by Chris Brookes
After a finale to last season that had most Sheffield Wednesday supporters believing that the man upstairs had finally dug his Owls shirt out of his drawer again the first few months back in the Championship have been a struggle to say the least. A 2-0 home win over Charlton Athletic this Saturday however was a second success and clean sheet in a row and it was a victory built on industry and a little bit more thought at key moments. The three points moved Dave Jones’ side out of the relegation zone on goal difference at the half-way point of a campaign that has so far seen more downs than ups. It was a classic collective effort capped by two fantastic strikes – a sumptuous first-half volley from midfielder Rhys McCabe and a marvellous run and finish by Manchester City loanee Jeremy Helan at the end. On the day, it was a much-loved yet much-maligned player and character who epitomised the team performance – young frontman Gary Madine.
At 22-years-old I have seen a lot of players come and go at Hillsborough, some who left a lasting impression and others who couldn’t get out of the door fast enough. There have not been many though who have polarised opinion and been talked about quite as much as Madine, a signing from Carlisle United who is just coming up towards two years as a Wednesday player. In that time he has been full of incident, from the sublime to the ridiculous to the downright hysterical. I highly doubt you will find an Owls fan who does not have an opinion one way or another on him but personally I like him and I believe in the ability he has. There is a definite edginess to Madine, at times it almost seems that his footballing ability is only a small part of the barometer from which people formulate their opinion of him. His off-field persona is undoubtedly something that many supporters love him for but I believe wholeheartedly that it works against him in equal measure too. As professional footballers’ Twitter pages go, Madine’s is a guaranteed source of entertainment, without the watered-down and impersonal feel you get from some, and at times I can hardly believe that it is not a parody account! All players on social media experience levels of praise, as well as criticism and often abuse. Some ignore it but Madine is certainly not one of them. There is an argument to be heard that Twitter is something that does more harm than good for footballers and that they would be better served staying away from it but I love the interaction and the ‘behind the scenes’ element that it gives people. It is however very much a double-edged sword in this respect and players have to use it wisely. When you give anyone with Internet connection access to the players in this way it stands to reason that the uneducated will have their say but some of the stuff that gets directed at Madine is laughable.
Constructive criticism is one thing and there are opinions on Madine’s on-field ability that I will stop and take the time to consider because I can see the reasoning behind them, but there are so many other instances when you can see that what gets said is clouded by a general negative feeling towards him. A great example of this is when he scored against Bristol City earlier this month and was criticised by one or two for hitting the post before his effort crossed the line! I know that there will always be that wind-up section of any football club’s following who are never satisfied but I believe it goes too far with Madine. I honestly think that jealousy towards a young player and individual who has been subject to widespread attention, especially in Sheffield’s social scene, plays a part. Opinions are part of football, and indeed life, but some of the criticism is so unjustified that it is hard to believe it’s not personal.
On the pitch, his height (around 6 foot 3) can at times make it a temptation to treat him as a target man to launch it to but that is not his game. He has been proven to be much more effective when the ball is played into his feet and he tries to use possession intelligently with his passes and lay-offs to teammates. Something that has been levelled at Madine in his time at the club is his work rate as some call him lazy while others praise his effort. A fitting indicator perhaps of how he splits opinion in such an extreme way. My own view is that he does put a shift in, fellow striker Chris O’Grady gives that in a more obvious buccaneering way but generally if you watch Madine closely you will see his effort. He won’t always chase after lost causes (often he will though) because he tends to conserve his energy for the right areas. The service to our frontmen this season has been lacking and that will severely affect even the best of players. In that situation you have to keep showing for the ball and making runs to drag defenders out of position and I think Madine has been showing more of that lately. He still has to prove himself at this level but I’ve never taken anyone seriously this season who has completely dismissed his credentials as a Championship player. You just cannot do that until a player has had an uninterrupted run to show what he can do. The poor team form has meant that a lot of changes have been made as we’ve tried to find the solution and he’s been one of the main people to feel the effect of that. So far in 2012/13 he has played 22 games and only half as a starter, scoring three. In that time he has played back-to-back full games only once (against Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forest in November) and he was then a sub against Leicester and left out completely against Watford. When he played the whole game against Fulham in August and scored the winner from the penalty spot he was on the bench at Crystal Palace in the next game. This has been the case on other occasions including when he featured for the entirety of the Southampton game in September before being unused against Wolves the game after. In the last few games however he has grasped the opportunity and he seemed so up for the challenge against Charton and fully deserved his standing ovation as he was replaced in the final few minutes.
Last season was truly magic for Wednesday fans as we snatched automatic promotion from our city rivals United and the positive feeling around the club and for each and every supporter seemed to be overflowing throughout the summer. As the return to the Championship has been more difficult than anticipated however (fuelled in part by talk of a promotion push from the club’s hierarchy) Hillsborough has not been a nice place to be in recent months. The job Dave Jones did in the final two months of last season was superb and as we took it into the beginning of this campaign it has made the struggles since September all the more difficult to take. Last year, Madine played 41 games and scored 18 times, and this was despite missing almost two months of the season. The standard of opposition is higher now of course but I think as fans we need to remind ourselves of both the ability he has shown in the past and the fact he is one of a number of players trying to adapt to the second tier. He got a lot of goals last season from in and around the six-yard box and we need to give him this kind of supply once more (as simplistic as it sounds) because it has been woefully lacking. He also showed that he can mix it up with goals running through on the keeper and from the edge of the box so there is variety to his forward play and I think in him we have an intelligent finisher. There is plenty of work to do for the team but the goals on Saturday and the all-round feeling when they hit the back of the net and throughout the game gave me a lot of enjoyment and cause for optimism.
Madine is the kind of character who will always spark a reaction from people and in many ways I do love that side to him, especially when opposition fans seem more fixated on him than their own. He is up there with the best of them when it comes to responses to people who try to lay into him over Twitter and I have laughed at them a lot. With a court date scheduled in 2013 to go with the troubles he has had in the past with the law I know that there is a balance to be found between being a provocative character and one who gets embroiled in damaging situations.
He spoke last week about how he has been staying out of trouble lately as well as how much he loves the fans and the club, which may be easy to say but the promotion team showed masses of that sentiment and he was at the heart of it. The way he approaches his life off the field will go a long way to determining his success in the game and I really hope he sticks around at Wednesday for a long while yet. It would hurt in some ways to see him go elsewhere and score the goals for another club. There are parts of his game to refine, as you would expect at 22, but regular starts are key to achieving that because a start followed by a sub appearance here and there is no good to him. He has admitted he is working on getting stronger and from watching him week in week out for two years I know what he is capable of, I have seen the striker’s instinct and self-confidence he has got. Twitter can be great and I like the accessibility that comes from it but you can over-think things and there are some situations where we need to let the players be. There is a line that needs to be drawn and analysing everything they do on there and in their personal life is too far. Professional football can give you an incredible life but it is very easy to throw it all away, and I think Madine has started to recognise that strongly. To my fellow Wednesdayites I want to say give him your support, remember the guy who snatched that equaliser at Bramall Lane last season, remember how crucial he was to the best season we have had in recent memory as supporters of this club. As long as he is out there in the blue and white leading the line and giving it his all as he did on Saturday stick with him and forget about any side issues, the rest is up to the man himself.