never get past Semedo’, ‘Gary Madine, goal machine’, ‘olé, olé, olé, olé, olé, Danny Batth, Batth, Batth’ and the lasting one – ‘this city is ours’. Let’s hope we’re singing them into the moonlight for a long time yet. Something amazing has begun at Sheffield Wednesday once more – make sure it never stops again. I have heard it said that as a Wednesday fan you don’t get many days in the sun so enjoy them while you can. Magical events like this Saturday and a season as glorious as this one though just make you believe that it is finally time for the star of this wonderful club to return to shining amongst the very brightest of lights. I’m so proud to be part of it.