In spite of best efforts to convince us otherwise, football is not magical, and very rarely is it the stuff of dreams. For the vast majority of us, it is utterly shit. Sure, we get the odd good game and sometimes even a good season. But as sure as night turns to day, it soon becomes shit again. When you gather with family or friends before going to a game, do you recall the great matches of years gone by? No, with pained expressions you remember the away day from hell – one of the many times your team were utterly humiliated – and the general consensus is that it was almost always raining.
After a League Cup win in 1991, a Division One title challenge in 1991-92 and two cup final appearances in 1993 (losing both to Arsenal), I can forgive my dad for taking me, then five years old, to Hillsborough for the first time in December 1993. With Chris Waddle, David Hirst and Roland Nilsson, it was arguably Wednesday’s best-ever team. We were held to a 3-3 draw at home to Swindon in the season they conceded 100 goals and finished 13 points adrift of safety. One of our goals was scored when goalkeeper Fraser Digby was laid out for a full 15 seconds on the floor, and the Robins’ injury-time equaliser was a sign of things to come in my lifetime following the Owls.
It’s hard to pick one moment when Wednesday hit rock-bottom. There are a handful of infamous matches that certainly go down in Wednesday folklore. Relegation from the Premier League in 2000 presented two such games: losing 8-0 at Newcastle and drawing 3-3 at Derby despite Simon Donnelly scoring in the 89th minute to put us 3-1 up.
Tumbling into the old Division Two in 2003 presented new away days, but still the same struggles. Sheffield Wednesday nil, Rushden and Diamonds nil was the worst game I’ve ever attended, against a team that disappeared as quickly as they rose through the divisions. After a 3-1 ‘derby’ defeat at Chesterfield, the realisation dawned that we could actually be heading for Division Three. We miraculously escaped, finishing three points above the drop zone. Brain Barry-Murphy (Ed – Brian, obviously, but I enjoyed the typo so have decided to leave it in), Ola Tidman, Kim Olsen, Chris Carr: all names synonymous with an era of awfulness – fans of a certain generation will argue to the death it was the worst team to ever pull on the blue-and-white shirt.
Paul Sturrock somehow won us promotion in 2005 via an incredible day at the Millennium Stadium where we beat Hartlepool 4-2. Yet unlike other big clubs who fell into the third tier – Manchester City, Nottingham Forest, Leeds, Leicester and Southampton – we’re the only club in recent years to drop down a second time. This came in 2010 after a final-day shootout with Crystal Palace, when a 2-2 draw kept the Eagles up and sent the Owls down.
The following season provided scores you’d expect to see on your PlayStation as you thrash your eight-year-old nephew: Exeter beat us 5-1, Leyton Orient 4-0, Peterborough 5-3. A 2-2 home draw against Yeovil, who played with nine-men for half an hour, left me looking for the nearest bridge to jump from. We even came close to bankruptcy before Milan Mandaric, [REDACTED], saved us with days to spare.
Thankfully, the last few years have been the least painful since I started frequenting Hillsborough. Promotion back to the Championship was secured in the best way imaginable in 2012, pipping Sheffield United on the final day to consign them to the play-offs (which they lost). A bit of mid-table mediocrity followed, before we were taken over by Thai businessman Dejphon Chansiri, owner of John West Tuna. Naturally.
Wednesday have only achieved five top-half finishes in the past 22 years, no matter which division they were in, with 12 relegation fights thrown in for good measure. When Chansiri promised investment, we could be forgiven for feeling a twinge of excitement. When he then appointed Carlos Carvalhal, an unknown Portuguese coach with 14 previous clubs, the excitement soon turned to bewilderment. When Chansiri then created a club committee to oversee transfers, headed by former Newcastle and Norwich manager Glenn Roeder, the familiar feeling of dread prevailed.
But then something amazing happened. We made sensible signings and started playing some fantastic football. Fernando Forestieri is the idol of the fans; the younger generation who missed out on Benito Carbone and Paolo di Canio finally have a worthy hero. Barry Bannan and Sam Hutchinson have been instrumental in midfield, whilst Tom Lees is perhaps one of the top five defenders in the league (hilariously released on a free transfer by Leeds). Keiren Westwood is the best goalkeeper outside the Premier League and Gary Hooper’s 13 goals have often been match-winners.
At the time of his appointment Carvalhal was an unpopular choice, with fans expecting a bigger name in a bid for a return to the Premier League. Now the Portuguese is the most popular boss since Ron Atkinson back in the early 1990s, with Wednesday playing an attacking, fluid game unseen since the days of Waddle and Hirst and even thrashing Arsenal in the League Cup. The official site released a video last week with the contenders of Wednesday’s goal of the season. It is impossible to separate them, such is the quality. For the first time ever, I’m turning up at Hillsborough and expecting Wednesday to win (though as my dad pointed out, why do we always back the other team to score when predicting the result?).
Finishing in a play-off position was probably beyond any Owls fan’s imagination at the start of the season, yet we’re now only two games from Wembley. Wednesday are the only professional team in Yorkshire who haven’t played at the new Wembley, so it would be nice to bury that fact at the end of the month (one in the eye for traditional White Rose giants such as Grimsby, Halifax, York…).
Brighton are the opponents in the semi-final, a team who have never won at Hillsborough and who subjected us to two 0-0 draws in the league this season. Finishing 15 points above us probably doesn’t indicate the real gap between the two teams, though Wednesday will certainly be underdogs.
Most fans don’t really expect to get promoted, which leaves us in a nice position of simply enjoying the play-offs, rather than the boom-or-bust that Hull and Derby are probably facing. There’s no place quite like a packed Hillsborough under the lights, and with a sell-out on Friday night, it should make for a ferocious atmosphere. Just before kick-off, when the traditional playing of ‘Hi-Ho Silver Lining’ booms around the old ground, I’ll smile and think back to the good old days. I still can’t believe that draw with Rushden and bloody Diamonds.