by Chris Brookes
As a Sheffield Wednesday supporter, this last year or so has been a real wave of emotion, from the delirium of riding high after promotion in May to swimming against the tide back in the Championship this season. With thirteen games remaining of a league campaign that has tested us more than we perhaps imagined the spare parts have come together, the outlook is getting brighter all the time and a recognised name has lit the fuse up front – on-loan striker Leroy Lita.
With 5pm approaching this Saturday, three sides of Hillsborough and Owls fans around the world were smiling as the final whistle rang out to signal the end of a gritty 1-0 win over Ian Holloway’s 4th-placed Crystal Palace. It was a victory that connoisseurs of fluidity and graceful play would have winced at but my word what a beautiful final outcome! With around ten minutes to go, Michail Antonio’s slightly unorthodox yet deadly right-footed cross from the flank found on-loan Swansea City frontman Leroy Lita who buried his header past the often imperious Eagles keeper Julian Speroni via the crossbar. The celebrations were tumultuous and it was a moment in front of the Kop to get the pulse racing as Lita threw his shirt to the ground with the vast majority of the 23,475 crowd in sheer delight. It was the ex-England Under-21 international’s third goal in five games since his loan from Michael Laudrup’s side and it is hard to deny how explosive his impact has been since his arrival last month. The win nudged Wednesday up to the relative sanctuary of 18th in the Championship, five points clear of the relegation zone, and it was the fitting reward for a relentlessly committed team performance that has been our signature in a run of seven wins, four draws and just one defeat in the last 12 league games.
We probably should have known that our return to the second tier after two years in League One would bring its share of hardships to overcome but in the midst of separate spells of five and seven league defeats in a row it was looking like The Grim Reaper of Championship football was looking for his road map to S6 again (you’re right, he should know the way by now!). A slightly fortuitous win at Barnsley in December was the turning point we had so desperately craved and through more than a touch of trial and error, and hard work, the tide has turned back in our favour it seems. As ever in football there has not been one individual reason for this change in fortune, it has been a collection of factors, but Lita has given us priceless qualities since he joined – pace, the experienced goalscoring nous we lacked, and the industry to work in harmony with the rest of our team.
I was desperate for him to get off the mark from the outset because I felt so sure that he could go on a run in front of goal for us and he netted on his debut in the 2-1 win at his old club Charlton in late January. He followed it up with what appeared to be an effort hit against himself and past Tomasz Kuszczak in the next game, a 3-1 home success over play-off chasing Brighton, and the Wednesdayites have really taken to him. It is five matches into his stay in South Yorkshire and he has three goals, a confident team supplying him and Owls supporters everywhere relishing him leading our attack.
On Saturday he got the deciding goal but there was also a moment when he went racing through only to be denied by Speroni after being forced slightly off-track en route into the penalty area. At the time I was wondering if it would be costly, especially with our frequent tormentor over the years Kevin Phillips on the pitch for Palace alongside the Championship’s 27-goal top scorer Glenn Murray, but we held firm. Although Lita was not able to take the chance it was he who created the opening through his acceleration and how many strikers have we had in recent years who have been able to do that with regularity? Maybe we would have to go back to David Hirst in his unstoppable prime, turning in the centre circle and bulldozing his way through the Hull City backline to score in the 5-1 win at Hillsborough in the 1990/91 promotion season (incredible memory I must have considering I was a few months old at the time…good old YouTube). Don’t worry Wednesdayites I wouldn’t dream of making the comparison but I have lost count of the amount of times that we have said we need a striker with pace over the years and Lita has provided that elusive part of the puzzle so far.
Lita is a definite ‘name’ in English football but he has got the individual ability and all-round worth to match it and that has not often been the case with such signings we have made in the past. If you don’t try to fool the Wednesday fans and you hit the mark on the field then you will be a hero to so many of us. Just ask promotion-winning captain of 2005 Lee Bullen how far the right attitude will get you in the hearts of our supporters. I know how much of a part body language can play in forming people’s perceptions of you and the sight of Lita hunting down chances will always win more favour than someone ambling around. There is plenty that could be said about ex-loanee Jay Bothroyd’s spell with us but suffice to say it just did not work out, and he did not grasp how special the club can be and the sheer adoration that the fans here will give you if you play the game right. It was a missed opportunity for Bothroyd and maybe things would have transpired differently if he had got that debut goal at Brighton in September but Lita seems set on snapping up his opportunity.
It feels like he has been around for so long yet he is still only 28 and I remember him at 18 playing a part in Lee Peacock’s equaliser against us for Bristol City at Ashton Gate. I have seen him at Hillsborough for Middlesbrough and when he scored against us for Norwich in 2008, and those who have watched him in his career will have known before we signed him what he is all about. He is always on the move, telling teammates where he wants the pass and that dimension is invaluable to have in your team.
He scored 15 goals in 32 games for Reading as they won the Championship in 2005/2006 with Kevin Doyle and Dave Kitson to contend with and he has kept up his scoring in the seasons since. His ‘shirt off’ celebration is something he has done a few times before and it got the good feeling going seeing him doing it for us on Saturday. It may have earned him a yellow card but his goal was the crowning glory in a tremendous team effort against one of the best sides in our division – who really cares if he got booked? I am glad we are even talking about a player who might get banned through yellow cards because he’s scoring too many for us!
Football is all about emotions, it moves you to tears, it makes you laugh and it can send your happiness through the roof. That goal could be so crucial when the final whistle goes against Middlesbrough in May, hopefully with the sun shining down on Hillsborough and all those in Owls colours smiling once again. I am glad you enjoyed it Leroy because I know we did.
Anthony Gardner was probably my pick for Man of the Match against Palace and in truth this article could have been about him but I have seen Lita over the years and now I’m glad he is doing the business for my team. Some opposition supporters may claim otherwise but people certainly stood up and took notice when we signed him, and with good reason it seems. Dave Jones said that this loan was a chance for us to look at him as a possible future signing and for Lita to do the same with us, and so far it is impossible for either party to be unimpressed. It is easy to say all the right things but you have to match it up with what you do and he has struck that balance just as accurately as he has hit the target on the pitch so far.
He has even responded to some Sheffield United fans who have tweeted him an alternative welcome to the city in recent weeks – good to know that you’re on their mind even if you cannot hear them from all the way up here a league above! It is great talking to people on Saturday nights or through the week about how well Wednesday have done and I think in a way it is even better when you can say someone like Leroy Lita has done the business for you. When we were leading 1-0 in the closing stages on Saturday the scene was perfect – the Palace fans who had seen their team relegate us in 2010 sat silent in the away end and the Wednesdayites were singing Lita’s name as we edged towards victory. It was one of those moments where I stepped outside of it for a second to take it in and feel that positivity and although he has scored goals his whole career I bet Lita loved it too.
There may be some tough opposition for us to come, with the top two of Cardiff and Watford, as well as 5th-placed Leicester and Nottingham Forest in 8th in our next four games but to my fellow Wednesdayites – have that belief in us. After the way the manager, staff and players have turned it around since December I think they deserve that.
Fortunes will switch in football but I have seen us get relegated before and this no longer feels like one of those seasons to me. Seven wins and seven clean sheets in 12 games says it all because I was thinking of starting up a sponsorship appeal for us to stop conceding goals a few months ago! These are the challenges we want and if we are ever going to get back to where we feel we belong then the ‘bring it on’ attitude is the only one we need. It took some time but the options in the team look very promising with Michail Antonio, Jeremy Helan, Kieran Lee and Jermaine Johnson to choose from in wide areas and Lita, Gary Madine and the coveted Sunderland youngster Connor Wickham also on loan. The defence has tightened up magnificently and the central midfield pairing of Giles Coke and David Prutton have come in from the cold to be our beating heart.
It is time to close the book on the early months of the season so let’s keep moving forward because it is so clear to see how hard that group of players are fighting for us out there. They say you shouldn’t get too down about the bad times or too carried away with the good, but forget that last bit. I say go ahead, let’s make the most of every moment of joy that Wednesday give us, after all, that’s what we’re all in it for.
With the fans together, a team putting their bodies on the line, a system that works and Leroy up front, we’ve always got a chance. ‘I’d rather have a Lita than a pint.’
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