In a game between fellow Championship strugglers, Simon Hart watches the away side continue their poor travelling form, while a debut for the home manager and a hard-fought win sees optimism bloom in Yorkshire
“Normally you’d get 18 to 19,000 here for a Peterborough game but we’re expecting 24 today – a couple of wins on the bounce, a new manager, there’s a feelgood effect.”
It is a dank, grey January day but for Richard Davies and his fellow members of the Sheffield Wednesday Supporters’ Society, there is light on the horizon. I am sitting with Davies and the group’s president, John Gath, in the South Yorkshire Police Sports and Social Club, a stone’s throw from Hillsborough. The Wednesdayite members – as they are also known – gather here before every Saturday home game but today promises to be different.
It is Alan Irvine’s first home match as manager, following his appointment as Brian Laws’ successor on January 8, and there is optimism in the air. The Championship’s bottom club, Peterborough Utd, would have actually been Irvine’s first opponents a fortnight ago but for the Big Freeze. Back then only one point separated these relegation-threatened sides but Irvine has since overseen successes at Barnsley and Blackpool. Victory here will lift Wednesday ten points clear of a Posh team whose manager, Mark Cooper, has collected just one League win since leaving Kettering in mid-November to replace Darren Ferguson (and, it transpires, will soon pay the price with his job).
“Two weeks ago I’d have been absolutely delighted if we’d avoided relegation. Now, with the bit of optimism we’ve got, we’re looking at mid-table,” says Gath. His cautious optimism serves as an encouraging start – my brother-in-law, a lapsed Wednesdayite, had warned me to expect “18,000 die-hard dour Yorkshire moaners”. In mitigation, Wednesday fans have had cause to complain during the past decade, which began with relegation from the Premier League and featured a two-year stay in the third tier from 2003-05, revisiting their only previous spell in that division in the late 1970s.
It seems a long time ago since the Owls’ success of the early 1990s when, in the space of three seasons, they reached a trio of Wembley finals and finished third in the last year of the old First Division. Gath cites David Pleat’s reign as manager and the club’s foolhardy spending on foreign imports such as Wim Jonk and Gilles de Bilde as the cause of their ensuing slide – and accumulation of debts of around £25 million.
Yet visiting Hillsborough serves as a reminder of Wednesday’s stature – and their potential. This fine old stadium has some of the satisfying quirks absent from many newer grounds. Heading to the South Stand reception from the Penistone Road, I survey the mound at the back of the Kop Stand and trace the path winding up to the turnstiles. The River Don flows alongside the back of the South Stand and fans arriving from Hillsborough Park pass over a footbridge.
Inside, the scale of the Kop Stand is impressive. When the club added a roof in 1986 it was for a time the largest covered standing area in Europe with a 22,000 capacity. Wednesday’s home is one of only three club grounds from the 1966 World Cup to figure on the 2018 bid shortlist. Lee Strafford, chairman since last January, has ambitious plans to expand its 39,812 capacity to 44,825 regardless of what happens with the World Cup. Strafford wants to incorporate community-focused facilities into the £22m redevelopment proposal, including a learning zone in a new three-tiered West Stand at Leppings Lane and hopes to receive grants to fund the project.
As the ground fills up, the Lady Owls shake their pom-poms to some terrible music. Wednesday became the Owls after their move to the Owlerton district in 1899 (originally, like neighbours United, they were the Blades). Hence the presence on the pitch of two giant furry birds, mascots Barney and Ozzie. That the latter returned by popular demand last year after the previous regime had pensioned him off, points to Strafford’s attention to the small details, which is helping restore the trust between board and fans – and is mirrored by his care over more significant matters such as choosing Sheffield Children’s Hospital as shirt sponsor. Of course, the overriding concern for any fan is what happens on the pitch and Strafford, while in the process of seeking fresh investment, doubtless hopes Irvine can eventually repeat his feat of taking Preston to the play-offs on a limited budget
With the teams on the field – and Barney and Ozzie somehow managing to join in the “fair play handshake” – the moment the home supporters have been waiting for arrives as Irvine emerges. “A new dawn rises here at Hillsborough this afternoon,” declares the PA man. Cue the familiar strains of Hi-Ho Silver Lining before kick-off, culminating in a big shout of “Sheffield Wednesday”. To my left, Wednesday old boy John Pearson enthuses about the mood as he begins his commentary for the club website: “The whole atmosphere seems to have changed from a couple of weeks ago thinking we could never win a game.”
Peterborough could be forgiven that feeling – winless on the road since promotion last May, they are missing three central defenders, leaving Cooper with the makeshift pairing of the wonderfully named Exodus Geohaghon and Charlie Lee. The dreadlocked Geohaghon joined from Kettering in November while Lee has not played at centre-back for a year and they face an early scare when Geohagon’s defensive header falls to Leon Clarke in the sixth minute. The Wednesday forward drives in a first-time volley but Joe Lewis gets down low to save.
“If we lose today that’s it for us,” mutters a member of Peterborough’s small press contingent, yet the visitors’ rearguard is not overly troubled in a scrappy opening. Irvine explained in his programme notes his initial stress on improving team shape and instilling a work ethic, and Pearson purrs approvingly that each player appears to know exactly what he is doing.
The 1,164 travelling supporters gathered in the upper tier of the otherwise empty West Stand almost have something to cheer when Reuben Reid meets a far-post corner but the ex-Rotherham Utd player heads off target. Less promisingly, they then see George Boyd receive treatment after a clash with Darren Potter. The skilful forward has applied a silver lining to Posh’s dismal season, scoring nine goals in his first Championship campaign. He looks the part too. With his dark, shoulder-length hair and sweet left foot, he should really be called Jorge. But this is not his afternoon.
On the half-hour the match bursts into life as Wednesday midfielder Potter drives in a shot from the edge of the box. The ball deflects off Lee and rattles the crossbar. With his height and neat haircut, the tall, tidy Potter recalls Wim Jonk – ironically, many Wednesday fans might argue Jonk, an expensive Dutch international, looked very much like a second-division footballer during his time in South Yorkshire.
The Kop Band – the FA’s choice for England games but like Ozzie Owl, only back in favour under Strafford – strike up a tune as Irvine’s charges begin applying pressure. Former Sunderland full-back Michael Gray, now filling a wide midfield slot, is getting into decent positions yet his final ball has been lacking. He sends one cross high over the bar, then delivers an air-kick. Distracted, I look past the empty, roofless northwest corner – a block fitted between the North and West Stands for the 1966 World Cup – and high on the hill opposite is a green field and trees. More bucolic than most pressbox views, albeit tempered by the electricity pylons and modern housing estate.
Down on the pitch, Gray has finally got his radar working and he aims for the near post. Marcus Tudgay climbs above the crowd to flick it over the stranded Lewis and into the net. The goalkeeper gestures as if to claim he was impeded; truth is, he came for the ball but got nowhere near it.
Buoyed by the breakthrough, the Owls step up a gear after the restart and Clarke’s power and persistence almost produce a second. He muscles past Kerrea Gilbert to reach the defender’s wayward backheader and squeezes a shot past Lewis. Defender Scott Griffiths is perfectly placed to clear off the line and then block Gray’s follow-up shot. The noise levels rise around Hillsborough – “Hark now hear the Wednesday sing” – as Irvine’s men push forward. Purse nods inches over, Clarke slices wide, then finally, in the 67th minute, Tudgay doubles the advantage, profiting from slack marking to rise unchallenged at the back post and head his second of the afternoon after captain Darren Purse flicks on Potter’s corner.
It was in October that Tudgay last scored, the same month that Hillsborough last witnessed a home success. Given their run it is understandable that the home crowd get tetchy as a nervy finish unfolds. “It’s even worse at Bramall Lane,” jokes a journalist as one supporter vents his spleen. Boyd may have limped off but Peterborough now have Wednesday penned back.
Lee Grant shows why he is regarded as one of the hosts’ most consistent performers with a fine stop from Griffiths after Geohaghon’s Delap-like throw prompts panic in the home defence. But Posh keep getting the ball forward and their reward comes on 76 minutes. After Josh Simpson’s strike is blocked, midfielder Jake Livermore, a 20-year-old Tottenham loanee, drives a precise shot into the bottom corner.
The anxiety deepens. “Get hold of it, get hold of it.” But Wednesday can’t. Posh substitute Aaron McLean shoots straight at Grant. The fourth official indicates there will be “three minutes additional time in association with Specsavers opticians” as Lewis dashes upfield to join his team-mates for the first of two late corners. To no avail, though. The final whistle signals Wednesday’s third straight victory under Irvine and Peterborough’s wait for an away win.
In the press room below the South Stand, a downcast Cooper accuses his players of not playing till they were two behind. “People haven’t got the bottle to do it,” he says. Nine days and two defeats later, chairman Darragh McAnthony – having labelled the season “a disaster” – will show him the door.
No such worries for Wednesday whose fans are all smiles as they file out. Journey’s 1981 hit Don’t Stop Believin’ plays over the PA system and a middle-aged man in a black trilby suddenly breaks into dance. Slightly embarrassing for his son, but the Wednesdayites are starting to believe again.X
From WSC 277 March 2010