Smiles, joy and a cheeky wink: Sheffield Wednesday legend Roland Nilsson remembers Chris Bart-Williams

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Roland Nilsson doesn’t remember who Sheffield Wednesday were playing that day. But there is a moment he will always return to with a smile whenever the name Chris Bart-Williams is mentioned in his company.

It was not a moment of great glory or consequence, not of his teammates’ hat-trick against Southampton in April 1993 or of shaking his hand as the midfielder replaced him in extra-time of the FA Cup final replay that same glorious season.

Whoever the opposition was, Nilsson remembers it was a tough game, one for which they had been instructed by Trevor Francis to keep things tight and simple; to make good, solid decisions and to keep possession.

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Knowing Bart-Williams’ passion for the ambitious, it’s a message Nilsson and a couple of other senior colleagues drilled into him as they stepped out onto the pitch, with the youngster named to play in the middle of midfield: “Chris, keep it simple.”

Some 10 minutes or so in, Bart-Williams received the ball with his back to play. A touch out of his feet and two opponents crowded him out from behind. With Francis’ instructions in mind, Nilsson prepared to collect a simple pass, taking a glance before him to scope out how he could best recycle possession and keep Wednesday on the ball.

The pass never arrived. In a flash, the excitable youngster spun in a whirlwind, twisting his body in one motion and bursting forward to the bemusement of not only that pair of air-grasping opponents, but to the senior colleagues around him. Passing out wide, Bart-Williams took a moment to look back at his Swedish colleague, grinned, winked boyishly and ran away giggling.

It is in that private moment, away from the glare of the crowd and shared with nobody but the two of them, that Roland Nilsson will best remember his friend Chris Bart-Williams, who died this week at the age of just 49 and on the same day as their iconic manager Francis. It is a day the club described in a statement as one of the darkest in its history.

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“It’s tragic, isn’t it?” Nilsson says wistfully over the phone, breaking away from a holiday in Hungary to offer a tribute to his friend. “How can things happen like that? Both on the same day. Trevor was 69, it is no age and it is so tragic, but Chris? It is frightening to think you can be OK one day and gone the next. It’s so sad to think that he’s gone. I read it and I didn’t think it was possible. 49? It’s not that old.”

Bart-Williams arrived at Hillsborough from Leyton Orient as a teenager in 1991, joining an iconic Wednesday side packed with club legends and big personalities. He had cost £275,000, a club record for such a young player, and set about impressing the likes of Nigel Pearson, John Sheridan and David Hirst. Early training sessions showed a player of huge promise, but one that was raw and who was, in Nilsson’s mind, trying just a little too much too soon.

A first one-to-one conversation between the pair is one that the Swede recalls fondly.

“He came to us as a young boy,” Nilsson said. “I remember I sat down with him in the changing room. He was trying to overdo things and prove to us that he was a good player. I told him ‘You’re here now, you’ve proved you’re good enough to be here. Calm down, give it time and you will find out that you are the same player you were when you arrived. That’s what we want from you, to do what you did before.’ He grew into things and became an ever better player.

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“You could see the moment he arrived that this was a young lad with lots of talent who would definitely fit into our side, the way that we played. What struck me straight away was the ambition he had as a player, but also off the pitch in terms of hard work. Some skillful players think that’s all that counts, having skill, but not Chris. He knew he had hard work to do to become a good player in the Premiership. And he did that.”

Alongside that memorable hat-trick and substitute appearances in both domestic cup finals in 1993 came appearances in Europe as one of the fan favourite figures in one of the greatest Wednesday sides of all-time. He would go on to make 124 league appearances for the Owls across four years before achieving iconic status at another great club in Nottingham Forest - as had Francis nearly two decades earlier. The two clubs are joined in a state of mourning.

A huge admirer of both men as players and Francis as a manager, Nilsson speaks most glowingly of them as men, friends and colleagues. He pauses with emotion when asked of the shock experience of losing men who he had been through so much with, particularly so when asked of Bart-Williams’ personality.

It is that cheeky smile that Nilsson draws back to time and again, and a lust for life and football that made him such a fiercely popular figure with fans and teammates alike.

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“The thing that sticks in my mind is that the way that he did it was always with a grin,” Nilsson said. “Even in times that things weren’t so easy, he was quick to have a smile and a laugh to help turn things around. He would always try to get the best out of the players around him and he always did it his way, with a joy about him.

“Even if he didn’t start and he was on the bench, he would always do his best and support those who were playing. On the pitch he was one who would always take responsibility for what he needed to do. That was his thing. If he had a bad day he wouldn’t shirk the hard work that followed and he would always be positive. He always contributed.

“I’m trying to get my head around things. I can’t get my head around the fact that they’ve gone. It had been a long time since I spoke to either of them.”

Nilsson hangs up, thankful for the opportunity to offer some words in tribute to a man he describes as ‘one of the really good guys’. He says the same of Francis. Nilsson will find time to speak to teammates in the coming days as they go about processing the death of the team’s smiling lad.

It’s news that has hit him hard.

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