Tears, fears and vomit: A closer examination of the weight of the shirt at Sheffield Wednesday
“He came up to me the morning before a game in tears. He was white as a sheet. He told me he just couldn’t do it.”
“He was shaking. He looked ill, really poorly. We kept it between ourselves and told everyone he was injured. Nobody knew. I don’t think he played again.”
Speaking under the promise of anonymity designed to protect the identity of the player in question, a former Sheffield Wednesday manager spoke to The Star with an ice-cold seriousness when asked to comment on the ‘weight of the shirt’ at the club.
It’s a throwaway phrase used to describe the pressures of playing for the larger, more expectation-heavy clubs in world football. And it’s one, it is suggested, that has haunted certain players at Sheffield Wednesday.
“We always knew he was a nervous guy behind the scenes,” the manager went on. “But I don’t think you’d know that watching him as a player. He didn’t shirk from things necessarily, he wasn’t that type.
“But whatever the problem was got too much for him and it got to that stage. It shook me up just seeing him in that state.
“Now you’d call it a mental health problem, without any shadow of a doubt, he had a breakdown. I don’t think people really called it for what it was back then.
“But the pressure of playing for Sheffield Wednesday was a big part of it. It was tremendously sad.”
The story is a bleak and extreme image of the pressure facing footballers at that level. Wednesday are a club with a rich history who have failed to replicate the glories of those that came before them in days gone by, of course, and the expectations attached to that quest are often what will lead a talented player to sink or swim.
Fast forward to the modern day and the handling of that pressure is something the incumbent manager has spoken about a number of times since his arrival last year.
Garry Monk’s plan this season has been to turn the pressure of their 12-point deduction into a siege mentality, to open up the club’s commitment to social media engagement in an attempt to show the player’s ‘human side’ and to face up open and honestly to the challenges they’re facing. Conversation, he has said, has been a constant in the Owls’ set-up this season.
But play down the pressure of playing for Sheffield Wednesday? It’s impossible and should be turned into something players can embrace, he said.
“The bigger club or the bigger the stature of the club, the expectation is always higher,” he told The Star. “From the fan base and because of the history of the club.
“Whether that history is 20 years ago or not, it doesn’t matter at big clubs. The more historic it is, there’s that expectation regardless of the situation.
“That’s something you have to deal with and understand when you’re coming to big clubs like Sheffield Wednesday. You have to understand that life may be harsher than it has been before and a lot more brutal at times.
“In terms of ourselves, we’re not part of that history. We didn’t create that history.
“It’s now our job to create a new history and to do that in certain ways. Yes, we’re in a tough situation right now, but this could be part of something where, and I said this to the players at the outset, that we will be remembered for what we do in this season.”
In an interview with author Tom Whitworth another Owls boss, Terry Yorath, named three of his former players as ones who couldn’t deal with the hulking expectation of a Hillsborough crowd.
Lloyd Owusu would collapse and throw up on the pitch in his early days at Wednesday, he said, while Leon Knight and John Beswetherick were talents that ‘couldn’t hack’ the big crowds and aura of S6.
All three went on to successful league careers elsewhere, but the pressure of fulfilling the expectations of crowds that watched the likes of Chris Waddle, John Sheridan and David Hirst proved to be too much.
It was a reality that years earlier influenced David Pleat’s decision to bring in a number of foreign players to replace those heroes of the early 90s – the likes of Dan Petrescu, it was thought, was less likely to feel the burden of Roland Nilsson’s ghost having not watched Match of the Day all his life.
In conversations with The Star earlier this year Scandinavian duo Niclas Alexandersson and Petter Rudi both spoke of the benefit they had in not being particularly au fait with the names or reputations of those they were effectively replacing quite in the same way that a British player might.
But the size and history of the club was a conversation largely avoided, Rudi suggested, a tact Monk has refused to take as he attempts to build a new history for the club.
“This can be the start of a journey,” Monk said. “These players know that this season, they are going to be remembered for it.
“What we’re trying to do is make sure that we’re remembered as a team for the situation we’re in, to make sure we’re remembered for the right reasons.
“Whenever you come to a big club, you know walking through the door, that those expectations are going to be on that shirt.
“That’s the responsibility of any player who comes here. It’s about relishing it and not fearing it. That can be difficult at times and these are the issues you have to face to guide them through. We’re at a big club and we know we have that expectation.
“The attitude they’re showing is the right attitude. It’s about making sure this season is the start of a new history for the club.”