I’m not sure where League One lies in UEFA rankings but I think, from what we can compare in terms of spending power, calibre of players and the general size of clubs (average crowds, stadium size, trophy cabinets), we can reasonably say the gulf between League One and The Championship is far greater than that between The Championship and The Premiership.
And from this vantage point maybe we could also perhaps reasonably say Wednesday were always going to struggle to step up, and maybe, just maybe, our run-in for 2nd spot with our city neighbours distracted us from this. By us, I mean primarily the fans. The sense of achievement gained from this perhaps left us fans thinking the much-loved Wednesday team of 2011/2012, who are likely to go down as legends, were better – footballing wise - than what they were.
And so onto our home match against Bolton Wanderers.
I work in Bolton as a teacher and in the days leading up to the match there was the odd shout down the corridor as a previously unknown student asked if I was a ‘Sheffield fan’, obviously hearing it on the grapevine from those students who I teach - and with whom I’ve spent the first 5 minutes of every Monday lesson for the past two years having a catch-up with about the weekend’s football (after the Carlisle United and Wycombe Wanderers game last season, I even showed them the BBC highlights). Oddly enough, it turned out the loudest student this week in fact supported Burnley.
I jumped on the 1.30 train at Stockport, running a little late despite the Twitter message from the club that we had to get down there early to get a ticket. As soon I stepped on the carriage up popped three teenagers trying to get my attention with cries of “oi, sir!” – more previously unknown students wanting a bit of banter ahead of the game, all going there on the quid-a-kid deal (“Typical Wednesday…” I thought, “you’ve probably gone and made my life much harder on Monday with this act of generosity…”).
With the apparent rush on tickets in mind I’d tried to console myself that should it be an unlikely sell-out, I would go to the cinema and watch Total Recall instead. As it turned out, the 2-1 defeat to Bolton wasn’t a sell out and was a bit like the film, with flashback memories of our last stay in The Championship.
I’m no football coach, I don’t have the badges, but the feeling during the match was that the team from last year was no more. Certainly the widespread changes to our first team bare testament to that. But, from the performance against Bolton, also in terms of physical presence, sharpness and togetherness. The view from the Kop was that we were back to 2009/2010, that Dave Jones – ‘the builder’ – had accidentally rebuilt the team of disconnected journeymen from that ill-fated season. The Taylor-Purse comparisons rolled off tongue after tongue, and it seemed we weren’t far off “just like Potter” and “yet another Jeffers” being heard in the stands.
The problem was not so much the nature of the defeat. Yes we looked naïve, yes we lacked confidence, yes we looked disorganised at times but no, we weren’t outclassed. The problem was we were coming into this game on the back of three successive defeats, and our ‘We might do a Southampton or Norwich’ hope was once again being dashed, tellingly by a pretty average side. And as much as we fans perhaps needed to go through this wake-up call, it still hurt to watch.
So it was no surprise and understandable to an extent, as much as I personally find it uncomfortable, that the boos rang out on a number of occasions across Hillsborough. They started as a collective groan at half-time, gathering momentum into a disapproving boo when Jay Bothroyd took a slow walk off the pitch, before ringing out in a chorus of dissent as the final whistle was blown.
Instead of getting the tram, partly wanting to avoid the sardine-feeling and partly shying away from renewed banter with my students, I decided on a long walk down Penistone Road towards town. I don’t get to spend time in Sheffield as often as I like, usually only making a flying visit for the match, and sometimes enjoy a bit of sightseeing (this may seem odd to full-time residents, but you find yourself looking at the city through different eyes following time away). During the first part of the walk, with my brother, we heatedly dissected the game in as pessimistic fashion as possible – all was lost, apparently.
Interestingly, they say it takes 20 - 50 minutes for an adrenalin rush to leave the body, and so as I took on the second leg past the New Barrack Tavern, and without my brother to egg me on, my thoughts became calmer and more rational. I thought back to a short article I’d read just that morning on the train about Brighton & Hove Albion and how they consider last season a platform for their recent terrific start – a tough learning curve, involving hard knocks that you have to simply get back up from. It struck me that this is what our team faces. And as I walked past the old Presto Tools site, I also thought about how our club was still playing catch up off-the-pitch in terms of the business and community side. Again comparisons with progressive Brighton sprung to mind.
“Keep the faith…” rolled over in my mind, as did “We have to be patient…”
Then finally onto the imposing courts building, and the thought of the club possibly having to defend manslaughter charges there relating to the 1989 disaster. This, and a flashback to the newly erected Socialist Worker protest stall just outside the ground being berated by an irate Wednesday fan protesting “You weren’t even there that day…” (he could have added “or born…”, “or interested until now…”), highlight that perhaps we, more so than other fallen giants like Leeds United and Nottingham Forest, face the toughest of battles to earn a place back at English football’s top table. I use the word ‘earn’ very deliberately, for we don’t have a right.
Before heading off home, I made one last stop – popping up to Greenhill to have a cup of tea and catch-up with my Nan. We sat and chatted about my Grandad, who passed away in 2009 but whose presence remains all around the house. He was a lifelong Blade – “the only Blade worth talking to about football…”, my brother used to say – and it got me casting back to our long conversations about the beautiful game. My Grandad always used to say a team needs luck, that this was a key ingredient, and it was that which ultimately got them over the finish line ahead of their rivals.
As I sat on the train back to Manchester late evening, inevitably surrounded by the six most drunken Bolton fans on there, I listened to them bemoaning their ‘rubbish fans’ for booing one of their substitutions. Mobile in hand, my attention turned to the internet to see what our fans were saying - and was surprised to see some were now doing battle with Jay Bothroyd via Twitter. It seems in this age many of us take our post-match rants, still high on adrenalin – or beer, and put them into writing - which somehow seems to make them carry more weight when looked at it in type. But that’s all they are, they’re rants. If we went back 20 years and some guy had said he’d looked in the Yellow Pages and then rang a player to give them some grief about their performance, he’d have been laughed out of town.
In the cold light of day, we need to put these four defeats into the context of where we’ve come from. We are a work in progress, and I think Jose Semedo - speaking as player of the 2011/2012 season - bore testimony to this with reports last week that he was happy to give up the captaincy in order to work on improving his game. That’s not just the sign of a model professional, but an indication of where we are at footballing wise.
We also need to think a little about the luck factor – the game at Crystal Palace was changed by poor refereeing, the same could be said of Huddersfield Town. We were outclassed by Brighton, whereas with Bolton we had a number of near-misses that on a different day could have seen us coming out with a draw or a win.
Time is limited in football - there can be only so much time given because the stakes are worryingly so high now, and we know Milan Mandaric is a canny gambler - but we do need to give Dave Jones and his new team more time to gel. In particular, we need to support our younger players. We don’t need another Michael Morrison or Mark Reynolds situation, where promising players seem to lose all confidence in the face of crowd hostility.
We also need to consider our strengthening position off-the-field. Bolton are in many ways are a reassuring point of comparison - £100million of debt and home crowds falling to 16,000. Their near neighbours, Blackburn Rovers, are gripped by internal conflict between the club leadership and the fans, with home crowds dropping to 13,000.
Sheffield Wednesday are neither Norwich City or Southampton, nor Bolton or Blackburn. We are in an in-between place, a few years behind Brighton, moving on from the past, within sight of much better days, though not yet touching distance. The scars of the past fifteen years are still visible, but there are many reasons to remain optimistic – “Keep the Faith, Be Patient.”
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