BY TOM WHITWORTH
2012. In my flat in Manchester I sat, on my own, and typed. Typed and typed, the pitch, the plan, for the book on the turbulent recent past of Sheffield Wednesday – the football club I supported and loved.
My club, which in 2000 had slid hopelessly out of the Premier League then drifted and fell further still in the (mostly) grim years that followed.
There had been the tragedy of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989; the building, then dismantlement of the early ‘90s Wembley cup finals’ team of Chris Waddle, David Hirst and John Sheridan; then, the pushing over of the referee Paul Alcock by Paolo Di Canio. After that, everything seemed to unravel.
Down in the lower levels, Wednesday had carted around a mountain of debt which prevented a revolving door of managers and an endless list of players (some of them OK, many of them not) from making much, if any progress. Twice the Owls would slump to the third tier. Meanwhile away from the pitch, boardroom unrest, failed takeovers, winding-up petitions, on-the-brink High Court appearances and various other controversies had blighted the club.
For a long time, I had wondered why things had been like this? Why the football had been so bad? And to what extent non-footballing matters had affected this? I wanted to know and to understand. Wanted to piece it all together then write it up.
So that night in Manchester I sent out the pitch into the world, hoping that it would find some interest – to see if anybody cared.
It didn’t take long. Eventually a contract was signed and, pretty much, off I went. The book would be called Owls: Sheffield Wednesday Through the Modern Era and would take four bloody years to finish.
The process began inside, where across my table I had strewn the A3 pages on which I formed the plan: lists of events and diagrams, dates and people’s names, ideas and themes, all of which would make up this Wednesday story. I put my head in books, searched through stacks of old match day programmes, scoured newspapers and magazines, and sat through hours of footage of the Wednesday lads through the years (dusting off the VHS player for the earlier, happier times).
Outside, I went to meet the people – the ‘characters’ as I would call them – who between them had been there through it all: managers, board members, players, fans…
In a hotel bar one bitter Salford evening, I met the 1990s boss who recounted vividly his unceremonious sacking from the club: ‘Unfortunately, we’ve got bad news for you,’ his chairman had told him. ‘We’re going to have to say cheerio….’ ‘That’s football,’ the manager said to me. ‘That was it and I drove off.’
In sunny Cornwall (following a six-hour train journey down to meet him) I spoke with the other manager who had guided the Owls to a joyful play-off final success, his recollections of the giant post-promotion celebratory conga line of Wednesday fans and players at a service station somewhere between Cardiff and Sheffield making me laugh.
In discreet, out of the way offices I listened to the millionaire former chairman of the club who, sitting across from his desk, explained some of the difficult, sometimes unpopular decisions that he had had to make surrounding the running of the club.
And I heard from the player whose honest recollections of his time in Sheffield – a time when the club was completely on the brink, facing winding-up petitions and forced down to the High Court – revealed that off field events did have an influence on what was happening on the pitch. ‘Players always say that they aren’t aware of things like that,’ he told me. ‘But you knew what was going on. When you’re involved in that situation you try to say all the right things to the press: “We don’t know what’s going on. We just want to concentrate on the football.” But of course it’s going to affect you.’
With each meeting (of which there were many others) I came to better understand the whole picture. It all was becoming clearer.
Later, of course, I would need to turn this background stuff into thousands and thousands of words (I’d need about 90,000 by the end). So on my own, I scribbled and typed, tidied and edited, cut and tweaked. For hours and hours, days and days. Every line, every paragraph, every page, every chapter. Until gradually everything began to come together.
The months went by.
Through this time, I thought of things like how to build and frame the story (there would be three Acts, I decided: ‘Fall’, ‘Wilderness’ and ‘Return?’) And how to bring the city of Sheffield – the book’s setting and backdrop – into things (perhaps the contraction of its core industries – steel and coal – and its subsequent struggles thereafter had in some way mirrored Wednesday’s own experiences?)
And I continued to research: still my head in the books, programmes, newspapers, magazines and footage. And I continued to meet people: travelling the country to cafes, bars, homes and offices to find out more. Understanding more…
There was the fan who, back in the 2000s, having made some comments on an internet forum about Wednesday, had found himself being sued by his own football club. He shared with me memories of the mental struggle of dealing with such an incredible action. The brilliant lawyer who had defended him and several other fans who had faced similar actions from the club, summed up the whole episode well to me when he observed that Wednesday had ‘scored a massive own goal.’
Also there was the poet who, speaking of an earlier moment in the whole Owls story, recalled when ‘big’ Wednesday from down the road came to take his team’s popular manager away from them, explaining (poetically of course) how his leaving had felt like a friend or someone you loved deciding that they didn’t like you anymore, and how painful that was.
As I continued to tip up to the matches (travelling over from Manchester to watch current-Wednesday as I thought about past-Wednesday), I felt now that I a better understanding of things; knew a bit more about what all of this meant. And with each further step, with the curtain further lifted and the pieces falling into place, this helped me as I continued to scribble and type, on my own, towards those 90,000 words.
In March 2014 the new inquests into the Hillsborough disaster began in Warrington, Cheshire. At this point the book was almost finished, but following a note from the Coroner that warned against the publication of materials dealing with the disaster or the inquests (contempt of court the risked offence), it would have to wait until they were concluded.
So more months went by (when they started, few believed that the inquests would last for over two years) and in the summer of 2014 I moved back to Sheffield. I went to more Wednesday games, watched the lads hold their own in the Championship, and worked and waited. Owls, was almost ready. I followed developments from the Warrington courtroom. Lights shone at the end of the tunnel.
Then the rich Thai man Dejphon Chansiri arrived at the club, paying Milan Mandarić a reputed £30million plus for the pleasure. He provided millions of pounds for new players (spending the likes of which had not been seen at Wednesday for years and years) and brought in the smooth new Portuguese head coach, Carlos Carvalhal. With him came a new philosophy that brought attractive, vibrant play and all of a sudden New Wednesday were on the up.
I now found myself getting to the ground earlier than I had before and in my notebook I described brilliant moments and happy feelings as Carvalhal’s side – Lee, Bannan, Forestieri – entertained us and won. All of those grim days of the past – those ‘Fall’ and ‘Wilderness’ years that I had been writing about – seemingly behind us now.
In April, 27 years after the disaster, the inquests’ nine-person jury returned their verdicts: justice at last found for the victims. I wrote it up. Then, a month later we travelled down to Wembley for the Championship play-off final.
40,000-plus of us Wednesdayites were there in the capital for the big day, meeting friends in the sun, cheering and singing. And although the 1-0 defeat to Hull was not an easy thing to take, as we rolled back home on the train the following afternoon, I still was happy to think of how one story, one era – all pieced together, written up and ready – was behind us and that another, one far happier and optimistic had now begun.
OWLS: SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY THROUGH THE MODERN ERA BY TOM WHITWORTH IS PUBLISHED BY PITCH PUBLISHING AND IS AVAILABLE FROM AMAZON HERE