On my own, I sat and typed. The pitch, the plan, for a book on the recent past of the city’s blue and white side: Sheffield Wednesday, the football club that I love. Our club, which since sliding hopelessly out of the Premier League in 2000 had drifted and fallen further still. 1989: the tragedy […]

On my own, I sat and typed.

The pitch, the plan, for a book on the recent past of the city’s blue and white side: Sheffield Wednesday, the football club that I love.

Our club, which since sliding hopelessly out of the Premier League in 2000 had drifted and fallen further still. 1989: the tragedy of the Hillsborough disaster. Early 90s: the building and dismantlement of an almost-great Wembley cup final team (Waddle, Hirst, Sheridan). Later, the pushing over of a referee by Paolo Di Canio, the tipping point after which everything seemed to unravel: a mountain of debt, bad football, boardroom unrest, failed takeovers, winding-up petitions and various controversies blighting the club.

Owls: Sheffield Wednesday Through the Modern Era, the book would be called.

Of course, there would be the necessary deskwork, trawling through the books and old programmes, newspaper and magazine articles, footage of the Wednesday lads through the years, then actually writing up the words. But I would also need to venture out to meet the people who had lived it all, people through whom I could help tell this Wednesday story.

Alongside the former managers and players I would seek out, the journalists and businessmen board members – I would meet many and each would provide their insights – a good number of the others would be fans of the club, the people that I shared the stands of Hillsborough with.

Moving around the city, I went to pubs and cafes, restaurants and homes to talk with them. I listened and learned. The artist who explained to me his process for producing the humorous cartoon takes on the various, often tragic, goings on at Wednesday over the years. The lifelong supporter who, having become chairman of the club, had worked dutifully, sometimes thanklessly, to guide it through choppy waters. The man 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. Sitting in his local, he shared with me his memories of the mental struggle of dealing with such an incredible action against him.

For some guidance, I turned to my old university lecturer, a Hallam man and an Owls fan. And through it all there had been the talks of the past during pre- and post-match drinks with friends round Hillsborough.

Along with the interviews and the meetings, meanwhile, I had considered how to bring Sheffield, the book’s setting and backdrop, into it all. Perhaps the contraction of Sheffield’s core industries, steel and coal, through the 80s and 90s, and its subsequent struggles thereafter, had mirrored Wednesday’s own trajectory? (The book, I decided, would be about more than football.) The city: working to find a post-industrial identity (Meadowhall and fountains). Wednesday: adjusting to its post-Premier League obscurity (dropping down to the third level twice).

The months went by and gradually things came together. The frame of the story, its 90,000 words and three acts – ‘Fall’, ‘Wilderness’ and ‘Return?’ – building. Then the rich Thai owner, Dejphon Chansiri, arrived in Sheffield, provided millions of pounds for new players and brought in the smooth new Portuguese head coach, Carlos Carvalhal, who himself would bring a new philosophy of play, attractive and vibrant. Like me, many of those I had spoken with through the journey felt now, all of a sudden, more optimistic, happier even.

Earlier this April, in a courtroom in Warrington, the nine-person jury of the Hillsborough disaster inquests returned their verdicts. Justice was found for the 96 victims. I wrote it up. A month later, I travelled down to Wembley for the Championship playoff final. Wednesday lost. But still, I thought, things had turned. The grimmer past seemed to be behind us. The future looked better.

Owls: Sheffield Wednesday Through the Modern Era is published by Pitch Publishing this month.

Tom Whitworth