There are ‘sliding door’ moments in everyone’s life. We make choices that, had we taken another route, may have led us to other, perhaps greater, things. Hell if I’d not got comfy in a public sector job I may actually be the journalist I trained to be, but I digress.
As Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain pulls on an Arsenal shirt and graces the field against the likes of Bayern Munich, his father’s inner Gwyneth Paltrow must be thinking ‘what if’?
‘What if I had played more for England?’
‘What if I had played in a European competition?’
‘What if I had never moved to Sheffield Wednesday?’
Talent, skill and style do not always guarantee success and no one knows this more than the Ox’s father, Mark Chamberlain. In the course of one season Chamberlain went from England starlet to warming the bench at Hillsborough.
When I asked for adjectives to describe Mark Chamberlain words like ‘silky’, ‘slick’ and ‘elegant’ arrived. As a winger he could run, pass a man, provide assists and score. During his development at Stoke City he was touted as being better than John Barnes, but during a relegation battle Stoke changed their tactics to something a little more direct and in doing so made the ‘silky’ winger effectively redundant.
When Mick Mills took over at the Potteries, Chamberlain was deemed surplus to requirements. Chamberlain had hoped for a move to a ‘big club’, like John Barnes had enjoyed when Liverpool came calling, but when Chelsea didn’t make the bid he had expected, Chamberlain’s options were limited.
The England winger had been warned not to join Sheffield Wednesday because the Yorkshire club’s style wouldn’t fit his own and it proved to be a move that would change his attitude about football and an experience that he would use to warn his young son about the consequences of choosing the right club.
In the 1985/86 season Mark Chamberlain’s debut for Sheffield Wednesday against Arsenal was an indicator of things to come. The Guardian was less than complimentary about Chamberlain’s new team.
‘The real villains of the game were Sheffield Wednesday, who bear the same relation to the beautiful game as Rambo to the Sisters of Mercy. As you watch the average Wednesday player – over developed torso, under-developed between the ears – interminably pumping the ball into the air like a mortar launcher.’
Howard Wilkinson’s teams may not have been pretty but they were efficient. Under Wilkinson the Owls gained promotion to the First Division in his first season in charge. Wilkinson ran the squad like the Territorial Army and Wednesday’s training sessions in the 80s were tough, with the team frequently asked to undertake ten mile runs before a game.
Wilkinson described Chamberlain as a ‘gamble’, but a gamble only pays off when there is an opportunity to play the hand. In 66 appearances for the Owls, Chamberlain made 34 of those from the bench, his debut included.
Despite the attacks on Wilkinson’s 'Neanderthals' by the press, by November 1985 Wednesday found themselves third in the league and about to end Manchester United’s unbeaten start to the season.
Ron Atkinson’s side were the antithesis of Sergeant Wilko’s brutal ball game. United combined flair with aggression, but they underestimated the Owls determination to win at all costs. Again from the bench, and with nine minutes to play, Chamberlain replaced Brian Marwood, Wilkinson’s preferred winger.
Marwood was considered by Wednesday fans ‘more effective' than Chamberlain, but 'less inspiring’ and the general consensus remained that the team played more attractive football with both Marwood and Chamberlain in place.
This wasn’t Howard Wilkinson’s style though.
The Manchester United game was a turning point for The Owls and for Chamberlain. Only minutes after Marwood had been substituted, Chamberlain supplied the ball from a corner that met with Lee Chapman’s head and rippled into the net to win the game. This winning performance couldn’t be enjoyed by Chamberlain nor did he see his efforts rewarded with regular football after his contribution. Rumours had surfaced that Marwood was unhappy with his substitution. As gossip circulated that the the highly regarded winger was unsettled at Hillsborough, Howard Wilkinson made every effort to make sure his first choice man was a fixture in his first eleven, which had a detrimental effect on Chamberlain’s career.
Sheffield Wednesday went on to reach the semi-finals of the FA Cup but lost out to Everton. With seven matches of the league season remaining The Owls still had a chance to qualify for the UEFA cup and had this been any other season, Mark Chamberlain would have been joining his team-mates in Europe the following campaign. The Owls powered into fifth place and qualified for a UEFA spot but by this time a certain disaster had taken place in Belgium. The decision to ban English teams from Europe wasn’t to officially take place until the 6th June 1986 however the likelihood of Sheffield Wednesday playing in the UEFA cup was minimal after the Heysel disaster.
Chamberlain never had the opportunity to vie for European football again. The Owls declined in the following seasons finishing 13th and 11th respectively and the ostracised winger continued to play second fiddle to Brian Marwood. Marwood also claimed the ‘big club’ move to Arsenal that Chamberlain had desired for so long while Chamberlain was sold to Portsmouth for a £150,000 loss to the club in 1988 for which he never showed the early form he promised.
Years later Chamberlain still looks back with regret about his move to Sheffield Wednesday, not because of the club but due to the manager;
‘When I left Stoke, I went to Sheffield Wednesday and met Howard and we never got on. I don’t know why he bought me. I was the best right winger in the country and he (Wilkinson) told me I couldn’t play. If I’m honest, I fell out of love with football after that.’
Choices, lamentable at times, but who’s to say that Mark Chamberlain would have faired better at any other club. His ‘sliding door’ moment led him to a path where he has produced one of the greatest young hopes in English football. Living vicariously through Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and watching him play against Bayern Munich is significantly more enjoyable than an office job in the public sector.