When they mattered: the rise and near demise of Sheffield Wednesday

If for many English soccer’s modern history started with the formation of the Premier League in 1992, then the true history of the game began somewhat earlier. Leaving aside the history of the sport played within the hallowed fields of the country’s public schools, where privileged youth of the time had engaged in various forms of the sport for centuries, soccer in England began, at least in part, amidst the smoke and grime of the northern industrial town of Sheffield.

“The greatest concentration of footballing activity outside of the public schools was in Sheffield,” writes David Goldblatt in his encyclopedic tome on soccer (and world) history, The Ball Is Round. “Reports of games in the city’s Hyde Park date back to 1831, and there was sufficient enthusiasm for the game for Sheffield Football Club to be formed in 1857. The club drew on former pupils of the Sheffield Collegiate schools from middle-class manufacturing and professional families.”

“History is written by the victors,” continues Goldblatt, before going on to explain that the “Sheffield footballing fraternity who published their own rule book in October 1858” deserve as much credit as those aforementioned public schoolboys for drawing up the rules of the game.

Goldblatt’s note about history’s authors is a phrase often attributed to Winston Churchill, but it could have been invented for soccer, a world where the losers are rarely remembered. And never is this better evidenced than by a look at both sides of the Year Zero schism that the Premier League revolution created in the annals of the English game – or at the fate of the third oldest club in the league, and one of the best teams in the country around the time soccer in England changed forever, Sheffield Wednesday.

Leeds United won the league in 1991-92, the last pre-Premier League year, pipping Manchester United to the title by four points, and in doing so extended the Old Trafford club’s long wait for a title – Alex Ferguson would have to wait until the following year to break the club’s 26-year duck. But a mere three points behind the Manchester side was Wednesday, who were once again putting Sheffield into the annals of soccer history.

The season represented a modern high water mark for the club, which had been a founding member of the fledgling Football Alliance in 1889, before joining the Football League three years later, and won the league four times between 1902 and 1930. Until the 1990s, however, most of Wednesday’s glory lay firmly in the past – the club had not won a trophy since the FA Cup in 1935. That changed in 1991, while Wednesday were playing in what was then Division 2 (today’s Championship). The club not only won promotion under flamboyant manager Ron Atkinson but beat Manchester United 1-0 in a gripping League Cup final at Wembley. In the Wednesday team were players like cultured Irish midfielder John Sheridan, the goalscorer that day, United States’ stalwart John Harkes, and David Hirst, the team’s Rolls Royce of a striker who would go on to play for England, despite his career being hampered by injury.

Harkes With Sheffield Wednesday

In front of crowds averaging around 30,000, Wednesday would thrive in the top division the following year, with Hirst scoring 18 league goals as the team played expansive, attacking football. The following year the Premier League began, and Wednesday continued to hold its own, coming seventh in each of the first two seasons. Yet the windfall from the league’s bumper Sky TV deal was not invested wisely, leading to inevitable decline. Another seventh place finish in 1996-97 was the highlight before relegation finally came in 1999-2000, the year in which the team lost 8-0 to Newcastle and Alan Shearer’s five goals.

Indeed, of the 22 teams that made up the inaugural Premier League season, only 12 remain in the top division. Some clubs chose wisely: Manchester United held off on winning the trophy until the new, billion-dollar bounties of vast TV deals and the Champions League were just around the corner. The 1992-93 title set off a seemingly endless winning streak, forcing teams like Chelsea and Manchester City to prostrate themselves at the feet of wealthy overseas benefactors to have a chance. Clubs without this option — the Ipswich Towns, the Oldham Athletics and the Coventrys — are now floundering in the lower levels of England’s soccer system.

The ingredients of such declines are common throughout soccer history. A generous serving of complacency is usually involved – the assumption that, having cracked the code, the good times will last forever. Then there is an (un)healthy lack of long-term planning, with little thought given to what happens after the current successful generation of players departs, or an inspirational manager leaves.

Then come the attempted remedies, usually too late and employed with a growing sense of panic – new managers are hired, new players bought. The signings become more and more desperate, yet paradoxically, often more and more expensive, as the realization sets in that replacing said manager or players isn’t quite as easy as once was thought. Driven by the conviction that a return to better times could still just be around the corner, money is spent with increasingly wild abandon, leading to an inevitable financial crisis, and eventually the doomsday scenario – a change in ownership, which, in such circumstances, tends to end in tears more often than not.

All of these and more are present in the Wednesday story. The team has spent four of the last 11 seasons in the third flight, weighed down by the massive debts incurred through ill-advised signings as the club first tried to cling on to, then clamber back on to, the Premier League gravy train. The frequently injured Dutch international midfielder Wim Jonk, who reportedly had a clause in his contract that he would receive a $7,500 appearance fee whether he played or not, and $4.5 million Belgian striker Gilles de Bilde were particular targets of much of the Wednesday fans’ ire. Yet despite the club’s suffering, the fans remained loyal – only once in that period did average crowds drop below 20,000.

Southport v Sheffield Wednesday - FA Cup 1st Round Proper

Wednesday became a brash gambler, wildly betting money it didn’t have on limping old nags. Ironically, much of the club’s financial imprudence came under the folly-laden stewardship of then-chairman Dave Richards – today president of the Premier League. The results were catastrophic – in 2010 Wednesday found itself on the brink of bankruptcy due to unpaid bills and a massive $35 million debt and was only saved when former Portsmouth and Leicester owner Milan Mandaric bought the club for a nominal fee, paying off its debts in the process.

The club then began the climb out of League One, returning to the Championship in 2011-12, with almost 40,000 watching the promotion clinching victory against Wycombe Wanderers. Progress nearly stalled when Wednesday was almost relegated the following year, but the club currently sits ninth in the Championship. It was less than five years ago that it was on the brink of disintegration, yet now promotion back to the promised land of the Premier League not entirely out of the question.

Wednesday’s decline is, like many of the clubs to feature in the “When They Mattered” series, the story of overreaching to maintain or recapture past glories – of overspending on the wrong signings at a time, with the floodgates of foreign players arriving in England having opened, when there were plenty of wrong signings to be made, and of throwing good money after bad in the belief that the Premier League, and – who knows? – the Champions League after that, was still within reach. While Wednesday today takes tentative steps back towards respectability, the club’s almost-demise serves as a salient warning that even the grandest old clubs might one day disappear forever.

photo credits, top to bottom: David Cannon/Getty Images; Clive Brunskill/Getty Images