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When I started Get With the Programme back in August, I thought it was going to be interesting to compare the pattern of seasons past with what is happening at Hillsborough these days. I was more than aware that, in the 30 years within the scope GWTP there were going to be a lot of seasons where things were not going so well (this is Wednesday we’re talking about after all). This has indeed proved to be the case, as we have plumbed the depths of the Jewell and Yorath years, some visits to the third tier and various seasons of struggle at the wrong end of one division or another.
I guess that I was hoping that we could look back on those seasons in a vaguely smug, almost nostalgic way as the current crop of Owls stars continued to fight for promotion back to the Premier League. Unfortunately it hasn’t quite worked out that way, and the team’s current struggles have often been frighteningly reminiscent of some of those stressful seasons past.

For this edition of GWTP, we arrive at another time when a home game against Bolton was looming as an absolutely vital fixture in the season at a time when the team was struggling. The season is 1997-98, and the date is Saturday 8th November 1997. A run of poor results saw Wednesday rooted to the bottom of the Premier League with just 9 points from their opening 13 games. Visitors Bolton, in a bit of a yo-yo spell between the top two divisions, were just two places and three points ahead.
Unusually, the programme contains no manager’s notes, but instead greets the reader with a page of white text on a black background, looking strangely like an obituary, opening with the phrase:
“On Monday morning, following the 6-1 defeat at Old Trafford on Saturday, and the general lack of on-field success since the start of the season, the club issued the following Press Release”

Said press release is then repeated in full over the course of the page but the opening sentence confirms “The Board of Directors of Sheffield Wednesday Football Club announce with immediate effect, the termination of the contract of Team Manager, David Pleat”. It all sounds a bit grand really, compared to the low-key shuffling off of various managers since, but let’s not forget the Owls were in the Premier League and, whilst generally being perennially at the sleepy-eyed back end of Match of the Day, they were still of some interest to the national media.
The press release then rambles on with the usual begrudging praise for the efforts of the hapless departee and his coaching staff, musing over where it all went wrong, and making sure the players were partially blamed as well. What was interesting though was the statement that “the Owls were frequently to be found near the top of various Fair Play Discipline tables”. Which was part of the problem to be honest.

In charge for this game then First Team Coach Peter Shreeves, the man who sounded like one of the Mitchell brothers after inhaling a balloonful of helium. Peter was, of course, to have a permanent stint as manager a few years later, but did a pretty decent job for this game……
The aforementioned recent run of results had not only included that heavy defeat away to Manchester United, but a morale-sapping 3-1 home defeat to struggling Crystal Palace. That game, in particular, was one of those that you get every few seasons (or almost every season in Wednesday’s case) where the mood turns and you know the manager is on his last legs.

It wasn’t just the preceding few games that had seen Wednesday slump to the foot of the table, but the whole season to beat had the whiff of disaster about it. The Owls had already conceded 5 (at home to Derby), 6 (at Old Trafford) and 7 (in a humiliating televised defeat at Blackburn), with summer signing Patrick Blondeau looking particularly shaky in a defence that had looked pretty rock solid in the previous season. In fact the team had only kept two clean sheets in their opening 13 games, at home to Leicester and Coventry.

As the front cover rightly pointed out “The Only Way is Up!”, with Ritchie Humphreys featured in a challenge with Manchester United’s Gary Pallister. Ritchie was still only 19 but had been around the first-team squad for a couple of years, including of course that memorable little run at the start of the 1996-97 season. The programme’s interview with Ritchie at least partly explained why he struggled to reproduce that early form : “…already this season he has appeared at left midfield, up front and on the right flank”. I also recall him playing at left-back by the end of his Wednesday career. Only Wednesday could take a promising young striker in the form of his life and end up turning him into a left-back.

Speaking of left-backs, the feature interview involved Ian Nolan, by this stage an established member of the Owls defence, with almost 150 games for the club under his belt. Ian told the tale of his experience of being released from Preston as an apprentice – which then led to him being on the dole for two years. As he pointed out “I never want to go back to those days”. A phrase that many Wednesdayites are finding themselves uttering at the moment….
A quick glance at the “Reserve and Junior Round Up” brings back some names of those that never quite made it including Mark Platts, John Hibbins and Kris Kotylo. Also featuring, as goalkeeper for the reserves, was a certain Bruce Grobbelaar. Bruce was also figuring on the bench for the first team but never did manage to make an appearance, although at the time he would have had much more important things on his mind than his potential Owls debut.

It was in this very month that Grobbelaar and fellow goalkeeper Hans Segers were cleared of match-fixing allegations that been haunting them for some years. In hindsight, Bruce should probably have left it there, but decided to sue The Sun for libel, initially being awarded £85,000. However, after the newspaper appealed, Bruce’s damages were reduced to £1 and he was ordered to pay The Sun’s half-million-pound legal fees. Ouch. In explaining his decision the judge stated of Grobbelaar “he had in fact acted in a way in which no decent or honest footballer would act and in a way which could, if not exposed and stamped on, undermine the integrity of a game which earns the loyalty and support of millions”. Ouch again. The decision was enough to make Bruce bankrupt.

Off the pitch, the exciting news was the opening of Dooleys Restaurant. The club were clearly proud of the new facility : “There’s never been anything like it on this side of the City. Appropriate to the Dooleys image the restaurant will serve only the finest fresh food, whilst possessing an atmosphere of open friendliness mixed with intimate ambience”. I’ve read that last bit back a few times and I still can’t perceive what sort of an atmosphere that is – maybe something you would expect at a somewhat different type of establishment.

In opposition

The visitors were in their second season in the Premier League, following an immediate return from relegation in their previous effort in 1995-96.
Their manager was the rather low-key Colin Todd. Nope, nothing more to say there I’m afraid.
A look down the Bolton squad list gleans a number of what I would politely call ‘journeymen’ of the era : Neil Cox, Jamie Pollock, John McGinlay, Gudni Bergsson, Mike Whitlow, Arnar Gunnlaugsson.

Somewhat surprisingly their squad also contained (at number 13) Peter Beardsley, who was obviously such a success at the Reebok that we had all completely forgotten he played for them.
The only Owls connections, both at the back end of visitors’ squad list, were two rather obscure Owls loanees. I would pose it as a quiz question but if anyone could name Franz Carr and Hasney Aljofree my flabber would be absolutely ghasted to say the least.

The game

Now, some editions of GWTP have featured less memorable games but this one will be very familiar to most. Most of us would have taken a scrappy 1-0 win, and probably couldn’t hope for anything more. What transpired was a first-half that was virtually unprecedented as the Owls racked up five goals in a 24 minute spell.

Paolo di Canio opened the scoring on 20 minutes with a powerful effort, before Guy Whittingham converted a Rudi cross 4 minutes later. Bolton then decided to pretty much let Wednesday score at will, and in particular Andy Booth. Firstly Boothy scored with a diving header, next a shot on the turn, before finally another header to complete his hat-trick.

As is almost always the way when one team racks up a massive score by half-time, absolutely nothing happened in the second half, but that was more than good enough for Wednesday – who, let’s be honest, would be more than capable of drawing 5-5 from that position.
It was a pretty impressive result for Shreeves, but he only got the one game (in this particular stint at least) as Ron Atkinson was to return to the helm for the following Saturday’s game against Arsenal (another good win).
Whilst the visitors were eventually to again succumb to relegation, the Owls did enough to survive, but it was not enough for Big Ron to keep the job in the summer.

Next up

After a run of home games, GWTP has a bit of a break now, until the Good Friday fixture against Preston, and we’ll get a bit more up to date…..  

Unread article 10/03/2018 at 08:52


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