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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

The long read: Sheffield Wednesday and their fans remain positive in their pursuit of returning to the Premier League

It is 17 years since the Yorkshire club were last in England's top flight, but the signs are encouraging that wait could be coming to an end and a return to the success of the early 1990s could be on the horizon.

Sheffield Wednesday's Almen Abdi battles for the ball with Sunderland's Brendan Galloway, left, and Didier Ibrahim Ndong, right, during the Championship match at Hillsborough. Martin Rickett / Press Association
Sheffield Wednesday's Almen Abdi battles for the ball with Sunderland's Brendan Galloway, left, and Didier Ibrahim Ndong, right, during the Championship match at Hillsborough. Martin Rickett / Press Association

“Sheffield Wednesday were a huge club and there was always an excellent atmosphere at Hillsborough,” recalls Martin Edwards, Manchester United’s president and former chairman.

“Hillsborough would regularly get to host FA Cup semi-finals and I saw Manchester United played some great games there, but one of my most vivid memories is the crowd. They were always hostile to us, a little like at Anfield.

"Sheffield seemed quite a left-wing socialist area, the people very much into their two football clubs. I remember one supporter who sat near us visiting directors.

"He had grey hair and was quite thick set. He gave us some terrible stick. He absolutely hated Manchester United. Towards the end of our visits, he was no longer there. I don’t know whether he died or stopped going to games, but I almost missed him.”

The end of Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and the greatest English clubs visiting Hillsborough for league matches came in 2000 when the Owls were relegated after spending 14 of the previous 15 seasons in England’s top flight.

The club who were English champions four times between 1903 and 1930, three-time FA Cup winners between 1896 and 1935, have never been back since.

Average crowds which touched 30,000 in 1991, when Ron Atkinson’s side beat United at Wembley to win the Rumbelows League Cup – with a goal scored by John Sheridan, a Mancunian who hails from a United-supporting family – slid to a low of 17,817 after the team were relegated to England’s third tier in 2010, but they have otherwise held up above 20,000 and last season’s 27,130 average was bigger than seven Premier League clubs.

Yet there were also five better-supported Championship teams in the Uniteds of Newcastle and Leeds, plus Brighton & Hove Albion, Derby County and Aston Villa.

With average crowds of 20,199 last season, England’s second tier is the seventh biggest league in European football.

Significant interest returned with Wednesday’s best season since those Premier League days under their Thai businessman and chairman Dejphon Chansiri and Portuguese manager Carlos Carvalhal, who attracted a wonderful song, to the tune of the Beach Boys’ Sloop John B.

Manager Carlos Carvalhal

“Carlos had a dream, to build a football team. He had no money so he had to sign them on loan. With Lees at the back, and Joao in attack We’re Sheffield Wednesday, we're on our way back.”

Imagine Carvalhal trying to explain that one back to his friends in Portugal.

Yet Sheffield is a city which does great football songs, with Sheffield United’s Greasy Chip Butty perhaps the finest in England.

Wednesday have long dreamed of getting back to the top flight and many northern football fans would love to visit Hillsborough, with its generous 4,500 away ticket allocations, again.

Yet Yorkshire, England’s biggest county, has lost both Sheffield teams and Leeds United from regular Premier League football.

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“It’s a travesty that and it’s down to mismanagement, bad decisions, bad luck, terrible management both of the teams and the stadiums,” explains Andy Giddings, sports editor of BBC Sheffield, who covered Leeds United when they reached the Uefa Champions League semi-finals in 2001.

“Sheffield Wednesday have had similar problems. They’ve entered into deals with financial institutions which were unsustainable. They’ve bought bad players.

The Premier League misses out on not having teams from big conurbations like Sheffield and Leeds. With respect, I’d rather see Wednesday v Leeds than Burnley against Bournemouth.”

“It’s a geographical imbalance, almost like there’s an earthquake fault line between Lancashire and Yorkshire,” adds journalist Alan Biggs, who has covered football in Yorkshire for over 40 years. "But I think these things go in cycles and I’m more optimistic about the future”.

There was an imbalance in the past, at least in the media. When Wednesday won at Wembley in 1991, Britain’s regional ITV channels showed the celebrations on the news.

All except Yorkshire TV, which covered Sheffield but was based in Leeds. They opted, instead, to show cars crashing into each other in an irrelevant programme called War of the Monster Trucks.

Grudges can be nursed in Yorkshire and the blue half of Sheffield never forgave the channel.

Sheffield Wednesday's Hillsborough Stadium ahead of their home game with Sunderland in August 2017. Andy Mitten for The National
Sheffield Wednesday's Hillsborough Stadium ahead of their home game with Sunderland in August 2017. Andy Mitten for The National

Arriving at Hillsborough before their first Championship game of the season against relegated Sunderland earlier this month, this writer was struck by how little had changed since his last visit in 1999.

Hillsborough was once at the vanguard of stadia development, with the most advanced floodlights, installed in 1955, and the most modern stand, a bold 10,000-seater cantilever built in 1961, warranting a mention as the only football ground in Nikolaus Pevsner’s The Buildings of England.

Wednesday wanted it to be the master plan for future development. Something Manchester United began a year later.

Sheffield Wednesday are nicknamed the Owls. Andy Mitten for The National
Sheffield Wednesday are nicknamed the Owls. Andy Mitten for The National

United finished Old Trafford, Wednesday did not, but Hillsborough remained one of England’s finest venues, regularly used for the cup semi-finals including the 1989 FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest.

Ninety-six innocent Liverpool fans would lose their lives on April 15, 1989 at Hillsborough and the stadium would become more synonymous with the disaster than Sheffield Wednesday.

A stone memorial, erected on the 10th anniversary, reads: “In Memory of the 96 men, women and children who tragically died and the countless people whose lives were changed forever…’You’ll Never Walk Alone’.

Behind, a tragic, fading, homemade sign put there by a relative of 19-year-old Paul Carlile who lost his life there, demands truth and justice. Liverpool fans finally achieved that in 2016.

A stone memorial, erected on the 10th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster of 1989. Andy Mitten for The National
A stone memorial, erected on the 10th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster of 1989. Andy Mitten for The National

As coaches arrive, disgorging some of the 2,500 Sunderland fans near the Leppings Lane turnstiles where so many Liverpool fans died, Wednesdayite John Reid contemplates the season ahead in a Glasgow accent.

“I grew up in Glasgow surrounded by Celtic and Rangers fans, but my father is from Sheffield and that’s why I’m Wednesday,” he states proudly. “I’ve travelled south to see my team for most of my life.

"Southampton away would take nine hours each way and I didn't know of any other Wednesday fans in Glasgow to travel with.”

Reid moved to Sheffield, where his partner is from, six years ago and thinks his side should be “in the top two in the Championship” this season and finally achieve their return to England's top flight.

“They have to be. Things are better and I’m optimistic,” he said. “I’ve seen relegations and the club in administration [in 2010].”

A walk into the stadium over the River Don which flooded and left the pitch under six feet of water in 2007, reveals the interior of the main stand filled with photos largely from the 1990s.

There is former manager Ron Atkinson, who changed the club by sheer force of personality. A photo of Roland Nilsson, one of his star players. Italians Benito Carbone and Paolo di Canio, as well as one of England winger Chris Waddle.

There is also an image of David Hirst, who Manchester United tried to sign for a record £3 million (Dh14.1m) fee in 1992. “They rejected us” states Martin Edwards of a time when Wednesday could rebuff even the biggest suitors.

United ended up instead with Eric Cantona, who Wednesday had passed on when he first came to England, for a third of the price.

There’s also a shot of Sheridan’s 1991 Wembley winner and the 1993 all-Sheffield FA Cup semi-final, which was won by Wednesday.

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Mel Sterland, who made 347 appearances for the club, mingles in the pressroom. The man who supported, captained and scored the penalty which took the Owls (Wednesday play in Owlerton, a working-class suburb in the north of the city) up in 1984 is a Sheffield lad who played for Wednesday for 11 years before becoming a league champion with Leeds United in 1992.

“We’ve just missed out of promotion last year and the year before,” he rues. “But the chairman has fetched players in on big wages to get this great football club into the Premier League.

"It’s still a big club, we took 6,000 fans to Preston recently and they deserve top-flight football. I can remember beating Liverpool and Manchester United with Wednesday and I’d like to get back up.

"But it’s also nice to see Sheffield United up this season, even though I’m not too bothered about them…”

Biggs is a Chesterfield fan and has covered both Sheffield clubs and the Yorkshire region since the mid 1970s for newspapers and radio.

“I’ve not seen as much success here as Sheffield Wednesday should have achieved,” he states as a copy of the match programme with Di Canio's image on it sits on the table in front.

“Without reflecting on the ownership and the people who work here, Wednesday’s Achilles heel is that over the years it’s given the impression that it thinks it’s bigger than it is.

"That has held the club back and supporters have had delusions of grandeur. They refer to this club as ‘The Massive’ – albeit now in a jokey, ironic way.”

Success has so far eluded Wednesday.

Sheffield Wednesday's Hillsborough Stadium ahead of their home game with Sunderland in August. Andy Mitten for The National
Sheffield Wednesday's Hillsborough Stadium ahead of their home game with Sunderland in August. Andy Mitten for The National

“Wednesday isn’t a massive club compared to some English clubs,” explained Biggs, ‘in all my time covering the club I’ve only seen them win one trophy, the 1991 League Cup – and that was the first trophy for over fifty years.

"It’s startling when you look at the support, a fantastically loyal bunch who always seem to see the glass half full rather than half empty, which is a great trait."

“Past owners – and not all of them – have had an aloofness but this chairman, despite little knowledge of football or Sheffield, is trying to reach out a little bit.”

The support has returned and Hillsborough, with it’s 40,000 seats (96 of them are white in honour of the Liverpool fans who died) still has what Biggs calls “a majestic air, an aura”.

It was that aura which led him to ask his father to take him to Hillsborough as a child, even though he regularly took him to the nearer Bramall Lane, home of Sheffield United.

Do not expect Wednesdayites or Blades (Sheffield United) to agree on any of the opinions expressed, but Sheffield, which is also home to non-league Sheffield FC, the world’s oldest football club, except that they are both happy that their big derby is back this season.

“It’s intense, tribal, friendly, comical,” opines Giddings. “It’s an amazing experience as a neutral to come to a Steel City derby.

"Everybody knows each other and they have to live in the same city. Most of them are from South Yorkshire.”

With a population of half a million, Sheffield is often listed as England’s fourth biggest city behind London, Birmingham and Leeds.

It is a misnomer. The urban area of Manchester, with 2.5 million, is far bigger, Liverpool too, but Sheffield is a substantial city which could easily support two top-flight teams.

“It’s a city with roots in industry,” explains Giddings. “A city of steel. You don’t have to go through too many people to find someone associated with forge masters.

"It’s a green city, a down to earth city where people are hugely passionate about their football. As someone who wasn’t born here, I’ve really come to enjoy Sheffield.”

“It’s a city where people work hard and say what they mean,” states Sterland. “It’s a popular student city, a football city.”

Sheffield had England’s first radio football phone-in ‘Praise or Grumble’ from the mid 1980s, which still remains hugely popular in the internet age. Arguments of the ‘my dad’s bigger than your dad’ variety persist between Reds and Blues.

But who is bigger?

“Probably by a cigarette paper, Sheffield Wednesday,” adds Giddings. “They’ve spent more time in the top flight, but it’s really neither here or there.”

“When my son asked me who to support in the early 90s, I told him that Wednesday had so many great players,” explains Biggs.

“They had a chairman called Dave Richards, who isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but he broke the mould. Wednesday has always been conservative, but he changed that.

"Wednesday bought big name players, but when it started to go wrong he then got the flack for putting the club in a really hard position.”

Ron Atkinson was followed by Trevor Francis as manager in 1991.

Former manager Ron Atkinson

“Trevor recognised that the celestial team was ageing,” states Biggs. “He felt he had to make awkward decisions but he was swimming against the tide of supporters who had a strong emotional attachment to the players who’d been successful. The dressing room started to think it ran the club.”

The Board backed the players and Francis was fired after Wednesday finished 13th in the Premier League in 1995 That was not considered good enough; it would be now. Experienced boss David Pleat came next.

“He had a poisoned chalice,” believes Biggs.

“He also bought two Italian, Carbone and Di Canio. Both were brilliant individuals, but David confided to me that he’d brought one Italian too many.”

Pleat was dismissed after two years. Overstretched Wednesday were falling and relegated in 2000, the year defender Ashley Westwood joined for a three-year spell.

“Despite the troubles, I enjoyed my time at Wednesday,” says Westwood, currently a technical director in India.

“It’s a big club, an old fashioned working man’s club that creates a great atmosphere, even in tough times. They were mismanaged over the years and faced serious money problems, but they’re a sleeping giant who miss Premier League football.”

Dave Allen was a controversial Wednesday chairman in the early 2000s.

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“I got on well with Dave – and I had a rough time with fans because of that,” said Biggs of Allen, who would quit the role in 2007. “He came when the club were in a parlous state, he was blunt, he calls a spade a spade and he’s a combative character who wasn’t afraid of speaking his mind about supporters.

“He was very successful in business, but his style was his strength and weakness.

“His bull headedness worked in business, but made him enemies among the core support in the sensitive, emotional world of football, yet he was the first chairman I’d known put his own money into the club.

"Allen will be viewed as a divisive figure and has never had the proper credit, in my view, for grasping the nettle and leaving the club a division higher than he found it."

Chairman Milan Mandaric, who’d been a success at Portsmouth, bought the club in 2010 for £1 on the condition that he’d settle the club’s debt.

“He did a fantastic job,” Biggs said. “He was personable, upfront, good with fans and the media. Nor every manager appreciated him because he liked to be very closely involved.

Sheffield Wednesday is based in Yorkshire, the largest county in England. Andy Mitten for The National
Sheffield Wednesday is based in Yorkshire, the largest county in England. Andy Mitten for The National

"Some would say he interfered in team selection and he wasn’t far short of that, but he left the place stronger than when he arrived.”

Following a rousing chant of ‘Hi Ho, Sheffield Wednesday’ from the Kop, once one of the most impressive ends in English football and still a substantial 11,000 seater stand, the game starts and Sunderland take an early lead.

Wednesday are aiming for automatic promotion this season, yet the relegated side look far superior as they pass the ball around.

Without a win in their first two league games, there are murmurs and grumbles in the crowd, but they are pleased when David Jones hits a stunning second half equaliser for a draw.

A first win, at Fulham, follows a few days later and they drew with Burton Albion on Saturday. It hasn’t been a bad start to the season.

Jones, a 32-year-old successful journeyman who started out at Manchester United, speaks to The National after the game. He joined Wednesday from Burnley in 2016.

“It’s a special place to play,” he explains. “I came here because I thought they were ambitious. I want to see this club in the Premier League. The training facilities are improving; the club is heading in the right direction. Expectations are high after reaching the play-offs and they should be high.”

“This is a club fighting to get into the top flight where they think their club should be,” concludes Giddings.

“Under the current owner and manager, they are ever so slowly back on track after financial problems and a huge turnover of players and management.

Sheffield Wednesday celebrate their 150th birthday year and the club are offering a ‘free’ three-year season ticket “as soon as” the team win promotion. Fans just have to stump up £1,500 first, a lot of money in a working-class city.

Television riches from Premier League football would certainly help Wednesday reduce their substantial ticket prices, which are higher than many teams in the league above.

They are aiming high again and they have the ground, infrastructure and support to go up, but first they must overcome 23 foes in a division which includes fellow Yorkshire sides, Leeds United, Sheffield United, Barnsley, Hull City, plus nearby Nottingham Forest, Derby County and Burton Albion.

A raft of spicy derbies and near-derbies which even the Premier League would struggle to match.

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