Two decades on from his debut: How the sale of Emerson Thome signalled the end of Sheffield Wednesday's Premier League status

It’s 22 years and a day since the debut of a man whose departure from Sheffield Wednesday in many ways signalled the throwing of the towel in their fight against Premier League relegation.

By Alex Miller
Sunday, 12th April 2020, 7:00 am
Updated Sunday, 12th April 2020, 11:52 am

As imperious Brazilian-born Emerson Thome pulled on the blue and white for the first time on April 11 1998 in a 2-1 defeat to South Yorkshire rivals Barnsley, he was unaware that his departure 18 months later would take with him any grain of hope that the Owls still had the stomach for the 1999/00 relegation scrap.

He left in December 2000 and it was increasingly inevitable by then that they’d be relegated, but the meek manner in which a cash-strapped Wednesday sold up to Chelsea for £2.5m in preparation of a bleak future felt very much like the beginning of the end.

In many ways served as a prime example of how the club was being run at that time – they had turned down an offer of over £5m from the same club just months before.

Messrs Di Canio and Carbone were long gone and by then Thome, along with the soon-to-be sold Niclas Alexandersson, was one of the few Owls reaching the mid-point of the season with a great deal of credit. But in the sorry, debt-ridden position the club found itself in, he was seen merely as the club’s most saleable asset. Wait until the inevitable drop, they seemed to surmise, and his value drops with it.

Arriving from Benfica in late March 1998, Ron Atkinson took one look at Thome in a reserve game and saw enough to throw him straight into first-team contention.

The Portuguese national bought out the remainder of his contract with the Águias and within a few weeks struck up a steady partnership with former England centre-half Des Walker at the heart of the Owls defence.

Rumours that the pair weren’t exactly best pals off the field? It didn’t matter, according to Thome.

5 Dec 1999: Michael Owen of Liverpool is tackled by Emerson Thome of Sheffield Wednesday during the FA Carling Premiership match played at Anfield. Liverpool won the game 4-1. Credit: Michael Steele

“To be fair to us, it was quite hard at the beginning because communication was not the best,” he told Tom Whitworth some years later for his excellent book ‘Owls: Sheffield Wednesday through the modern era’.

“But we gelled together on the pitch and that was the most important thing. The partnership worked well and I was proud to play next to such a great centre-back.”

Free he may have been, a fan favourite he surely was, but Thome’s signing contributed to an escalating wage bill that had risen by an eye-watering £4.2m in one year by the end of 1997/98.

If the Owls were treading water on the pitch, they were already drowning off it.

23 Jan 1999: Emerson Thome of Sheffield Wednesday celebrates scoring during the FA Cup 4th Round match against Stockport in Sheffield, England. Credit: Craig Prentis

None of that financial spluttering was Thome’s fault, of course, and as the Brazilian’s grasp of the English language grew, so to did his taking to the English game.

While mistakes came and went, he was a defender built for the battle of football on these shores; powerful, strong in the air and willing to put his foot through it when necessary. All in all, fairly un-Brazilian.

“When I came to Sheffield nobody knew about me,” he said. “I was something out of the blue. I couldn’t speak the language, nothing at all.

“But all I needed to do was express myself out on the pitch. I needed to prove how good I was. And I did.

“My relationship with the supporters gelled straight away and I heard them singing my name, making music, and that proves a lot.”

Thome’s song – to the tune of ‘Little Drummer Boy’ – is something of a classic in the Wednesday hymn-sheet. Looking back it’s not exactly obvious how much he did look like Paul Warhurst, but it made for a memorable line or two.

That he left in such a hurry spat a sour taste for many Owls supporters still smarting from Chelsea’s firesale purchase of Dan Petrescu not long before and sparked whispers of Thome’s conduct at the club, that he had forced the move through and jumped from the leakiest of sinking ships.

“This is a great move for him but one which came as a total surprise,” said his agent in the days after his move.

“Sheffield Wednesday's current position had a lot to do with his move. It's common knowledge the plight that club are in.

“But this was a good offer, and they had to look at it seriously and give some thought to it.

“Contrary to some stories, Emerson was happy at Sheffield Wednesday - although like all the players he was disappointed at the club's position in the table.

“But to move to a club like Chelsea, who are in the Champions League and all the rest of it, was one he could not turn down.

“I just hope he reproduces the form he showed with Wednesday, although it's going to be very difficult for him to get into the side because Chelsea have some world-class defenders.”

World-class defenders they did have and after less than 10 months and 21 appearances with Chelsea he was moved on to Sunderland for £4.5m – a profit of nearly £2m in no time at all. Not bad business if you can get it.

Injuries crept into his game and it is felt that Thome’s best months in English football – he went on to play for Bolton and Wigan – were spent at Hillsborough.

Still, the Wednesday faithful will always have the famous Thome tune. All together now..

“Soooo, they call him, Emerson Thome

“A newborn king to us, he’s Emerson Thome

“He looks like Paul Warhurst

“He’s Emerson Thome, Emerson Thome, Emerson Thome..”