Monday, 21 March 2011
Teams That Made Us Fall In Love With Football #11 Sheffield Wednesday '93
Bill Shankly once said: ‘Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.’ Although I don’t wholly agree with the sentiment, I have always thought that football was a good analogy for life. If football is the journey, then the teams that accompany us are our partners. I have to admit that in my early teens, I was a bit of a slag, chasing shirt. I have had exotic romances with foreign mistresses including a dirty weekend in Paris (St Germain) and an ultimately destructive on-off relationship with England. But if Manchester United were to become my life partner then the Sheffield Wednesday team of 93’ was my first kiss. It was an affair to remember.
Back in the days before Football Italia, Champ Manager and The Hurricanes, when Ian Wright wasn’t a TV presenter and Ron Atkinson was well respected, I became aware of the existence of a beautiful game. I had seen the older boys kicking something round in the general direction of two vertical white lines, and one horizontal, painted on the wall in the playground. After several days watching this curious activity, I worked out that these lads were attempting to imitate something I had seen on television; it was football. I was eventually allowed to play and instantly established myself as an incredibly mediocre goal-hanger. Even though I knew early on that I would never be any good at playing the game, I was hooked. The delight of scoring the winning goal in a 23-22 thriller with a volley on the half turn would establish football as the one childhood obsession that would outlive Scarcroft Primary School’s playground. But where would I go from here and whom would I support?
Growing up in a household indifferent to football, with no affiliations or allegiances, I was free to pick my own team. Being too young to understand local loyalties, the world was my apple but my imagination didn’t take me very far. I was not alone in this conquest as my best friend at the time, Alex Fletcher, was also on the hunt. His family were into cricket and believed, like my own, that football was a sport for hooligans. We would discover Sheffield Wednesday together at exactly the same moment.
Although I can tell you much about that side now; at the time I was clueless. I was nine-year-old with footballing reference points that consisted of the trinity of Roger Milla, Escape to Victory and Frank Rijkaard gobbing in Rudi Voller’s hair. If you’d have told me then that football didn’t consist entirely of 40-year-old Cameroonian men dancing with corner flags in POW camps while people spit into each others faces, I would have thought you were mad. I actually thought that Sylvester Stallone and Pele were responsible for the fall of the Third Reich. Part of me still does. But my eyes were soon to be clawed open one sunny (in my rose-tinted memory) spring evening when a chance flick of the remote brought live football into Fleggie’s house for the first (second) time.
The FA Cup semi-final between Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United was under way and the Owls were already ahead. Our first reaction to this was to turn the channel. We had attempted to watch another grown up football match one week before and had given up after 10 goalless minutes. But this was different. Wednesday had already scored. Maybe there would be more. We decided to stick with it and found amusement in the fact that there were two teams from Sheffield. The fact that one of them was called Wednesday was priceless. Wednesday? What could this mean? After initially deciding to take a side each (me Wednesday, fleggie United) the free flowing football and thrill that was to come brought us both firmly behind Wednesday in the Steel City derby.
Chris Waddle had put the Owls ahead in the first minute via a free-kick. United equalised after 44 and set up a second half full of tension. I have to admit that I only have vague memories of these games but the fundamentals are what matter. There was a second half. There was extra time. There was a winning goal. It was scored by Magic Spongers’ favourite onion and my first footballing hero: Mark Bright. This goal sent two nine-year-old boys into each others arms, united behind a team they had only discovered less than 106 minutes before. What had begun as mild curiosity had spun on a sixpence into full-blown football passion. I hadn’t been this excited since discovering there was an incomplete and unpublished Tintin book!
But before I describe what took place next I should say something about the Wednesday team that year and the context of that season. As I say, my knowledge at the time was limited. I recognised players such as Chris Waddle and Carlton Palmer who were in and around the England squad but I was being introduced to the majority of the team for the first time. This side had finished the previous season in an impressive 3rd place, earning a Uefa Cup place. In the season I stumbled across them, they made both domestic cup finals and eventually finished 7th in the league. Waddle went on to become football writer’s player of the year. Both seasons must live long in the memory for Wednesday fans who have had to witness a steady fall from grace since those heady days.
The team played a quick, wing-based play with Palmer and Viv Anderson moving the ball on to the more cultured players such as John Sheridan and Paul Warhurst. Crosses would come in from the slick and incisive wing play of Waddle and Nigel Worthington, who got forward like a Brazilian wing-back. Up front were the intimidating twosome of David Hirst and Bright, both good in the air and not afraid to get dirty. In fact, Mark Bright’s elbows received more head that season than Silvio Berlusconi (yes, terrible joke). It was a strong team with a great chance of silverware.
Next up: the final. We had discovered in the intervening period that Sheffield Wednesday would play Arsenal, another name to induce pre-pubescent giggles. We knew that they had already beaten Wednesday in the Coca-Cola Cup final a few months before. This wasn’t going to be easy. Watching the ritual of the FA cup with the teams walking out in unison, led by their managers, was thrilling and gave myself and Fleggie a real feel for how grand the occasion was. Fleggie had bought a Sheffield Wednesday scarf and, sensing that I was jealous, placed it on top of the television rather than round his neck. The next 90 minutes were spent biting our nails and singing our new song, ‘Seaman the sailor and Smith with a wart on his nose’. That’s right. We actually thought calling Dave Seaman a sailor was comedy genius. Oh boys. The line about Alan Smith still holds up though.
Arsenal went ahead after 20 minutes with Ian Wright scoring with a typical poacher’s header. Luckily for us, David Hirst got the better of the sailor man and equalised in the 61st minute. The next half an hour is a complete blur but the final whistle went without further incident finishing 1-1. What next? Extra time? Penalties? A replay (remember them) would follow five days later.
The days leading up to the final passed quickly and I was back round Fleggie’s in what seemed like no time. It was as if the two finals were being played back to back and thinking about it now it is no wonder that they scrapped replays. At the time not only were European cup competitions shorter in length but English teams were rarely making appearances in the latter stages. You could never get away with a replay now and the diminished value of the FA Cup means some clubs view an early exit as a potential blessing.
But in 1993, the FA Cup mattered. This final mattered and it didn’t start well. Our bogeyman Ian Wright turned up again, scoring early. Not only was this match a replay it was also a rerun. Wednesday fought back and played some great football before equalising through a deflected shot from Chris Waddle in the second half.
Once again the teams were impossible to separate. This final got nicknamed the ‘longest’ final as not only had it gone to a replay but would go to extra-time and was only one minute away from penalties. This whole experience wasn’t just a footballing epiphany for myself and Fleggie but it was also an endurance test. In that final minute, we would feel that all those hours hadn’t been rewarded. Andy Linighan met a Paul Merson corner and put the ball beyond Chris Woods in the Wednesday goal. We were crushed, but found a little solace in adding Linighan’s name to our song: 'Seaman the sailor, Smith with a wart on his nose and Andy L-in-hi-gan!.' Clearly our disappointment hadn’t stifled our creativity.
This was the last moment me and Wednesday would share together. Fleggie, the better person, stuck with The Owls. I briefly flirted with the idea of becoming an Arsenal fan now they had won and asked my mum for a red and white shirt. I even goaded Fleggie about how we (Arsenal) had won pretending that I had been supporting them all along. What a horrible little bastard. Spending what felt like an entire summer, but actually consisted of just three football matches with Sheffield Wednesday had consolidated my interest in football into something bigger. The drama, goals, highs and lows of that year’s FA Cup taught me a lot about football in what were my formative years. Wednesday, I am forever grateful for that fateful summer.