Masks, exits and a lewd chant: The Berkshire double-take that illustrates the changing face of Sheffield Wednesday
August 3 2019. The sun is shining, the birds are singing and Julian Borner’s not-at-all-safe-for-work song is being given its debut outing from a packed Sheffield Wednesday away end.
The Owls, fresh off the shock disappearance of sometime promotion messiah Steve Bruce, are playing exciting football; hitting hosts Reading on the break, passing the ball with confidence, resolute in defence.
A Madejski Stadium not especially famed for a raucous atmosphere had been up and bouncing after Yakou Méïté cancelled out Kadeem Harris’ opener, but for all of only two minutes when Sam Hutchinson stunned the home supporters into silence by giving Wednesday back the lead on the hour.
Keiren Westwood was sent off with 10 minutes to go, but it did little to dampen the mood in that sun-baked top corner. And when Lucas João flounced off the bench to seal a 3-1 win for Lee Bullen’s men, well. Pandemonium.
Dressed in resplendent green, the victors went to greet their adoring public at the final whistle. “Lee, Lee, Lee Bullen” they sang, saluting their triumphant caretaker manager, followed by a chorus of “We’ve got Bannan” as the little Scot punched the air in delight.
There was even a murmuring of “We are going up,” if memory serves.
Fast forward two short seasons and Bannan’s calming presence is one of the only factors to remain.
Including long-term caretakers Bullen and Neil Thompson – and omitting Covid stand-ins Andy Holdsworth and Jamie Smith – Wednesday have had as many managers in that time as there are players remaining from that 18-man squad.
Five, in case you were wondering; Bannan, Hutchinson, Borner, Liam Palmer and substitute Cameron Dawson. And one of those has been to Cyprus and back.
Harris’ debut goal set all around him purring with anticipation. His form in his first six weeks or so as a Wednesday player prompted a tireless press box gag that he would win that season’s Ballon D’or.
Let’s just say what followed didn’t live up to such hilarity and he was released this week along with August ‘19 alumni Westwood, then-skipper Tom Lees, Adam Reach, Jordan Rhodes, sub Joey Pelupessy and Moses Odubajo, he too impressive on debut.
Others in the squad didn’t make it that far and left last season. Only João, mind, for a transfer fee.
Bullen, into his third caretaker spell and commenting that he felt “he was ready” if Dejphon Chansiri decided he was right for the job, commented after the match on an embarrassment of riches up top; Steven Fletcher leading the line with Harris and Reach either side of him. Fernando Forestieri and João came off the bench, leaving Rhodes behind. Atdhe Nuhiu and Sam Winnall were both fit but didn’t travel.
Not one of them remain and now Wednesday boss Darren Moore – then just a mere three weeks into a new post at Doncaster Rovers – has a challenge on his hands in that he has only two strikers in his squad, one of whom anybody can seem to pin a position on and the other who could well move on to Fulham or QPR or any of the dozen other clubs he’s been linked with in recent weeks.
The fact is that Moore has a senior squad at its bare bones, a depleted budget to work with and a fan base to re-engage.
They’re all central to the challenges sat in his modern day in-tray that would have seemed ridiculous that afternoon in Berkshire. Not least how he goes about getting Sheffield Wednesday out of the third tier.
It’s an exciting challenge, one he smiles at whenever he’s asked about, and one that you feel his predecessors would have preferred in many ways to a tired squad one said had become ‘too comfortable’.
But there’s no getting away from the fact that Sheffield Wednesday’s current status seemed a millions miles away back in Berkshire less than two years ago.
None of this is to say all was rosy in the Hillsborough garden back then, of course. There was a knowing sense from many supporters that things were well on the turn after two seasons of mediocrity.
But it was before EFL charges and points deductions and all sorts of other things that have happened in the weird and wonderful world of Wednesday since.
It was before Garry Monk’s deeply encouraging start to life at the club. It was before they went third at.. you know the rest, before tumbling to kamikaze run that would see them hobble forlornly to a meagre 16th - what they would have given for that placing more recently.
It was before anyone had heard of Nick DeMarco QC and before Tony Pulis and before everything got really bloody angry.
It was before you could even begin to fathom a professional football match being played in front of empty terraces or that you wouldn’t be allowed to hug your Nan or that you’d be asked to wear a bandana over your mouth while doing your big shop.
And yet it really wasn’t all that long ago. Just two football seasons? The world travels really, really fast.
Some 657 days on from that optimistic win at the Madejski, even the lyrics of that Borner tune seems to have gone from some sort of ‘close-to-the-bone-but-harmless-laddish-cheekiness’ to something scarcely suited to the standards of modern society.
The world, at its centre a football club called Sheffield Wednesday, feels like a completely different place. What comes next – on both counts – certainly won’t be boring.