“What we had going into that playoff was a set of players absolutely sure of what they needed to do,” said Lee Bullen, captain of the Wednesday side that 15 years ago today played their first-ever game in a playoff system.
“We’d battled hard, really hard, to get there and there was such a feeling of confidence that’s hard to get together.
“And then arriving at Hillsborough. Wow. It was incredible. There was a real sense of something happening.”
The ball dribbles to James Quinn’s feet for what seems an eternity as three Bees defenders converge around him. The atmosphere Bullen describes is one that hadn’t been felt at Hillsborough for many years. Some 12 minutes into the match, decibel levels were still set to deafening.
“I just remember the noise, the buzz around town, the buzz around coming into training every day, there was such a build-up to it,” said Matt Hamshaw, remembering the opening minutes of a match he played on the left of midfield. “You felt that something really big was building.
“I remember the noise when we walked out. It was just unreal. The fact that it was the first playoff ever, that made it special.”
Quinn thinks fast and on impulse flicks the ball smartly though the legs of the latest of the Brentford trio to arrive at the scene. One bobble, two, and it finds itself in the path of Jon-Paul McGovern once more.
“It was one of those where it just sort of fell that way,” Quinn says, his voice buoyed when recalling one of the most important assists of his career.
“I don’t remember a huge amount about that precise moment to be honest, it was a bit of a stroke of luck it went through his legs and it obviously fell quite nicely for JP.”
A breathless pause. McGovern bounds onto it, blessed with space just inside the box on the right-hand side. It’s the sort of moment a footballer dies for.
He hits it beautifully, with the outside half of his right foot, just off the centre of the laces. It’s exactly how you dream of hitting with a ball in the opening stages of the biggest match of your life so far.
A Brentford defender sprawls goalwards in what proves to be a waste of time. The thunderbolt effort careers from his shins and into the roof of the Leppings Lane net. Before the cameras can pan his way McGovern launches himself full-stretch onto his belly and slides his way towards the rapturous North Stand.
The booming sound of The Jeff Beck Group fills the expectant spring air and nearly 29,000 Wednesdayites lose their minds. Sheffield Wednesday were 1-0 up in the first leg of their 2005 League One play-off semi-final.
A descending sun poking through onto a jubilant crowd, noise even louder than before, it’s clear Hillsborough is not a ground built for third-tier football, the fanbase not one brought together over generations for trips to Wrexham and Torquay.
But it was Hillsborough that made the task of returning to the Championship a task all the more difficult. A trip to Griffin Park is a difficult one, Wednesday knew, and they had to make the home leg count.
Quinn remembers: “Every time we played at Hillsborough it was the other team’s cup final. They’re playing League One football in front of 25,000 at one of the most famous grounds in the world and they up their game. And it was tough.
“Paul Sturrock got us through that and calmed us down. It was all about the bigger picture, about getting into the playoffs, he told us not to worry about individual games. As soon as we get to the playoffs, we’ll be alright.
“And you felt that. You felt you were trusted by the manager and the backroom staff.
“We were that confident. I honestly at no stage ever thought we weren’t getting promoted at the end of the season. At no point.”
McGovern’s strike proved to be the only goal of a match that Wednesday dominated. Chances fell to Quinn, Lee Peacock, Glenn Whelan, but went begging. Brentford were still in it. Game on.
Hamshaw remembers: “There was definitely a disappointment there. We came in feeling we should have had at least a couple of goals to take down there, it was always going to be tough. They always were good as home. We backed ourselves but we could've made it easier for each other.
“The fact we scored early massively helped. But we just felt we'd missed an opportunity. It wasn't a huge celebration feel.”
‘Cautious confidence’ is how Bullen described it: “We knew it would be tough.
“There was a real mix of personalities in that side. We’d come from different levels, different parts of the country and we all had a point to prove. That stood us in good stead when the pressure was on.”
That ‘missed opportunity’ was one endlessly discussed in pubs across Sheffield for the four days between the legs, but for that night it was a showcase of something Wednesday had been missing for a decade.
Hamshaw said: “There’d been a lot of doom and gloom around Sheffield Wednesday in recent years. There was no light at the end of the tunnel. But going into the playoffs, it felt as though there was that bit of hope.”
And so all eyes turned to Griffin Park…