In late 2008 a young and innocent Will Sharp tossed aside his well worn copy of FIFA 09 in favour of Football Manager 2009, eager to test himself against the juggernauts of managerial simulation. What he envisaged being a simple transference of skills and a continued domination of the digital football world soon descended into chaos as he found himself unable to even compete. Unsuccessful save after unsuccessful save cut short, the intervals between hopeful attempts grew exponentially until eventually he stopped logging on altogether. Truly vanquished, he vowed never to attempt to conquer Football Manager again. Until now.
Chapter 15: A Series of Unfathomable Events
Captain’s Log, 27 August. At home to Forest, I'm left bemused by the game I witness. Our recent form seemingly slipping from the team coach on the journey south to be left in a ditch somewhere along the M1; we can do nothing but fall to a weak, turgid 1-0 loss to an ordinary Nottingham Forest team. "Where was the passion, boys? The determination, the desire?” I may have been better off asking if any of them knew where the opposition’s goal was for starters.
I make sure to remind the lads there are ample opportunities to bounce back and the response I was looking for is emphatically delivered by the players in the first half of our trip to Ipswich. Two goals in the space of four minutes, from Forestieri then João, evidences our superiority up front before Westwood prevents a horrible team-talk-ruining strike just before the half-time whistle sounds. The following half is uncomfortable as Ipswich threaten to mount a comeback but threaten is all they do. Their complete inability to finish their chances proves to be our strongest attribute in the second half and we hold onto our 2-0 win. With that we move up to 8th in the league.
Hoop-Dogg temporarily derails the love train that is our celebratory post-match spirit by reminding me of his supposed 'key player' role in the squad and demands a bigger slice of the matchday pie. I appease him by telling him he'll feature more regularly but, really, what's he going to do if I don't? Say my response was a lie - then what? More tears? Act your age, Hoops, not your career's impressive games-to-goal ratio.
After an eleven day break from the league, which included a typically hectic deadline day on which we concluded exactly zero deals, we're back in action against Bristol City who, in the previous fixture, won 4-2 away to Forest with Wes Burns scoring all four of their goals.
Despite my best efforts to wish him into a big-money move abroad, a sudden bout of diarrhoea or at worst an unfathomably long traffic jam on Saturday morning, it is made clear that my worries were without need as four-goal Burns is dropped to the bench in favour of ex-Wednesday old boy Fletcher.
A clever reverse pass from Hourihane to Matias gives our first real attack purpose and when Matias finds João in the centre it is no surprise to see us take an early lead. On half an hour, after putting in a terrific display consisting solely of two offsides and one frustrated kick at the Ashton Gate turf, Fletcher exits the stage with an injury and I can't help but laugh. Classic Fletch. João and I share a brief but salient moment of shared amusement as our old friend trudges off the pitch, evidently being held together with nothing but bandaging and false hope.
With almost 20 minutes remaining Bristol City string together an incredible ten to fifteen passes, a season’s high, which enables them to find space on the edge of the box in which to cross to Engvall, who dispatches his chance to get the home side on level terms. But Bristol's delirium lasts all of around 90 seconds, as a delightful passing move of our own sees Forestieri find João who puts it on a plate for the unmarked Jones to reestablish our advantage. The lads see out the final 15 and we take all three points back with us to Sheffield.
The time then comes to face Bolton Wanderers at home on 11 September, where each of the 21,287 fans in attendance are present to witness the undisputed match of the season. If this game were a visit to the barber it’d be the kind where you’re not coerced into needless small talk and your mullet is left unthreatened.
The game in question plays out as some kind of avant-garde statement about the relative disorganisation of modern football. Like an absurd attack versus attack training session, where the concept of preventing your opponents from scoring couldn't be further from the minds of both sides involved. The game is about the goals, the whole goals and nothing but the goals.
On nine minutes Liam Cullen gives Bolton the lead. Two minutes later David Jones reminds everybody that why he is genuinely the most underrated player in the game's history by equalising with a 30-yard free kick. On 13 minutes Zach Clough rediscovers Bolton's lead, before Jones once again drags Wednesday back level, this time with an incredible strike from just 25 yards. Straight from Bolton's kick off we win the ball, play it long to the marauding João who lifts it over the keeper to give us a 3-2 lead, still with just 17 minutes on the clock, and a sense that perhaps we're all just attempting to get the game's drama out of the way early doors to ensure a calm end rushes over me. As the half hour mark approaches Clough brings parity to the game again, scoring to make it 3-3, before Matias joins the fun giving us a 4-3 lead on the stroke of half-time. By half time I’m semi-conscious at best.
My hunch is proved right as, in comparison, the second half is mercifully pitiful. My heart couldn't stand 90 minutes of that. I make tweak after tweak, simply hoping to keep up with the game and in attempts to reinforce the dam to prevent another flood of goals, particularly with us tentatively in the lead, and thankfully it works. The second half's only goal is scored with 55 minutes on the clock, put away neatly at the near post by Marco Matias, and the game ends 5-3.
Instantaneously everybody within a three-mile radius of Hillsborough drops to their knees in relief, even those on the wrong end of the result. Owls and Trotters unite over the fact that at least it’s over. The great gust created by the synchronised relief-filled exhales almost sparks hurricane warnings at the Met Office. Somewhere Michael Fish experiences palpitations.
The most ridiculous of wins takes us up to 4th in the Championship, just two points off the summit and we train our sights on the next game: bottom side Brentford at home.
I've experienced this so many times even the feeling of deja vu gives me deja vu. 1-0 up, cruising thanks to Marco Matias’ fourth goal of the season, then bang, 1-1 in the 85th minute. A hopeful-at-best cross from the right hand flank slides into the area, Sasso and Westwood play rock, paper, scissor to decide in the fairest fashion who should assume the duty of clearing the ball and while the two of them count “1, 2, 3” Judge nips in and grabs Brentford’s equaliser. Though the stats end comfortably in Brentford’s favour we never truly looked like conceding and should we have held on for the final five minutes I’d be recounting the win that took us second.
Disappointed though I was by the Brentford slip up, my malaise doesn't last long as just eight days after our aforementioned “game of the season” with Bolton we do it all over again against Chelsea in the EFL Cup, only this time, just as all sequels should be, it's even bigger and better.
Under the floodlights at Hillsborough, in front of the Sky Sports cameras and over 33,000 fans, Chelsea come out of the blocks like starved greyhounds, chasing everything and chomping at the bit. Come the 37th minute we’re already 2-0 down. I can feel my tear ducts readying themselves for a long night because life isn't fair and dreams don't come true. But then up pops Gary Hooper, given something of a rare start to commemorate the return to EFL action, who in the 39th minute places a metaphorical hand on my metaphorical shoulder and metaphorically says “Never stop believing, boss. Literally.” Two minutes later, just as I dared to imagine a week before, Michael Hector suddenly appears at the back post, haunting Antonio Conte’s men like the ghost of Christmas comebacks, as he nods us level before the break.
After the restart, Nemanja Matic fires Chelsea into a 3-2 lead but Hooper reappears, this time as no more than a blur and emanating the brightest of lights, as he scores twice in two minutes to complete his hat-trick and fire his Wednesday team into a shock 4-3 lead. The place is rocking, the stadium almost literally bouncing, and I feel as though I’m learning to love again. But Oscar (the player, not the bird) simultaneously breaks a million (maybe less) Sheffield hearts with one long-range shot, in off the crossbar, making it 4-4 in the 91st minute.
The game enters extra time and both teams are visibly exhausted by the drama of it all, but my boys know what this is all about. Football is all about calling upon what you know to get the job done and we won a 5-3 thriller at home to Bolton a little over a week ago. In the 121st minute of the match, Marco Matias does what mere mortals can only dream off and heads in the winner at the back post, meeting Forestieri’s cross with the most precise of headed finishes, and the game is ours. A Chelsea scalp is ours. A place in the EFL Cup fourth round is ours.
Should I never win another game in my entire career—despite the obvious implications that are likely my being completely and utterly ridiculed, hounded out of the game and left without a living to be made—I will always have tonight. We, Sheffield Wednesday, will always have tonight.
By Will Sharp. Chapter 16 coming next Thursday, May 25th. Header image credit goes fully to John Lord.