Ask any Sheffield Wednesday fan and they’ll tell you their club is massive. But, bias aside, they do have a point. With plenty of top flight pedigree in their history books, a near 40,000 seater stadium, and around 6,000 more than that following the team to Wembley for the League One play-off final this season, it’s safe to say Sheffield Wednesday are a sleeping giant.
They have been asleep for a long time, though. The Owls were one of the founding members of the Premier League in 1992 and had spent the majority of their history in the top flight, but have not played in the Premier League since their relegation at the turn of the millennium. Since then, the club has been up and down between the Championship and League One, but a decade-long stint in the second tier of English football ended in 2021. Then, a fourth placed finish in League One in the 2021/22 campaign led to defeat in the play-off semi-final to eventual winners Sunderland, and Darren Moore was tasked with doing it all over again this term.
Picking yourself back up after disappointment is something Wednesday fans are all too familiar with by now. Lee, a supporter of the team for almost 50 years, has seen it all; the good, the bad, and the ugly. “That relegation in 2000 was far more painful than the recent drop. All my life I had seen Wednesday competing with the very best in the country, so to see us losing our top flight status really stung. What we have witnessed over the last 20 years or so is the aftermath of that initial relegation. The club has lost its way somewhat, both financially and in terms of its ethos. All we want as fans is a bit of stability, and if we get that, there’s a good chance we can climb our way back to the Premier League eventually.”
They are a glass-half-full kind of army, these Owls’ fans. A couple of relegations and missed opportunities in the play-offs aren’t enough to wipe the smile off the faces of the 20,000 plus supporters making their way into Hillsborough Stadium each week, and with each new season comes a fresh wave of optimism. On the build-up to the 2022/23 campaign, Lee said: “We were so close in the previous season, and we knew we had a chance this year. A club like ours should always be competing for promotion in League One, and I remember having a really good feeling about what was to come. In a way, you forget that disappointment [of the defeat to Sunderland] almost instantly and buy into the dream once more.”
That dream, of course, is getting out of League One and making it back to the second tier of England’s footballing ladder. And Sheffield Wednesday did indeed achieve that dream, but what a tumultuous journey it was to get there. By March of this year, Wednesday were top of the league and five points clear of third-placed Ipswich Town with two games in hand. A month later, the Owls had slipped to third in the table and, despite a phenomenal return of 96 points – a league record for most points gained while finishing outside the promotion spots – were preparing for another shot at the play-offs.
Ascending to the top of the table in such spectacular fashion was enough to get Joe, a very optimistic Wednesday fan, celebrating prematurely. He admits thinking the club “had it in the bag” after beating Plymouth Argyle back in February. “The team was on fire,” he added. “We had set a club record of consecutive clean sheets and were 23 games unbeaten. Even the most pessimistic fan would believe we had it wrapped up.” But the wheels well and truly came off in devastating fashion. Defeats to Forest Green and Burton Albion and points dropped against Cheltenham, Oxford, and Lincoln were enough to send Sheffield Wednesday cascading down the table. They had gone from title favourites, to looking on desperately as both Plymouth and Ipswich stormed relentlessly to automatic promotion.
Lifelong Owls fan Jenny thinks the answer is simple: “It went wrong when George Byers and Josh Windass got injured; we definitely missed having them on the pitch. In their absence, the rest of the players seemed to suddenly underperform in games we should have had in the bag.”
Lukas, a follower of Wednesday for over thirty years, has a different perspective, though. “I think it actually went wrong at the start of the season, when Darren Moore didn’t know his team properly. I was forever questioning why he was changing the team every week,” he said. “I think the points dropped at the start of the season are the true reason we didn’t finish in the top two.”
The Owls had no time to dwell on what could have been, however, as Peterborough United awaited them in the play-off semi-final. In a twist of fate, Sheffield Wednesday’s win over Derby County on the final day of the regular season had allowed the Posh to sneak into the play-offs. And how did Peterborough thank Wednesday? By thrashing them 4-0 in the first leg.
No team had ever come back from a four goal deficit in the first leg of a play-off semi-final. Sheffield Wednesday looked destined to languish in the third tier of English football for yet another year. But a night of pure magic at Hillsborough in the return leg saw the Blue and White wizards secure a miraculous 5-1 win, taking the tie to penalties. By that point, no one was going to spoil the party and Wednesday converted all five penalties to book their place at Wembley.
The incredible scenes at Hillsborough that night sent shockwaves through the world of football. The occasion even caught the attention of one Pep Guardiola, who took time out from his march to an historic treble to commend the “special” nature of the English football league and its supporters.
Local rivals Barnsley were the only thing standing in the way of the Steel City heroes and their fairytale ending. In truth, the play-off final was a rather dull affair. Both sides found chances hard to come by and, when they did come, they were wasted. The game was poised at 0-0 after 90 minutes, and didn’t look like changing after a further 32 minutes of extra-time. That is, until Josh Windass sent the barmy army of travelling Owls supporters into raptures with a fine header in the dying embers of the game.
That play-off adventure may have been stressful, but it’s hard to put a price on an experience like that. One thing that every fan I spoke to agreed on is that they wouldn’t trade that for the world, or a League One title. “Not in a million years,” says Jenny, who believes the “euphoria” of that night at Hillsborough and the day at Wembley will long outlive any of the glory of topping the league.
If Sheffield Wednesday had not prevailed in the play-offs, not only would it have been a travesty given their points tally in the general season, and a waste of that wonderful comeback at Hillsborough, but it could have been financially catastrophic for the club. Dejphon Chansiri, the club’s owner, sanctioned a number of signings in the summer of 2022 to ensure the team gained promotion. Failure was not an option. “A third season in that division, with one of the highest wage bills in the league, and an ageing squad. It certainly wouldn’t have been a pretty sight,” explained Joe.
Always looking for that silver lining they keep singing about at Hillsborough, Lukas offers an interesting notion on the battle for promotion. “I’ve always thought that the climb is more fun than the actual goal itself, which is Premier League football. So, for me, I think pushing for promotion in League One is actually more fun than struggling in the Premier League. Obviously I would rather be in the Championship, and it would have been disappointing not to go up, but it wouldn’t have mattered all that much.”
He has a point, too. No matter what league Sheffield Wednesday play in, they have no trouble filling their stadium with fans. When the club was relegated to League One in 2021, they still managed to sell a whopping 12,000 season tickets in the early bird stage of the summer (Sheffield Star).That figure alone exceeds the average attendance registered by 17 of the 24 clubs in League One in the 2022/23 campaign. Despite the pain of relegation, Sheffield Wednesday fans clearly have unflinching faith in, and adoration for, their team. And they will have to show that commitment all over again for the upcoming campaign, amid a particularly messy close season for the Owls.
Oddly, less than a month after that whirlwind play-off journey, Sheffield Wednesday found themselves looking for a new manager. The club parted ways with Moore, seemingly on good terms, but with underlying murmurs of issues surrounding financial backing from the board. That hearsay was put to bed recently when the club’s owner released a statement revealing Moore actually left his role after a failed request to quadruple his salary.
Former Watford boss, Xisco Munoz, is the man now charged with leading the Owls into the forthcoming campaign. Success for Sheffield Wednesday, realistically, is to finish 21st or above in the Championship. A step towards the top flight would be fantastic, of course, but what’s most important is that the club does not regress yet again.
“Munoz has a tough job on his hands. With only 14 senior players signed up for the next campaign and a concerned fan base, the new manager needs the full support of the chairman, to be given the freedom to build a squad to challenge for what Chansiri has always promised, promotion to the Premier League,” Joe concludes.
While the other half of the city prepares for another crack at the Premier League, the Owls will need to quietly, patiently build the foundations required to eventually launch their own ascent to the top flight. The Blades may be the top dogs in Sheffield right now, but there’s every chance the rollercoaster ride of last season was enough to finally snap Wednesday out of their decades-long slumber. Whatever happens next, you can be damn sure it’ll be entertaining.