24 February 2015 - Millwall 1 Sheffield Wednesday 3
My mate Dave is a big Sheffield Wednesday fan. That is to say he's a fan of the Owls who happens to be sodding enormous – clear of 6' 6” I'd guess. He follows the team a bit, and he'll go and watch them when he can work attendance at their game into his real hobby, which is getting drunk with pretty women and silly men.
Somehow he talked me into attending this one to fill the “silly men” quota. So I dragged myself out to South Bermondsey when I could have been watching Barcelona beat Man City, under the specious rationalisation that I was scouting the sort of mediocre opposition from which I expect City will need to take points next season.
(On which point, by the way, I have few concerns. Despite Wednesday's excellent performance in the second half, which owed a lot to the genuinely fine attacking play of Jacques Maghoma, I felt that on present form City would beat either team relatively comfortably. We'll have no problems adapting to the middle of that division, I suspect.)
I went in the spirit of companionship and bonhomie, and as someone who always enjoys live football, rather than because I was expecting the team third-bottom of the divion and the team whose previous seven-game form read D3 L4 to produce an encounter for the ages. And the first half lived down to my expectations, a scoreless heap of nothing in particular distinguished perhaps by the moment Wednesday left-back Claude Dielna took a touch of the ball, found himself with time to think, considered his options, and very calmly and deliberately lobbed it over the left-hand touchline and out of play.
After the break though things were different, and once the badly out of form Yorkshiremen had scored the goal that gee'd them up whilst demolishing the fragile confidence of Ian Holloway's men the game was almost entirely played in one direction – right down the pitch towards the voluble travelling support. We were up towards the back where, at the Den as everywhere, the loudest and least inhibited of the away support tend to congregate. I found myself almost entirely sucked in by the frisson Wednesday's performance generated, and celebrated the goals like I had swallowed Henderson's Relish from the teat. It was exhilarating.
It was also probably the most exhilarated I've been at any football match this season. Since my team is top of the league, and I've been to quite a lot of their games, that has to be a concern.
Part of the reason I think is that I was caught in a very particular mood felt by the Wednesday fans. Both behind me at the ground, and on the train back home, I kept catching variations on the same theme. “Two goals from open play!” a Wednesdayite would exclaim in great surprise. “An away win...” sighed another lad in reverent, mine-eyes-have-seen-the-glory tones.
You know what that's like, don't you? When you come away from a game thinking “we won. We actually went and bloody won!”
It's the best feeling in football. There's satisfaction in winning a game you ought to win by a nice, routine 2-0. There's great pleasure in seeing your team demonstrate clear superiority when running goal after goal past some hapless bunch of lower-league chancers. But coming into a game you may not win, entering an uncertain situation, scales balanced, nervous, turning up because it's what you do rather than because of your scintillating run of form, then scoring all the goals and claiming the points – that, my friends, is the good stuff.
And League One just doesn't offer that. Not when you've been there less than a couple of years it doesn't, anyway. Sure, last time around, when we'd had seven solid seasons before the glorious eighth, we'd become accustomed to playing at that level and really didn't expect to beat the better sides. So when we did it was terrific.
But this time is different, isn't it? It feels that way to me, certainly. We've not been in the doldrums long enough for victories to have the same meaning. We had two understandable wobbles in the first season, a just-relegated-building-a-team one and a new-manager-not-getting results one, overcome them, and been doing absolutely fine thankyouverymuch since then. We'll get promoted this season. We've been favourites, probably, since the opening day. The game we played that day, at Sheffield United, may in fact have been the most recent game we didn't expect to win, but did.
I've not once walked out of a game feeling utterly thrilled to the core, that wonderful pinch-myself thrumming through me like a plucked string. I've been happy quite a lot. I've thought “that's absolutely fine” a fair bit, I've thought “didn't we play well” from time to time. But overjoyed, no; not by winning a game comfortably in this dreary League One.
Because it plainly is dreary. What came down was so much worse than what went up that it was pretty clear this was a major opportunity to get out of the division. I'd guess we have a bigger budget than 21 other clubs. The two of a comparable size – Preston and Sheffield United – are underachieving, not because they're behind us but because they're scrapping with Bradford, Doncaster and Fleetwood. That won't do for famous sides like those two. And it's left the way open for us to run the division simply on account of hitting par for our budget whilst they fail to do so.
There's also the fact that even our close competitors are failing to give us a run for our money. The main reason we're seven points clear of third is that in both of the last two weekends, we've lost but so have Swindon. That's it. They could be a point behind us, but they're not. That's because they're a League One club on a small budget, so they'll be inconsistent and drop silly points. It's perfectly reasonable but it hardly adds to the tension of it all. And a break in tension is what creates real joy at football. It's why a late winner feels so much better than a fourth goal midway through the second half.
This time last year, our record – 67 points from 32 games, with a goal difference of 31 – would have put us third in the table. We'd have been level on points with Orient and Wolves above us, though – a three way tie! - having played a game more than Orient and a game fewer than Wanderers. Brentford would be a point behind us in fourth with a game in hand. It would have been completely brilliant. Imagine how vital every game would have felt. Imagine those clashes in Wolverhampton, in East and West London.
But there we are. Instead we're competently navigating a mediocre iteration of the division. We'll go up, great, but as far as I'm concerned the real thing will only start then. Getting back into the Championship and having to play well every week just to keep our heads above water. Real competition. Parachute payments. International players at the Gate. Difficult matches every week. And once again, that most underrated of footballing emotions – relief. The same relief, breeding the same delight, those Sheffield Wednesday fans felt last night.