‘People forget’ - Shefki Kuqi on Sheffield Wednesday exit, scoring against Neil Warnock and that swan dive

Scoring in a Steel City Derby is one of Shefki Kuqi’s favourite Sheffield Wednesday memories – and he’s hoping for an Owls resurgence.

The former Finnish international didn’t spend that long at Hillsborough in the grand scheme of things, joining in January 2002 for an undisclosed fee after a successful spell with Stockport County.

But he became a bit of a cult figure in S6 with his trademark swan dive celebration and never-say-die attitude – and the fact that he managed to score in a Steel City derby win over Sheffield United also helped his cause.

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“It was brilliant,” he told The Star. “I remember it so well. It’s funny, because it was against Neil Warnock and he was one of those managers that I always managed to score against.

“That Sheffield Derby was one that probably hurt him the most, and I remember the header that I scored that day.

“Those derby games were amazing. It was always the first fixture you looked for when the calendar came out, and it meant so much. The league position doesn’t mean anything, and with my passion there was nothing better than winning those games.

“Because it’s not just about sending the fans home happy, but it’s also about giving them the weeks to come in the city - everybody is talking about it.”

Shefki Kuqi of Sheffield Wednesday celebrates scoring against Sheffield United. (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

And for that reason there was a rousing reception for the 45-year-old when he made the trip back to Hillsborough as a guest of the club for the 1-1 draw against Lincoln City in October – a return that he thoroughly enjoyed.

He said of his trip back, “I think lots of people forget, because of the league we’re in now, what a massive football club it is. And when you get close to the stadium you can feel the passion from the people - I really hope that one day they can get back where they belong.”

Sadly for the forward, he didn’t get to see out his three-year contract in Sheffield though, leaving for Ipswich Town – first on loan and then permanently in 2003 – before spells with the likes of Blackburn Rovers, Crystal Palace, Swansea City and Newcastle United, playing 50 games in the Premier League during his career.

For Wednesday, he scored 19 goals in 64 league games before it was decided that he’d be moving on – even though he wasn’t actually looking to leave after relegation into the old Division 2.

Shefki Kuqi and his trademark celebration with Sheffield Wednesday.

He explained, “After we got relegated, when I came back for preseason my squad number had changed from number 9 to number 15 - and that told me a lot. Chris had his own idea, tried to bring his own players in, and I accepted that.

“All I ever wanted was to be honest, and sometimes in football that can cause you problems… But as soon I realised that I wasn’t in the managers plans, I thought ‘why waste anybody’s time?’

“I always wanted to play, and if I’m in the stands then I can’t affect anything. At least on the bench you feel like you can come in and make an impact.

“Willie Donachie had been Terry Yorath’s assistant and he went to Ipswich after leaving Wednesday - and he called to ask if I’d go.

“Chris called me into his office, said Ipswich had been in touch and asked if I wanted to go. I said, ‘If that’s what the club wants, of course I’ll go’.

“So he then said don’t train, in case something happened in training, and I grabbed my boots, said goodbye and left.”

Before his departure, though, the big Finnish international did manage to make his mark in South Yorkshire, and had plenty of kids around Sheffield – this writer included – trying to perfect his swan dive celebration.

But given its very nature, did he ever get hurt doing it?

When asked, Kuqi says no, although did say that his old boss at the Tractor Boys threatened to fine him if he didn’t stop doing his trademark leap. He didn’t stop it.

“It was always the adrenaline,” he says with a smile. “We used to do things, and talk in the week about what the next celebration would be.

“But my celebration was something that nobody else could do. It was something special, and the players would just say to me that I should do what I do.

“At one point Joe Royle told me that I couldn’t do it anymore because I might get injured. He said that if I was to get injured doing it then they’d fine me for getting injured when they needed me.

“But the more I did it, the more I got used to it, and I just started getting higher and higher. When you score, especially in a derby or late in the game, you do things that you don’t even know how you did it. We did stupid things, but you don’t actually think about it because of the adrenaline.

“I never got injured, but I did scratch my chin once because I did it when the pitch was really, really dry."

Now, after a tough couple of years from a personal perspective, the former Finnish international is back in the market for a new management gig and is moving to the UK to pursue his dream of managing in the country that gave him so many years of football.

Maybe we’ll see that swan dive in a suit on a British touchline in the future.