Chris Brookes looks back on an eventful campaign for the Owls and pays homage to a likeable keeper’s indian summer.
The 2012/13 Championship season will go down as one in which the typically captivating league outdid itself, becoming a raging free-for-all right to the very end as teams desperately fought to safely clamber over the finish line. Sheffield Wednesday in their first campaign back in the second tier after promotion were one of four clubs to secure safety on the final day and the overall achievement was due in no small part to an outstanding goalkeeper to call upon – the one-time England international Chris Kirkland.
After automatic promotion in May 2012, the optimism surrounding Sheffield Wednesday going into the return to the Championship was pulsating all around. One of manager Dave Jones’ numerous summer signings was Wigan Athletic keeper Chris Kirkland on a free transfer. Although there were plenty of doubts regarding the fitness of someone who had previously been hounded by back problems there was also pleasure at the acquisition of an undeniably accomplished player. However, it seemed almost certain that Kirkland was to leave the club within the opening weeks of a two-year contract for undisclosed reasons. The departure was never confirmed and The Owls began the season with the former Liverpool man in goal.
An impressive start to the season was emphatically undermined by two separate runs of five and seven defeats in a row that had Wednesday firmly in the relegation places in mid-December. Criticism was flying throughout these months and although Kirkland, who had stayed fit throughout, had his supporters he also had plenty pointing the finger, somewhat unjustly many felt. When the situation is getting desperate you pray for that offering of hope and that lifeline to grab hold of. It arrived with a 1-0 win at local and relegation rivals Barnsley on December 15th as a Chris O’Grady goal was given despite what appeared a foul on Reds keeper Luke Steele by Gary Madine. It was also a game that was incredibly difficult to watch from a blue and white perspective due to the backs-to-the-wall nature of The Owls’ performance. Nevertheless, it was the beginning of a turnaround that ultimately instigated survival and it was one of many commendable displays from Kirkland.
Safety was achieved at the weekend as Wednesday defeated Middlesbrough 2-0 at Hillsborough and the final whistle also ensured that Kirkland had played every single minute of our league season. As the months have gone by, Wednesday fans have breathed sighs of relief and marvelled in almost equal measure at the ex-Coventry City youngster’s contributions and he has truly become a favourite with the Owls faithful. He made a terrific stop to keep us in the game in the season’s curtain-raiser at Oldham in the Capital One Cup and it would be the sign of things to come. He was voted as runner-up in the club’s Player of the Year award behind defender Lewis Buxton and the latest media speculation has linked him with a move to Hull City as they prepare for a return to the Premier League under his old Wigan manager Steve Bruce.
Players will always come and go but I would love for him to stay. The Wednesday keepers I have seen include Pavel Srnicek, Kevin Pressman, Scott Carson, David Lucas, Lee Grant and Nicky Weaver and as I was a long way off seeing the legendary Ron Springett in his prime I can safely place Kirkland towards the very top of that list. After the struggles he has had with injury I cannot accurately express my admiration for the way he has stayed fit and performed so admirably amid the pressure. His fitness has been managed superbly and he takes a lot of credit for that himself, as do the likes of Alex Armstrong, Paul Smith, Dean Taylor and Ben Parker on the staff. It is easy for us as supporters to discount how deeply injuries can affect a player on a personal level – it can shatter morale when all you want is to play the game you love and at its worst it can end careers. I’m so pleased he has come back from it and the look on his face when he turns to watch the crowd as ‘Hi Ho Sheffield Wednesday’ rings out before kick-off in games at Hillsborough is heart-warming.
The 32-year-old has played in the top flight for Coventry, West Brom and Wigan, as well as in the Champions League for Liverpool, including on the night of Steven Gerrard’s unforgettable goal against Olympiakos. I am in no doubt however that he loves it here at Wednesday and he has said the supporters are amongst the best he has ever seen. He gives you that peace of mind as a fan and although you can never fully relax until the result is secured it makes the supporter experience so much easier to enjoy when you trust in your players wearing that shirt. Over the course of the season he has produced save after save and his part in the priceless victory at Millwall in April is just one fine example.
If the reported interest from Hull does come to something then although we’ll be sad to see him go he’ll have every Wednesdayite’s thanks for the way he helped us to safety this year. Many more after him will pass through our club but we always remember those who did the business for us and those who showed they cared at the same time. It hurt when we sold Chris Brunt, Glenn Whelan, Madjid Bougherra and Lee Grant to clubs of higher league standing and/or better resources and this would be no different, but so long as we get the fee we deserve we can take solace and strengthen once again.
As for the season through the eyes of a Wednesday devotee, the journey has not been a dull one! When I look back upon this year I’ll think of the desperate November night at home to Watford, watching us capitulate to a 4-1 defeat and wanting Dave Jones to steady the ship but asking myself ‘how?’. The manager has made mistakes and he has taken the criticism, some reasonable, some harsh, and some simply fabricated. He tends to divide opinion quite strongly amongst the fanbase but in just over a year in charge he has achieved promotion and kept us up, and in a Championship season like no other. The record books will show us in 18th but three points from 10th and ten points from the play-off places. Without wanting to sound like Mrs. Doubtfire, sorry, Neil Warnock, who knows where we would have been without some refereeing decisions that have to be seen to be believed! The Jeremy Helan red card that never was at Huddersfield is one to tip the balance but the denial of penalties for the Superman dive and handball from Luciano Becchio against Leeds, the Nottingham Forest handballs at home, and the blatant foul on Michail Antonio at Wolves are just some that stick in my mind.
Coming back to the season finale against Middlesbrough, I feel it necessary to give a mention to striker Steve Howard, the archetypal seasoned warhorse (with all due respect!). I always wanted to see him in a Wednesday shirt, I just never thought it would be when he was a 36-year-old and especially one running through on goal to score as he did last Saturday. It was a big call to bring him in from the bottom of League One with Hartlepool and to say it was met with scepticism would be an understatement. In hindsight though he was both the player and the character for the battle and his message of ‘let me deal with the centre-halves, you and Jermaine get in behind’ to Leroy Lita was indicative of the selfless quality he brought us. He has played for some good clubs in his career but when he looks back on his playing days he can rest safely in the knowledge that he made over 30,000 Wednesday fans ecstatic when his shot hit the Kop net against Boro that day. I wish we had him years ago but that goal wasn’t a bad way to say ‘sorry for your wait, I’m here now’.
Every club’s supporters think of their stadium as their special place and many believe their backing is the best around. To me there’s nowhere that comes close to Hillsborough when the fans are roaring those in blue and white towards goal and I can look at the Kop around me or at those on the North and the South. It hasn’t all been smooth sailing this season and one or two might have been feeling seasick on the unforgiving Championship waters but we got there in the end and there was plenty to savour on the voyage too. The way I felt when Lita’s header crashed in off the bar against Crystal Palace, when we ended Hull’s nine-game unbeaten run, when Chris Maguire sunk that priceless volley in at Millwall, or the love we showed Jose Semedo on the last day as he came on. They are all reminders of why the hard times are worth it and even the sight of Jermaine Johnson leaving the pitch injured and upset against Ipswich manages to make you feel part of something – that shared emotion we all feel. I don’t use attendances as a form of one-upmanship but the backing we have had has been superb once again through some tough times in 2012/13. The numbers have never wavered and the 6000 in the away end at Derby on the opening day and the 24,000 average at home stand out proudly.
To any fellow Wednesdayite reading, I don’t know about you but to me it feels like we are on our way back, one step at a time. We know our chairman Milan Mandaric won’t be here forever but I feel sure he is dedicated to preparing us for success long after he walks out the door at Hillsborough for the final time. From January onwards this never felt to me like a relegation season, it felt like we had found a way to get us to the sanctuary we craved, one way or another. There’s a lot to work on and with the loan players departing most will agree that it will take some reasonable investment to advance beyond a scrap for survival. We need to learn from some of the mistakes of last pre-season’s recruitment but I’m going to enjoy following it all – it’s what it’s all about.
Interest has grown in us this year and although it takes more than reputation to get results I have relished us being talked about in football circles for signing well-known players like Chris Kirkland, Anthony Gardner, Ross Barkley, Leroy Lita, Connor Wickham and Stuart Holden. Bit by bit, people are recognising the name of Sheffield Wednesday again – let’s keep that going. The words ‘Sheffield’ and ‘Wednesday’ apart don’t have a huge effect on me but put them together and it awakens something deep inside. There is no community quite like Wednesday. You might have to pay your membership in a few tears along the way but the days always come when you realise why it was worth it. A year ago our emotions were in the clouds after that special day against Wycombe and we had dreams of another promotion when this season got underway. Summer is approaching again and when we make that first signing, when the fixtures are announced, and as the days count down to August, we’ll dream once more.
Check out Chris’ superb site http://beatsandrhymesfc.com/ where he interviews players on football and music.
You can also follow him on Twitter @chris_brookes