The many lows and dizzying highs of supporting Sheffield Wednesday
‘We're gonna win 5-0 on Thursday night, I'm going to do a naked Klinsmann dive in front of the Kop. Then I'm gonna accept my lifetime ban’
By Dan Hayes
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt as low as a Wednesdayite as I did Friday,” Chris McClure tells me a couple of days after the 4-0 defeat by Peterborough. I’ve been looking for Wednesday fans willing to speak to me for a few days but most don’t want to speak for obvious reasons. Everyone’s down bad, following their team’s humiliating defeat. McClure is the rare fan who is willing to put his head above the parapet and chat to the media.
McClure is something of a minor celebrity in Sheffield. He’s probably most famous for being the cover star of Arctic Monkeys first album Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, and away from his day job is also a comedy writer, starring in a web series about the exploits of fictional pub team manager Steve Bracknall.
He tells me his life is going better than ever at the moment: his girlfriend has a baby on the way, he has a job he loves and his comedy writing is even paying off with a potential TV series in the works. But his football team stubbornly refuses to play ball. He says it’s all the more frustrating when you think about the club’s history and future potential. “It’s like that James song,” he tells me. “If I hadn’t seen such riches I could live with being poor.”
I first started thinking about doing a story about Wednesday a few months ago. At the time, they were riding high in League One and looking certain for automatic promotion. But then the implosion happened. Defeat against Barnsley was swiftly followed by several more including one against Forest Green Rovers, a club most famous for being the only vegan club in English football. All of sudden, if they were going to be promoted from League One to the Championship, Wednesday would have to do it via the dreaded play offs. Still, a semi-final against Peterborough, a team that had finished 19 points below them in the season shouldn’t be too difficult should it? Until…it was. A goalkeeping error followed by a lucky deflection saw Wednesday 2-0 down after 36 minutes. If they’d had kept it at two they might have had a chance but two further goals after half time had surely put the tie beyond them.
In the aftermath of the humiliating 4-0 away defeat there was bitterness and recrimination. In a video shared on Twitter by BBC Radio Sheffield football reporter Rob Staton, a cacophony of boos from the away end melts imperceptibly into a rendition of the worst chant football supporters can level at their team: “You’re not fit to wear the shirt”.
To call the next few days on social media “horrendous” is an understatement. Some called for manager Darren Moore to go, while others argued he should stay. Most were just football fans sounding off in the wake of a chastening defeat, but some of the posts took a darker turn. A few days after the Peterborough game, the club was forced to issue a denunciation of vile racist abuse aimed towards Moore, who is one of the few black managers in English football.
However, in among the gloom there was also humour. On Twitter, McClure fell into conversation with founding member of The Human League Martyn Ware (Wednesday are blessed with celebrity fans).
“We’re gonna win 5-0 on Thursday night,” wrote McClure. “I'm going to do a naked Klinsmann dive in front of the Kop. Then I’m gonna accept my lifetime ban.”
“I will get YOUR FACE tattooed on my arse if we do,” responded Ware.
As well as providing some much needed levity, the exchange captured something essential about being a football fan: hope. It’s the thing that keeps millions of football fans following their teams, most of whom aren’t very good, week after week in the face of all logical sense. A belief that their fortunes might change, that success could be just a match or two away.
As well as being immortalised by Arctic Monkeys, Chris is the brother of Jon McClure, the lead singer of Sheffield band Reverend and the Makers. He travelled to Peterborough last Friday night with Jon, his cousin Tom and his mate Steve, who is 70 and has been watching Wednesday since the 1960s. “What upsets me is I know Steve gets emotional thinking will he ever see it again,” he tells me. “I think that there’s just a growing feeling as a Wednesdayite that we've waited nearly a quarter of a century for this. When is it our turn?”
Now 37, Chris has been following his team for 30 years. He and his brother are from the north Sheffield suburb of Grenoside, where Wednesday fans are in the majority. Their dad comes from Cumbria but their mum’s family hail from the tightly packed terraced streets around Hillsborough itself. There was never any chance of them supporting anyone else.
When he first started going to games, Wednesday were experiencing what was arguably one of the most successful periods the club has ever had. Chris’ first footballing memory is John Sheridan scoring against Man United in the 1991 League Cup final. “When you're seven and you’re watching the likes of Chris Waddle and David Hirst, beating Man United and getting to Wembley, in your naive state you think that's what it’s going to be like forever.”
Despite the disappointment of Friday night, when we speak he says he’ll definitely be at Hillsborough on Thursday night. He’s only missed two games this season home and away and so feels like he needs to “see it through”, for better or for worse. Does he have any hope, I ask. “This is the perverse nature of being a football fan,” he tells me. “There's always that 2% in your head going ‘what if?’ Even if as a Sheffield Wednesday fan you have zero evidence to back that up.”
Dan Knight, 21, from Pitsmoor, went to his first game when he was just six weeks old, and got his first season ticket when he was four. He sits on the Kop, the vast single flight stand that backs onto Penistone Road, in the same place where he and his dad used to sit before his father sadly passed away in 2020. Three years ago Star Owls reporter Alex Miller interviewed Dan about the last game he and his dad watched together. It’s a beautiful piece and perfectly captures the way that for millions of fans all over the world, football is as much about family and identity as it is about 22 blokes kicking a ball around a pitch.
What’s the last few days been like, I ask. After a few exasperated expletives come down the line, Dan settles on “absolutely bleak”. He’s still replaying the game in his mind: Moore’s tactics, he tells me, were “completely wrong”. But there’s also a sense that the problems go deeper than just one game. That there is something about Wednesday as a club now that can’t cope with the level of expectation that comes with its history. “The pressure was all on us and that's not really a situation that our team tends to thrive on,” he says.
Unlike Chris, who remembers the 1990s when Wednesday were actually good, Dan has nothing so positive to reminisce about. He tells me his brother, who now lives in London, is 41 and remembers them beating the likes of Man United and Arsenal and even followed them in Europe. “I get to go to Forest Green and Morecambe,” he says. “It's not fair really.”
Gently broaching the success of the other half of the city, Dan tells me he has plenty of Blades supporting friends and says the last few months have not been pleasant in some of his group chats. It usually doesn’t take much prodding to get a Wednesday fan to say their team is the biggest in the city. But in recent years United have been promoted three times to the Premier League while Wednesday have been languishing in the lower divisions. “If you can’t do it on the pitch, history isn’t much good to you,” he says.
Will he be going on Thursday, I ask. Yes, he says (he jokes that as a Yorkshireman he wouldn’t want to waste the money he spent on his ticket). Like McClure, he tells me he’s imagined scenarios where Wednesday get two early goals and the pressure tells on Peterborough. But he then instantly jokes that the most Wednesday thing to do would be to win 4-0 and then lose on penalties. It’s a fatalism that seems to infect the Wednesday fanbase. Artist and celebrity Wednesdayite Pete McKee has even created a range of t-shirts which reference this natural pessimism. One style in blue and white reads “Typical Wednesday” on the front. Another has a cartoon owl holding its head in its hands.
I was originally going to watch the second leg in a Wednesday pub, and write about the glum faces and resignation I saw as the clock ticked away on Wednesday’s season. But my boss, in his infinite wisdom, says I have to go to the game. It turns out there are some left as fans have been returning them all week. I secure a single seat on the Kop the day before the game.
On the tram on the way to the ground on Thursday night I hear people say they just want to see Wednesday play “a good game” and “not lose”. It seems the main thing that’s at stake is pride rather than winning. On the way I get chatting to Ian, 58, from Frecheville. He’s there with a mate who’s about to go travelling the world for two years. “To get away from Wednesday,” jokes Ian. Did he ever have any doubt he was going to come tonight I ask. No, although he knows a few who have returned their tickets. One woman he works with said she’d have gone if it was 2-0 but not 4-0. Nevertheless, Ian doesn’t hold out much hope. “I’ve seen nothing this season that this team has got 4-0 in them,” he tells me.
Getting off at the Rawson Spring pub on Langsett Road, I head inside and look for willing victims to interview. Sitting on a table at the side of the room I find Neil, 58, his son Oliver, 30 and their friend who also claims to be 30 years old and called Oliver (although I think the second 30-year-old Oliver might be messing with me). Their ages span the good and the bad: Neil remembers the early 1990s, while the two younger men have had to make do with lower league football. Listening to them speak illustrates a paradox for supporters: that the cliches which are constantly recycled about Wednesday being a “sleeping giant” and a “massive club” have become a millstone around their necks rather than something the team and fans can use to spur them on to greater heights. “We say we’re massive but it’s to our detriment,” says the real Oliver. “We get on Sky and all these teams come to us and it’s their biggest game of the season.”
In the ground it’s the biggest game of the season for everyone. When I make it to my seat I’m told the seat I’ve got is usually taken by a 79-year-old woman who “never misses a game”. She obviously didn’t fancy it. I’m a fairly seasoned football watcher but I’ve never experienced an atmosphere like it. Beforehand Chris McClure warned me that it could be quite toxic but — at the start at least — everyone in the ground is keen to get behind their team. The noise of the crowd behind me is so loud that it makes my eardrums hurt.
Sitting next to me is Norman, 66, from Hollins End. He first came to Hillsborough when he was eleven straight from hospital where he’d been for six weeks with a broken back. Back then there was no roof on the Kop and it probably held double its current 11,000 seat capacity. When it was full he says it just looked like a mountain of people.
Living where he does in a more Blades-dominated area, does seeing their success make Wednesday’s struggles harder, I ask. “It does if you let it bother you,” he says. “It’s got to be good for Sheffield to have a team in the Premier League — but I just wish it was us.” It’s a sentiment that I hadn’t been expecting but that I’ve heard numerous times over the last few days. For all the aggro at Steel City derbies and on social media, most Wednesday fans I speak to are complimentary of United’s achievement and just want a bit of it themselves.
In total, after the Peterborough game around 800 people returned their tickets and got their money back. Norman says some might need the money. But among the 31,385 fans at Hillsborough on Thursday evening, you couldn’t see any empty seats. “You see all these people here they still believe,” says Norman. “But Wednesday always do it the hard way.”
As it turned out Norman was right. What followed was three hours of the most nail-bitingly tense football I have ever witnessed. The quality wasn’t always the highest (there were too many long balls) but Wednesday were on top throughout, even if Peterborough always carried a threat. The home team needed quick goals, and were 2-0 up after 25 minutes. The woman sat beside me roared her approval. Then 46 minutes — an eternity, in football time — crawled by before Reece James made it 3-0 in the 71st. This was the moment that hope turned into belief. That fans finally felt like they had a chance of pulling off the greatest comeback.
Wednesday only needed one more to take it to extra time, but the game was eight minutes into injury time when Liam Palmer scored with virtually the last kick of the game. The most astonishing comeback Hillsborough had ever seen was complete. By this point any semblance of journalistic impartiality had been jettisoned from my being and I wanted Wednesday to win just as much as anyone in that stadium.
As a new fan I suppose I needed at least some experience of Wednesday letting me down, and I got one in the 105th minute when Peterborough took the lead again. But an equaliser by Callum Paterson sent the game to penalties. When talismanic captain Barry Bannan won the toss of a coin to have the penalties taken in front of the Kop it was greeted like a goal.
When Wednesday players took their penalties you could hear a pin drop, but when Peterborough stepped up the entire stand turned into a baying mob. Eventually the pressure told on one Peterborough player who hammered his spot kick onto the crossbar. The winning kick, which was taken just minutes before 11pm, was the cue for thousands of supporters to stream on the pitch. A tannoy announcement imploring fans to leave the pitch was about as much use as one telling them sprout wings and fly off it. In all my years of watching football, I’ve never seen anything like this. The joy was palpable — and too much for some people. As we patiently waited our turn to get out of the ground, fans with reddened eyes blinked disbelievingly under the floodlights.
“I feel like I fucking played,” one man says to his mate on the tram. They’re wearing a strangely conflicted expression of absolute elation and total shellshock. All of a sudden, almost every Wednesday fan seems to be wearing this expression. If you prepare yourself for disappointment, a win might feel like having the rug pulled out at enormous speed from under you. It’s great, but it’s dizzying. Ryan, 39, and Darren, 55, tell me they travelled to Hillsborough in hope but that no one expected what happened there tonight. When I ask if they are both going to Wembley, Ryan erupts into hysterics, but Darren doesn’t look like he finds it very funny. It turns out his wife has booked a holiday to Egypt on the date of the final, repeating her trick from seven years ago the last time they played at Wembley, when he was in Mexico. Typical.