Alex Miller: Bum tattoos, old foes and a tilt at history.. Sheffield Wednesday can't, can they?
Ron Atkinson stood at the entrance of the player’s tunnel at Hillsborough with the look of a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders.
“Like the players, I started the morning as a First Division manager,” he said, his tone alone painting a picture of complete disappointment. “I’m now a Second Division manager.”
The iconic former Wednesday boss was speaking on May 5 1990, on the day a freak turn of results relegated a star-studded Sheffield Wednesday to relegation.
Usually sparky, upbeat, positive, the Owls boss looked forlornly through the lenses of his aviator sunglasses at the sympathetic interviewer, his voice breaking from time to time with emotion. His club, he feared, was not one that relegation came naturally to. Three decades on little has changed.
As the interview drew to a close two supporters over his shoulder shouted down messages of support to both their manager and their club. “We’ll be back, Ron,” they shouted “And we’ll be here.”
“That’s what makes it worse,” Atkinson said, mustering half a smile for the first time in hours. “They’re brilliant.”
Sheffield Wednesday celebrated the 30th anniversary of its greatest achievement on the modern era this week – their 1991 Rumbelows Cup triumph – as Ron’s Owls burst through the flames of that shock drop to earn promotion and set themselves up for real success back in the big time.
And what underpinned it, what players and staff of the time attribute to a huge amount of the success that side had that season, was the undying adoration of its supporters.
So what about now? In the most difficult of seasons ever for football fans, with Wednesday still staring relegation in the mouth despite that vital win over Blackburn Rovers on Tuesday, where is the club’s support?
It’s right there. And despite the justified grumbing on ticket prices, on-field performances and off-the-field misdemeanours, the away end at the Riverside would be bouncing on Saturday afternoon, the Kop next Saturday rammed.
There would have been very hairy moments throughout the season, no doubt, there would likely have been unsavoury chanting towards all sorts of people.
But the away days will still have been oversubscribed at every turn and now, with three matches still to play and all three absolute must-wins, the Sheffield Wednesday support would have stepped out in its droves to be the extra man clubs up and down the league talk about in hushed tones when Wednesdayites aren’t about.
We’re kidding nobody; it remains unlikely. So unlikely, in fact, that a Twitter user contacted this writer to say he would have a tattoo of his face slapped on his derriere if the Owls were able to avoid the drop this time out.
We have screenshots, Mr @cjhdc5, and we will be revisiting this one.
Others have jumped on social media to commit cash to charity in the event that they manage the unthinkable.
And in the darkest of times, in the depths of the hell that has been the 2020/21 season, there has always been a little corner of the internet brought together by its love for a daft football team that doesn’t really win a lot.
It’s squabbled, like every family does, but in a time where community has never been so important, it has pulled together to share gallows humour, raise money and look out for its most vulnerable. In one well-known occasion, together with the efforts of the club, it may well have saved a life – see the tale of Sid Gavrielides.
But things don’t always work out. So predictable it would be for Mr Sheffield United Neil Warnock to land the knockout blow. His cheeky suggestion that he wants Wednesday to go down was one bathed in half-jokiness, you suspect. After all, he did fancy becoming the club’s manager when approached by Milan Madaric back in 2013.
But to beat him en route would add just another engaging chapter in what could be – could be – a remarkable modern football story. Let’s have it as a last-minute winner shall we? While we’re dreaming..
If Wednesday win their next two matches, there’s a reasonable-ish chance they’ll go to Derby County on the last game of the season in what would effectively be a straight shootout for safety.
On May 5 1990, while the Owls were busy losing to Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough, it was Luton Town’s remarkable win at Derby’s Baseball Ground that sent them down. Perhaps it’s time to turn the tables.
But it’s Boro first and then, ironically, Forest. Two big clubs, both who have talented, experienced players, but who are marooned in mid-table with nothing to play for.
If Wednesday head into that penultimate clash with Forest, you might well bet that the team in red won’t be all that heartbroken at the prospect of putting a dagger through Derby’s survival hopes by losing to Sheffield Wednesday. Are things aligning? Maybe? Just a little?
Some weeks ago – after Wednesday’s second half silliness at Luton Town – this column declared that survival by any Owls manager would be an achievement that would match those of Atkinson and his indirect predecessor Howard Wilkinson.
Given the fact the manager with that task has been in and out of hospital, given the madness that has been the intervening weeks, it might be – in isolation – that it even surpasses it.
Sheffield Wednesday fans deserve something a little bit special. It’s high time. It won’t match the Dink or promotion under Paul Sturrock and Dave Jones, but it’s high time one went right for them.
It’s a funny game, this. You just never know.