The year of stupendous, stoppage-time Sheffield Wednesday goals, and also the one in which disco found an unlikely revival in S6. The two of those were bouncing in unison at Hillsborough by full-time this past weekend. After all, what better place for something long since written off to come roaring on back?
How does still being the lowest scorers in the Championship and six points from safety feel this good? There’s a quick answer to that – and more of him shortly – but the reaction to Wednesday’s late turnaround to beat current relegation rivals Queens Park Rangers 2-1 on Saturday had far more than just three important points behind it.
The best single moment yet in the two-month tenure of first-time manager Danny Röhl came exactly a week after 94th-minute match-winner Anthony Musaba had done likewise at Stoke City. The 23-year-old Dutch attacker’s instinctive tap-in from inside the six-yard box against QPR wasn’t a patch on the superb first touch, run and finish seven days earlier, but in every other sense, it was a stunning sequel.
Musaba’s arrival from Monaco is looking ever more like the brightest spot of a haphazard summer at Wednesday. After the seeming self-sabotage that followed promotion to the Championship for the club (and Xisco Muñoz’ ill-fated three months) it has been young German boss Danny Röhl picking up the wreckage – with all the efficiency stereotypical of his homeland, but a level of immediate connection to Owls fans that would have you believing he is really from High Green.
Since late-October, the 34-year-old has overseen all four of Wednesday’s league wins in 2023-24, summing up both the severity of the situation he inherited, and the kiss of life he has given to the season. The former Bayern Munich and Germany assistant is also the reason for Boney M. (‘Daddy Cool’) claiming the main soundtrack for the club’s latest fight against the odds. The strength of affection from supporters is partly down to respect and recognition for his coaching credentials, though maybe it comes even more from a place of long-standing hurt for a fan base that just wants to believe with justification again, in something and someone.
— Alex (@Alexyoungphoto) December 4, 2023
After the dreamlike delirium that was May’s historic play-off comeback from 4-0 down v Peterborough United, and the 123rd-minute Windass Wembley winner against Barnsley, the euphoria should have burned on through the summer. Instead, ours was a club that seemingly set itself on fire. The departure of manager Darren Moore, but arguably more alarming, the drunken stumble into pre-season that felt like grasping for new players (and a head coach) with closing-time desperation, was a disaster-class in leadership and planning. Ticket prices also took the headlines, and the enthusiasm away for many, as dormant disillusion erupted. How do you go from feeling lucky that this is your club, to not even wanting to go to games barely three months later?
What those last two play-off games did, in the most implausible way, was recapture the undamaged wonderment that we all come into football with. How good was it to be talked about across English football again (and with that semi-final second leg, around the world) for brilliance instead of shame? That sight and spine-tingling sound of ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ (Jeff Beck featuring 44,000 Wednesday fans) after full-time at Wembley is a scene we should never have been allowed to fall so far away from so fast.
In the minute or so after last Saturday’s winner in front of the Kop, however, the sheer amount of uncontrollable bouncing I did makes me think that maybe we’ve just re-awoken that scene. It took me back to some of my favourite moments down the years, like Chris Maguire’s 97th-minute goal against Barnsley in 2014 and the whole bench running down the touchline; moments that didn’t even come in seasons where we challenged for play-offs or promotion. Maybe it’s a reminder that if there’s evidence of something to get behind, with unity and some excitement, Wednesdayites will follow, whether we’re 3rd or 23rd.
There can be no doubting just how different an experience watching us has become recently, even in some of the games we’ve lost. I felt a sense of intent and understanding when we went forward at Norwich that was nowhere to be seen before Danny Röhl, while the Rotherham game (the crucial first win) and its atmosphere were such a break from the gloom that I wondered if I’d been transported to a separate season altogether (stranger things have happened with our turnstile system lately). From heading into games feeling like it was over before we even kicked off, five points have been won after 90 minutes alone in the last few matches – night and day for a team that had just three points after 13 games. While the welcome for Röhl has clearly resonated with him, what almost strikes me the most is how he has endeared himself without the need to force it with exaggerated compliments or clichés that fans can often see through. Sincerity and substance – that rare, invaluable pairing.
The coaching team assembled around him claims an obvious part in the progress. The significance of Chris Powell (a member of Gareth Southgate’s England staff until earlier this year) as assistant, and a previous manager himself in the Championship, is hard to understate. Hopefully I wasn’t the only one when he was appointed to remember with a wry smile his celebratory pull-ups on the Leppings Lane crossbar, after his Charlton team denied us an FA Cup quarter-final Sheffield derby almost a decade ago. I definitely wasn’t smiling that night, but time’s a healer! He’s now safely reincarnated not just as a Ted Lasso co-commentary comedian, but a Wednesday favourite.
I was warmed even more by Röhl’s comments about investment in young players to go alongside the experience. How uplifting it also is to see 18-year-old striker and academy graduate Bailey Cadamarteri shining. I remember as a kid in the late-90s watching his dad (Danny) on Match of the Day scoring for Everton as a teenager (including at Hillsborough). Bailey might not have the dreads but his striker’s instinct is as exciting as anything we’ve seen at the club in years, if not decades. It was on display for the third time in four games when he buried Djeidi Gassama’s pass for the late equaliser against QPR. A summer signing from Paris Saint-Germain, wideman Gassama is another improving young hope; slightly further behind Anthony Musaba in his adaptation to the Championship, having been with the Under-21s early on, but with similar raw attributes we have lacked for so long.
— Alex (@Alexyoungphoto) December 16, 2023
The return to prominence of promotion heroes Will Vaulks in midfield and Marvin Johnson down the left has been as heartening as it has helpful. If as it certainly looks, though, that Lee Gregory is on his way in January, his part in that Josh Windass winner at Wembley – the close control under pressure before what became the perfect cross for one of the most famous moments in the club’s modern history – will never be forgotten (along with the 29 goals). I wrote (as someone much younger and less world-weary!) back in 2012, after promotion to the Championship on that special day against Wycombe at Hillsborough, how such occasions are the reason why the thought of losing your club is so terrifying. Being left to fear for its very existence is something a fan should never go through, and is not easily forgotten. While we wait to see if football’s fabled brighter days are around the corner for us instead of more doubt and worry about the club’s future, some acknowledgement can be given for the more commendable calls made recently – chief among them, the man whose name was being sung loud and proud on Hillsborough Corner into Saturday evening.
In a relegation battle, there is no fuel like momentum, and it’s exactly what we’ve just started to unearth again. Protect and build from here, and let us have this fighting chance. From the cusp of the Premier League in 2016, our club has since been on its knees more times than should ever have been plausible. A year, though, that included misjudgement and turmoil that cannot be repeated ends now with the most dangerous thing of all – hope.
2023 will live on in the hearts of Wednesdayites for the kind of last-gasp drama that some still struggle to comprehend, and many more are only just recovering from. Thirty years after 1993’s ‘If it’s Wednesday, it must be Wembley,’ in 2023, it wasn’t goodnight until it was blue and white. Where were you when JFK was shot – sorry…where were you when Liam Palmer put that fourth over the line?
The rush that I felt from seeing us go 3-0 up in the second leg, as the stadium screen showed a fired-up Reece James racing back to the centre-circle, took me from sceptical intrigue at our chances that night to a reborn believer. Maybe that’s exactly where we are now – one goal away, and right back in the fight. Every now and then, even in the darkest times, something good just gets going again at Wednesday, and when it does, you’re so glad that you’re on our side of it all, instead of looking in from afar.
THEY’VE DONE IT!!!!
IN THE 98TH MINUTE SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY COMPLETE THE COMEBACK 🔥 pic.twitter.com/hucn8yQLjR
— Sky Sports Football (@SkyFootball) May 18, 2023