Chris Brookes on a symbolic game for the Owls as they continue to plot their route back to the Premier League party.
It was a game that will likely always be remembered for the dismissals of visiting strikers Jermaine Beckford and Eoin Doyle after an angry clash between the pair, but Sheffield Wednesday’s 2-1 home win over Preston North End perhaps held deeper significance. In the most immediate sense, the three points took The Owls back into the play-off inn they had a largely enjoyable stay at last season, while it was a game that for all its bizarre characteristics, told much about the spirit of Carlos Carvalhal’s group.
After a 2015/16 that left myself and fellow Owls fans everywhere enchanted as the team went all the way to the Championship play-off final, the regroup for season two of Portuguese head coach Carvalhal’s Hillsborough tenure has had its jolts of reality. Despite six league defeats so far, Wednesday sit 6th after 19 games, just three points off Reading in 3rd and nine back from ‘runaway’ leaders Newcastle United. Although there was the dismay surrounding last year’s 15-goal top scorer Fernando Forestieri and his decision not to travel to play Norwich in August, no key players were lost from Carvalhal’s team that were a 1-0 defeat to Hull City away from a sensational Premier League return in May.
Heightened supporter expectation has been mentioned often in recent months, and a team that has impressed many with its attractive playing style has had to adjust to no longer being such a surprise proposition. The fundamentals have, however, remained intact, and Saturday’s win over Preston meant first back-to-back victories since the end of September. On paper, the visit of Simon Grayson’s side represented a tricky test in the shape of an outside bet for the play-offs. As it transpired, it also became a match of true, unfiltered emotion and human error, with scattergun officiating, a goal and red card for Forestieri, two more goals and two more red cards.
Following Forestieri’s clever headed opener, the first half was fractured as Wednesday saw ex-Preston winger Ross Wallace and skipper Glenn Loovens depart through injury, while the perpetually-frantic midfield enforcer Sam Hutchinson also received lengthy attention before ultimately dropping back to defence to replace Loovens. Majestic Argentinian-born forward Forestieri has been building bridges with the Wednesdayites who adored him so much last season, after the mid-August episode that threw huge doubt over his S6 future. With three goals in three, the 26-year-old has looked dazzling again, but after provocation from Preston’s Ben Pearson on 65 minutes, he retaliated and was given a straight red card.
It left Wednesday without their talisman as they fought to protect a slender lead, before another seemingly reinvigorated frontman, Portuguese youngster Lucas João, succumbed to a knock. Steven Fletcher was his replacement and the Scotland man was there to put away a crucial spot kick on 79 minutes, although winger Will Buckley had suffered a shoulder injury after being fouled by keeper Chris Maxwell in the penalty incident and looked to be the fourth Owls player to struggle off. With Preston’s Doyle bringing it back to 2-1 on 82 minutes, Buckley went back into the fray to at least give Wednesday ten to defend with.
As Wednesday battled into injury time, the game’s most outrageous moment arrived with North End striker Beckford taking exception to Doyle’s decision not to play him in, with the two strikers angrily clashing. It meant red for both and a sensational swing in an under-pressure Wednesday’s favour for the final minutes, with Carvalhal’s men seeing it through and sending our 24,000 home smiling.
Looking back on last season is like turning the pages through a brilliant photo album. Moments in time that made you smile and more than a few that had the tears on the way. Seeing everyone around you beaming and being able to get blissfully lost in the kind of happiness that for so long as Wednesdayites we’d just come to accept as something we could only see through other clubs’ fans. Only this time it was ours again. The swift and sometimes spectacular football served up by Barry Bannan, Kieran Lee, Forestieri and their partners in crime was a joy, but it is the togetherness and will to fight for each other until the end that just gives you this warm feeling of pride and trust in the ones who step out every week to represent us. Although there have been more emphatic victories, the final whistle on Saturday had me feeling like we’d come through something significant together, just like so many of those brilliant days and nights of last season.
The way in which we choose to look at things can be quite fascinating. If you hadn’t seen the league table or many of the results we’ve picked up this season and instead just went off the fans’ reaction and mood you’d probably struggle to believe we were in the top six. There’s been an anxiousness and level of criticism at times – the admittedly below-par Ipswich performance the best example – that I think has gone a little too far into the red in that sense (never a good colour, as we know!). If you ask most of our fans, they’d tell you we haven’t really hit our best form yet, and some I’m sure will say they’ve been slightly disappointed. Opinions will always differ, especially in such an emotionally-driven and wildly impatient game, but when you compare the current Championship table to this time 12 months ago, we’re one place higher after 19 games and two points better off.
You can find clubs everywhere around us in English football being torn apart by internal politics and the like, with managers, owners and fans who could only dream of having a team that plays with the style and spirit we do. You always have to be ready to adapt as the situation changes in football but I feel confidence in our chairman Dejphon Chansiri, in Carlos and in his staff that we’ll find the way, and I think they completely deserve to have that faith. They’re real people out there for us, they take knocks, they get carried away in the euphoria with us, and they feel it when it goes wrong. It’s alright to be a bit more forgiving and to let go of the idea that they’re some kind of failure when the result goes against us. I want us to be the club that players and people remember not just because of the successful times, but for the moments when we as supporters picked them up and gave them that strength to be better. This is your team and it’s a hell of a good one. What’s going to give you that belief to push through in a tough game – your own fans turning on you, or every one of them in your corner raising the volume for you? Think of that Cardiff home game to seal our play-off place – it was a swarm of support that said we weren’t going to be denied. We are that extra player. I’d say the 12th man but on Saturday they needed us to just be the tenth or 11th at times!
What I love most about the Wednesday of the past year or so is that it’s all been about helping people to be the best they can be, as part of a team. It’s not necessarily the goals I remember most from the midweek win at home to Blackburn in April, but the way Carlos and Lee Bullen on the touchline both applauded Alex Lopez when they saw his misplaced pass go out of play – because the idea was the right one. Even beneath the surreal elements of Saturday’s game those encouraging moments were everywhere to be found. Sam Hutchinson putting himself on the line (or slide-tackling the line more like), Bannan working non-stop to help us keep the lead, a wounded Buckley rushing back into the battle, and even Forestieri charging back to take the ball away on the edge of our box as Preston sized up a shot. Unless it was clearly unfair I personally wouldn’t applaud a player after they’d been sent off, although considering Carlos will make sure he knows he reacted badly and he’ll already know himself, maybe Forestieri leaving the field to such a reception with his name ringing out in full support isn’t such a bad thing. Despite this three-game ban, he has had that sparkle again and the thought of him taking it to the rest of this league over the months to come should give heart and hope to every Wednesdayite.
I’ve thought often about what our club is, why it came into my life and the different ways I can illustrate that. Imagine that hollow feeling of the final whistle going at Wembley not long after Jeremy Helan’s speculative shot went painfully over the bar. We’d put everything into it since the previous summer, with players working day in and day out together, fans travelling to places all over the country (and Cardiff), enduring that horrible edginess as the minutes went by like hours while we defended leads into stoppage time. Living all those other great moments made from the best kind of raw emotion, all leading us to that point where the season ends in heartbreak on the biggest occasion like that. Then you’ve got 40,000 there with you; a wave of blue and white still standing by your side. We were second-best on the pitch that day but looking down Wembley Way and down into the fan park at a sea of Wednesdayites will stay with me always. The constant loop of ‘we’ve got Bannan’ and ‘we’re on our way’ is something that I think will play on in my memory for as long as I live.
When you think about what your club means to you, is it something where you check the scores or go to games, only to then forget about it until next time? Or is it a part of you? Something you’re proud to be attached to and for people to know it. That thing that people think to ask about when they see you. ‘How’s everything, how’s the family? What did Forestieri get sent off for this time?’
I look around our team and I see promise everywhere. Adam Reach getting into his stride down the left, the ease and confidence with which Bannan turns on the ball, and how some of the combinations (that goal at Fulham) are so good that you’re missing out if you don’t stop and give yourself a moment to take it all in. When Hutchinson flies into a tackle and takes everything it makes me want to go out there and battle alongside him. I feel glad as well to have Carlos on the touchline in charge of us. A man besotted with the game and trying to master his craft, but also someone that has taken the time since day one to learn about and respect the values of our club and of Sheffield. Someone should check it’s really Braga and not Broomhill on his birth certificate.
We get reminders all the time that life is a series of beginnings and endings. It might seem a small thing to some, but you don’t get another club, and sure as anything, you don’t get these years again. Whatever point of life you’re in at this moment, it’s all playing on as we speak, so savour it and enjoy it, especially when it comes to Wednesday. We hear often of these Wednesdayites who’ve sadly passed and we see their name on the screen at Hillsborough. What bonds us without even knowing some of them is that they loved this club like we do. To have a team so together and on the same page is the perfect representation of that. A team that has the key to unlock something brilliant, something magical. A moment that brings a rush like that Ross Wallace strike bursting into the bottom corner against Brighton in the play-off semi, or Kieran Lee lifting the finish into the corner in front of the Kop as those lights shone on a Friday night unique from any other atmosphere at Hillsborough in my memory. There’s every reason to believe we’ll have a day as special as Wembley again, but with the opposite feeling at the final whistle.
When it comes to team spirit, you can see players in football doing stuff for show and it just doesn’t ring true. It’s clear that’s not how it is with us. The way they support each other on the pitch, the smaller touches like the support they always show for each other on Instagram, the celebrations that were an iconic and spine-tingling part of last season, or Forestieri horrifying Wallace when he joked his Brighton goal was disallowed in the midst of the celebrations. There’s even that recent fancy dress outing for the squad in Amsterdam. You can try and fake unity to a certain extent, but you wouldn’t do all that for people you don’t feel a real connection with, and it honestly shows through on the pitch. Buckley coming back on to play through the pain on Saturday reminded me of a dazed Graham Coughlan running back on against Watford in the Paul Sturrock era; so eager he hadn’t even put his shirt back on. There’s beauty in those little moments that still make you smile years later.
I don’t know exactly where I’m headed in the future – I’m still pursuing the things I really care about and trying to carry my writing and work with me – but I can be sure whatever 2017 and beyond holds that I’ll have Wednesday with me. It’s amazing how that start to ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ fading in brings you back to a happy feeling of belonging, no matter what might be happening in your life. It has lifted the worries and pain for me through the years, through times of hurt, struggling health, or just when I needed that escape. A ‘welcome back home’ reserved only for the Wednesday family.
The feeling that something you love can become great was awoken again last year and it’s alive and well now. I remember getting home from Wembley after midnight, turning Sky Sports News on and feeling an exhausted kind of dejection. Underneath that was an urge to just fast-forward to this season because I knew what we’d started and how hard to come by that is. Just recently, I was watching a Sky Sports programme on David Ginola’s time in England and it showed his first goal for Newcastle, against us. On that clip you see 90s Hillsborough in the sunshine, Newcastle’s memorable maroon and navy away kit, and Kevin Keegan off the bench celebrating, with our distinctive yellow painted steps in the stand. For our highs and lows we’re sealed in time as part of Premier League history and there’s a generation like myself who always remember us from that era as part of their childhood. I know there’s a place for us again at that party. We’re still finding our way…but we’re on our way.