A whirlwind romance, to conflict and reconciliation, flickers of the old magic, but in the end, a goodbye that probably felt a long time coming. Barring the most sensational of u-turns, the Fernando Forestieri / Sheffield Wednesday marriage is over, leaving a complex S6 ‘legacy’ as multi-faceted as the Argentine forward’s skill set at his dazzling best.
It’s January 2016, and into the second half of Saturday’s early televised match in the Championship. In a crowded penalty area at the Kop end of Hillsborough, Sheffield Wednesday’s Fernando Forestieri sees his mistimed overhead kick bounce back in his favour, lifting himself up off the floor with three Leeds United defenders around him. Wriggling away under pressure to the touchline, the number 45 in blue and white cuts it back across goal, where Gary Hooper finally forces it over the line seconds later. As Hooper and Vincent Sasso celebrate arm in arm, it is Forestieri rushing to the front of the stand on the other side of the goal, gleefully kicking the advertising board with his arms in the air to the fans. Three minutes later, it is his shot parried for Hooper to get a second that ultimately seals a 2-0 win to take Wednesday into the play-off places, on the crest of a wave after five league wins in six.
It was Carlos Carvalhal’s first campaign as manager, the first full season of Dejphon Chansiri’s chairmanship, and for a Wednesdayite, everything felt wonderfully new and exciting, even for a club that has seen much loftier days. That Leeds win was just one example of Forestieri at his best; even when he didn’t score, he couldn’t quite be contained. The relative fall from grace in more recent years has been mutual for club and player.
This week, eight games from the end of the Championship season, has brought the announcement of the one-time Watford man’s departure alongside left-back Morgan Fox, top scorer Steven Fletcher, a club stalwart in midfielder Sam Hutchinson, and forward Sam Winnall. The Financial Fair Play struggles for the club are no secret by now, and the grim spectre of a possible point deduction has been hanging over us all season. Those are certainly some sizeable figures set to be gone from the wage bill – on top of the likes of Gary Hooper, George Boyd and Almen Abdi last summer – but it is no insignificant loss of quality either, especially in the immediate term. The club’s word was that Fox, Fletcher and Forestieri had been offered new contracts but had opted to leave, and a day later, the latter’s Instagram story referred to ‘the dangers of a one-sided story’. Diving in two-footed and emphatically siding with one half of the argument over the other is something we do well as football fans, but with so many stories of players leaving clubs after being offered contracts, only for the truth of that to be on significantly reduced terms and with any number of unfavourable clauses, perspective is never a bad thing to try and apply.
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While Forestieri leaves with his side to hopefully put across one day soon, his now-former adoring supporters are left to reflect on a rollercoaster five-year love affair. It was a dismal midweek home loss to Watford (4-1) in the Steel City cold of November 2012. ‘JER-MAINE JOHNSON….he’s not a right-back…’ (remember that not-so-pro-Dave Jones chant ringing out?). No shortage of Owls fans had also cast admiring glances at the silky number 41 in yellow who stuck one in the Kop net in the first half. He belonged to someone else then, but less than three years later, he became arguably the most exciting signing in a generation for the club. The cherished stripes seemed made for him, with 15 goals on our way to Wembley for the play-off final in 2015/16. The humour and mischief was there too, from the joke to a temporarily-horrified Ross Wallace that his goal in the semi-final with Brighton was about to be ruled out, to the ‘pick a card’ t-shirt he wore on his way to the changing room against Derby County after feeling referees were unfairly targeting him. It was colourful, it was exciting. Even that aforementioned Leeds game’s controversy had him at the centre, with the away side pulling a goal back, only to see it chalked off (much to Leeds manager Steve Evans’ ire) as Forestieri hadn’t yet left the pitch after being substituted. But that was the time; a bright outcome was never too far away.
After the pride and heartbreak of the play-off final, the marriage analogy never felt more fitting than the aftermath of the season-opening win against Aston Villa in August 2016. Forestieri stole in to send Hillsborough wild in the final few minutes, but a contract dispute quickly came to light, along with the revelation that he had only been persuaded to play against Villa by captain Glenn Loovens. After the outcry and uncertainty came a reassuring resolution – a new deal was announced in the January – but Forestieri’s ‘I have never wanted to leave and have always and still do want to play for Sheffield Wednesday!’ couldn’t have felt more like taking back an unfaithful partner. ‘I never wanted them – you know it’s you I love!’
I know there are some who feel we should have sold him back then, some admittedly now saying that only with hindsight, but it would have been a devastating loss at a time when it really did feel like we were building something brilliant. I felt far better knowing he was staying, and it is fine margins after all. Maybe we don’t let that late Huddersfield equaliser slip in the semi-final, and instead of having his crucial penalty saved that night, he scores the winner against Reading in the final. What a day that would have been; they’d still be trying to clear the final few Wednesday fans off Wembley Way today.
From the edge of immortality in years one and two, seasons three to five were decimated by injury, a shuddering downturn in team form, managerial changes, and a feeling that this once golden piece in the puzzle could never truly find his way back to centre-stage (it probably wasn’t at left-wing-back eh?). There was a sparkling return from seven months out injured at the end of 2017/18 under Jos Luhukay, albeit with nothing really to play for as the curtain came down on the season. It was, though, hard not to feel like some kind of curse had set in as he played just 45 minutes of four Sheffield derbies. Injuries and managers’ decisions aside, Wednesday fans had to do without ‘Fessi’ for a lot of games due to suspensions, and it would be remiss not to mention the Mansfield Town incident, for which he was acquitted in court of racial abuse against Krystian Pearce but later ordered by The FA to serve a six-game ban (having already missed three games for his part in the ensuing melee). It all adds to a complex legacy to take from his time with the club, but for someone who felt like the magic ingredient that would finally takes us to that fabled ‘back where we belong’, that a 5-0 loss at Brentford was his farewell is desperately sad.
But what a joy to watch him in happier times. That flying header to beat Cardiff, the goal and celebration in the crowd at Nottingham Forest, and that stunning Norwich strike at a time under Steve Bruce where you just thought ‘we might be on to something again here’. ‘The best player in the Championship’ Sam Hutchinson called him after the Huddersfield win on Sky in October 2016, and as biased as we can be towards our own, it genuinely felt like that wasn’t far wide of the mark. As for Hutch himself, without truly knowing all the behind-the-scenes details that have led to him ushered out of the back door after six years, again, the overriding feeling is immense sadness that it ended like this. After initial retirement so young, I’m glad he found a footballing home at our club. My favourite memory will always be the Barnsley goal in December 2016 and the dive to the corner flag to celebrate; pure joy pulsing through him and about two minutes before he was very clearly shown a red card, only for the ref to quickly decide it was actually for Barnsley’s Adam Hammill!
We had the wind in our sails as a fanbase for a couple of seasons, and it’s been three stormy years since. It feels like we’ve been drifting in the seas of apathy and disconcerting quiet for too long. I’ve always felt your club should offer you tears of joy and pain – preferably much more of the first one – but never a shrug of indifference. Maybe we’re on the cusp of a crucial turning point for the better, but it’s hard to feel that at the moment. The dreams of 2015-2017 forced to grow up and get with the real world. I hope with all my heart they’ll come roaring back.
Championship safety has to be the only priority in the coming weeks, but we need that spark again. I want the wider sense of connection back; to walk up those Hillsborough steps again on a match day feeling something more than just a routine sense of duty. I saw it and felt it even in much tougher times, when the likes of Paul Sturrock and Gary Megson kicked some life back in at pivotal moments. In 2020, we’re crying out for another catalyst. We’ve never been nearly as high since that incredible sight and sound of Hillsborough after Steven Fletcher’s goal against Huddersfield, have we? Knowing that’s there to be unlocked again, though, gives me hope. As we say goodbye to Forestieri, let’s not forget the excitement he brought. It’s too easy to be scornful in this world. Hindsight has greatly come to the fore with this announcement – maybe next we can sign his brother foresight? I wrote an article four years ago about Forestieri’s impact called ‘Dancing in a Perfect Storm’. It felt like we had our talisman again. The skill, the swift change of direction, the endeavour. That noise in the stadium when his shot hit the Leppings Lane net against Brighton in the play-offs (never mind the disallowed decision…). In the end, it’s more what could have been, but still the most talented player I’ve seen in the blue and white since my first game in 2000. Rest assured, it will be very strange seeing him play for someone else (there’s that marriage link again…). Thanks for those good times, amigo.