Date:Thursday April 27 2006
I wish I supported Wednesday... By Jeff Gold
An extraordinary thing to say, by anybody at any time, but coming from Jamie on that sunny autumn afternoon it was truly astonishing. You see, Jamie is a Sheffield United fan. Not a very good one - he was on the terraces at Hillsborough at the time - but a United fan all the same. And it was November 1989. Wednesday were bottom of Division One, while United were bludgeoning their way to promotion from Division Two. Nevertheless, that day Jamie was watching something fresh, something exciting, and he was beguiled by its grace and beauty.
He was not the only one. Iíd not seen football like this at Hillsborough since, well, ever really. Not from the home side anyway. I had not long been supporting Wednesday when, in 1976, it took a final-day victory to save them from relegation to Division Four. It was the lowest point in their history. Although their subsequent rise was far from meteoric (which is hardly surprising since meteors seem much more adept at falling than rising) by the mid-eighties they had finished fifth in Division One and were reaching cup semi-finals on a regular basis.
Heady days, but a revival masterminded first by Jack Charlton then Howard Wilkinson inevitably gave us football designed more for the athlete than the aesthete. Now Racist Ron was in charge. His initial efforts had been reasonably easy on the eye. Unfortunately, they were even easier on the opposition. After eleven games of the 1989/90 season Wednesday had three goals, six points and a serious problem.
Then John Sheridan arrived from Forest and suddenly, immediately, everything was good. He rarely ran, never tackled, and simply couldnít head the ball, but his passing was so cultured as to take afternoon tea on the terrace whilst listening to a spot of Puccini. He started by masterminding a 1-0 win at his old club. Then came the Revelation Game: Jamie watched in awe and wonder as Wednesday dismantled Charlton, while I became convinced that, rather than enduring a relegation six-pointer, I was witnessing the dawn of a golden era.
From that day on, giving Wednesday the ball was like knocking it over old Mrs Wilsonís garden hedge. You never knew when, or indeed if, you would get it back. Unfortunately, like Mrs Wilson, they were not always sure what to do with it and, on occasion, they suffered the dictatorsí fate, dominating for long periods before succumbing to a single shot. At least now they were a pleasure to watch and also genuinely competitive. So much so, that they crashed through the magical forty-point barrier well before Easter, everybody breathed a huge sigh of relief and the players were treated to a short holiday.
Six games later Wednesday were relegated and Jamie changed his mind.
Fortunately, these were pre-Premiership days and relegation did not necessarily lead to all-round financial meltdown, the whole squad being paraded in the pound-shop window and the installation of Ken Bates as chairman. Wednesday managed to keep their squad together, season-ticket sales actually increased and the streets around Hillsborough filled with optimism, that invidious and deceitful beast that usually stalks football grounds in only three forms: unfounded, misguided and blind.
On this occasion, however, it boasted the eagle-eyes of an Action Man as Wednesday enjoyed that rare, almost mythical thing, a Proper Promotion. The kind of season where the inevitability of success becomes apparent from the very first game, your team is clearly the greatest the world has ever seen, by far, and every game, particularly away from home, becomes a celebration. During the opening fixture in Suffolk, I simply donít remember an Ipswich player touching the ball, not even to kick off which is odd. This may have had something to do with my sickness-induced delirium - I clearly recall Pele turning neatly in the area and teeing up Eusebio to crash home a volley for the second goal - but still, to me, it seemed like the complete performance.
Wednesday continued in much the same vein for the rest of the season, possession now being converted into goals, many of which were pleasingly ugly. Their main weakness the previous year had been to favour artistic merit over results, style over substance - like Holland, but without the squabbling. They hadnít so much laboured as entertained under the impression that the only worthy goal was an intricately woven length-of-the-field creation involving all eleven players, incorporating a mazy dribble, a back heel and a nutmeg, and culminating in a stunning strike from at least twenty yards, preferably a volley or a diving header which counted double, or something.
They continued to score such goals in Division Two but it was the tap-ins, the scuffs, and the scrappy scrambles that really made the difference. Of course, playing the likes of Bristol Rovers rather than Liverpool may also have helped, but six unbeaten games against Division One opposition, a sequence they rounded off by beating Manchester United at Wembley to win their first trophy for fifty-six years, suggested they were good enough to compete at a higher level.
And so, like Sheridan, it came to pass. Despite the loss of Ron in a parting more unpleasant than the one on his head, their return to the top flight saw them finish third, having still been involved in the Championship race with two games remaining. The season after that, they played in Europe and reached the final of both cups, and it was several more years before they took the fashion for seventies revivals a little too literally, embarking on a descent that was truly meteoric.
So, a golden era indeed, and it all started on that sunny afternoon when Jamie made his announcement. Just for a while he wished he supported Wednesday and, just for a while, it didnít seem like such a ridiculous idea.
Date:Thursday April 27 2006
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