The green trees in the Peak District, a block of stainless steel recalling its industrial past, a pint or even a big rainy cloud. Using some (very little, actually) irony, these could be the ideal picks to symbolise the city of Sheffield. However, the problem does not even exist as you don’t see or sell many magnets downtown, but it leads to another matter.
Where is football in the city and country that gave birth to it?
In fact, flipping through the pages of books on football history it’s easy to notice how relevant was the role played by the “Steel City” in the first years of the game. Back then, Sheffield could boast the world’s first club, Sheffield FC (1857), followed by the birth of city rivals Sheffield Wednesday (1867) and Sheffield United (1889). In other words, from the second half of 19th century until the first decades of the 20th, Sheffield left a deep mark on the imaginary map of the newborn sport.
However, that mark would soon start to fade, definitely vanishing after 1935. Until then, Wednesday and United had carved up a significant haul, securing five Division One titles altogether as well as seven FA Cups, in a kind of promise they could never keep. In the following decades, mainly marked by anonymity, it was Wednesday who came the closest to resuming that winning tradition – Owls supporters fondly remember their team of the early 1960s who secured a runners-up place in Division One and took part in the Fairs Cup, as well as another golden era in the 1990s, as Wednesday won a League Cup by beating Manchester United and earned two straight seventh-place finishes in the first two editions of the Premier League.
Nowadays, for many foreign supporters, Hillsborough stadium is sadly more related to the 1989 tragedy than it is to Wednesday’s home. Yet, in November 1998 that same arena roared in delight as the Owls outplayed Sir Alex Ferguson‘s Manchester United in a 3-1 victory.
That would be one of the last joys for Wednesday fans, as the club would be relegated in 2000.
In a piece published on The Blizzard, long-standing Owls supporter Richard Lapper tried to explain the several ebbs and flows which characterised his club’s history: “In other words, you win some and then you lose some and if you wait long enough then success will come back.” According to Sheffield Star reporter Dominick Howson, contacted by MondoFutbol, the reasons for the recent grim period are more straightforward: “The fact is the club simply didn’t have the financial clout to compete in the upper echelons of the Championship. They chopped and changed managers and flirted were dogged by financial troubles.”
But for a supporter, that lapse of time between two peaks is often made of hope, suffering and useless attempts to understand what is really going wrong. Those same uncertainties have gripped Sheffielders for about 15 years, during which Wednesday fell to the third-tier and were a few steps away from failure, until Milan Mandarić purchased the club in 2010, although a return to Championship was the most significant achievement under the new owner.
Clouded by a series of disappointments, many struggled to consider Dejphon Chansiri‘s takeover in 2015 a potential turning point. Yet the Thai tycoon, who made his fortune by selling canned fish, certainly knew how to introduce himself to the Wednesday world, choosing words that could somehow heal the wounds of those people: “I can assure all our supporters that I will be working extremely hard to bring the success that I already sense from my short time in your city our supporters so desperately crave.“
Such empathetic words made many people change their mind about the new chairman. Most importantly, they were soon followed by facts.
Even FourFourTwo, at the time, cast doubts on Chansiri’s management, challenging his decision to hire a “decidedly unproven coach” in Carlos Carvalhal. However, the Thai owner would soon prove his doubters wrong, making heavy investments in training ground facilities and transfer market, with the likes of Fernando Forestieri, Barry Bannan and Gary Hooper, some of the team’s keystones, all joining in the first months of the new stewardship.
In order to win his supporters’ hearts, Chansiri simply didn’t conform to the typical cliché of the rich tycoon who doesn’t care much of his club’s fate, as Dominick Howson said: “Chansiri is a very hands-on chairman. Unlike some foreign owners, he goes to as many matches as he possibly can.
He loves the club and is desperate to lead them back into the big time.
Chansiri’s passion and dedication were also a breeding ground for Carlos Carvalhal, who would soon become one of the most appreciated Wednesday managers in the recent past. “I know of people with money who don’t have principles,” the Portuguese coach said on Alan Biggs’ Sheffield Live TV show. “The chairman is a very rich person but he has principles. This makes a big difference and makes it very easy to work with him.”
A stable relationship that paved the way for Carvalhal’s work, resulting in “some of the best football being played by Wednesday since the 1990s,” as Richard Lapper puts it. As for the Premier League dream, it’s still under construction, but with a new hope and enthusiasm that survived two painful play-off eliminations in as many seasons: the former coming in the final, against Hull City, in a Wembley stadium turned into a blue-and-white sea; the latter at the hands of David Wagner‘s Huddersfield in a two-legged semifinal.
Such heavy setbacks were nevertheless unconceivable for a side that hadn’t even been thinking of promotion in years. Above all, the reaction to these deceptions underlined once again how the Owls have now turned over a new leaf. In the aftermath of last season’s defeat against Huddersfield, Chansiri published a statement on the club’s website in order to thank and cheer all the supporters up:
My message to you all is the same – together we will be back because football is now in my blood and Sheffield Wednesday is in my heart.
These words were immediately followed by Carlos Carvalhal’s renewal, although some reported that he would face the sack in case of a defeat in the playoff. A decision that highlighted Chansiri’s will to detach himself from the Championship “hire them-fire them philosophy”.
Today Carvalhal is one of the longest-standing and respected coaches in the Championship and it is likely that the Owls 150th season in history will keep many supporters on the edge of their Hillsborough seats, especially after the best start to the season under the Portuguese manager. “Wednesday are expected to be there or thereabouts. Anything less than a play-off spot would be regarded by many as failure,” said Howson. On top of all that, this year is made even more special by the Championship return of city rivals Sheffield United and the “Steel City derby”.
Searching the web you can come across a footage of Chansiri applauding some Wednesday supporters who are singing a song which says:
we’re gonna go on the piss with Chansiri.
So, a pint is still good. But it’s time for a football to be symbolising Sheffield again.
Cover photo ©LaPresse
Wednesday victory in League Cup ©FourFourTwo
Other photos ©LaPresse