Sheffield has a special place in my heart. It’s a city I lived for nearly three years, it’s where I got my first proper job, lived away from home for the first time – but it’s also the first away ground I went to by myself.
Despite me going to my first Sunderland game at the age of seven, where I witnessed a 0-0 draw against Tottenham in 1990, I didn’t go back again until the promotion season of 1995-6, and that first away game was the FA Cup third round fixture at Manchester United.
As away days go, it was decent – we drew 2-2 against a team that went on to win the double, and we absolutely packed out the East Stand at Old Trafford as United gave us a bumper allocation. But I’d travelled with family, and it’s not really the same.
Fast forward to 2000, where as a 16-year-old considering his next steps in the world, Sheffield was at the top. It’s where I wanted to go to university, and that away day with the lads on the Easter weekend cemented it.
One of our number was good mates with a Sunderland fan living in the Steel City, so he’d be our host for the weekend as we planned the trip around the match at Hillsborough.
A slight drawback was that the away end had long sold out. There was zero chance of us getting in there, certainly not four tickets together.
Our Sheffield Sherpa said “no bother, we’ll just go in the home end”.
Now, going in the home end when you support the away team is fraught with issues. Football is an emotive sport as we all know, and a tribal one. The last thing you can do when behind enemy lines is support the team you’ve actually come to see. And you can’t bring yourself to support the team your team is playing against.
As an aside, I still find myself scanning the home ends on TV highlights when an away team scores. There’s always one or two jumping up, completely forgetting themselves in the moment, and shooting straight back down once they’ve realised what they’ve done.
Being 16, I didn’t consider this to be an issue until we’d got into the ground. There was a very nervous atmosphere within Hillsborough. Our hosts were trapped in a relegation dogfight – one they ultimately lost as they finished 19th that season and have never returned to the top flight.
Danny Wilson had been given the boot a month before we played them, and was replaced by Peter Shreeves on a caretaker basis. Attendances were down in S6 and relegation seemed a certainty.
Also, being 16, I did nothing in the way of preparation for where we actually were seated in the ground. Right behind the goal, halfway up the Spion Kop, the huge hill with a mammoth single tier stand sunk into its steep incline, which is the dedicated home end of Sheffield Wednesday. It’s a formidable sight when full. And we stuck out like sore thumbs.
The Sunderland supporters had filled out the West Stand dead opposite us and were in fine voice. Under Peter Reid and in our first season back in the top flight, we were seventh in the league and in with a shout of European football.
Reid’s team had built a brand of attacking, direct football, and on this day it boasted no-nonsense defenders Jody Craddock and Paul Butler at its base, a midfield powerhouse of Eric Roy and Alex Rae, Kevin Kilbane and Michael Gray on the wings with Kevin Phillips and Niall Quinn spearheading the attack. Reid’s Sunderland were free-scoring, fearless warriors and spent much of the season sweeping their opposition aside.
However, Reid’s Sunderland arrived in South Yorkshire on the back of a chastening 4-0 defeat at Manchester United and, as European qualification was achievable, they sought to get back to winning ways as quickly as possible.
And if that was to happen on that day in Sheffield, our little group of fans really wanted to be part of the celebrations. Instead, we were dangerously placed among the hardest of die-hard Wednesdayites.
Thinking quickly, we devised a story to present to a steward. We were Sunderland fans and one of our aunties bought us tickets as an Easter present. The only trouble was, as the story went, she wasn’t aware of home or away allocations and just bought the only tickets available, not knowing what it would mean. Could we possibly move closer to the Sunderland fans?
Now this was a risky play – any steward at this point could simply have thrown us out of the stadium, and had we stayed quiet at least we’d have seen the game.
We learned an important lesson that day, reward is not without risk. The steward we approached, seconds into the game, simply raised his hand to stop our elaborate story in full flow and directed us towards another steward, who chaperoned us past the Wednesday fans in the Kop, along the front of the North Stand and towards the away end. It had worked.
The away end itself was full, but there was an uncovered section of seating in the corner of the stadium that, we later found out, was used as an overflow for away fans.
Known as the Crow’s Nest or Cheese Wedge by home fans, the North-West corner is no longer used by the club as they don’t have a safety certificate for it, but there were no such concerns in 2000.
We were directed to take any seat in there. The fact there was no roof over our heads was of no interest to us. We were safely among our own number and, having already sunk a few pre-match beers, we had an afternoon of football and then a night on the town ahead of us.
In the first half, we needn’t have worried about breaking our cover in the home end as there was very little to cheer for the visiting support. In fact, Wednesday had the lion’s share of chances and for long spells we were hanging on. The Owls were fighting for their lives.
As it started raining, we even questioned our decision to swap ends, as we’d traded shelter for an uncovered corner with the wind swirling about.
But, as had happened so many times during that era, Kevin Phillips was on hand to send us all home in raptures as, four minutes from time, our top scorer curled in a sublime finish from 20 yards out in front of the away end. And, in the final minute of time, Phillips added to his tally and sealed a 2-0 victory.
This was a day before ‘scenes’ and ‘limbs’, where we simply just celebrated goals rather than embarking on online willy waving of comparing just how mental fans go after goals as if it were of any importance whatsoever.
Rain-soaked and carefree, we all piled on to the Supertram back to the city centre, where we sang “you can shove your Yorkshire puddings up your arse” to Wednesday fans, then went on an unforgettable night out where we tried and failed to get into the likes of Gatecrasher and Bed, two huge superclubs, but ended up in the indie disco heaven of The Leadmill.
Returning there for work some five years later, Wednesday had fallen into football’s third tier and felt like a shell of the club I’d come to admire in the 1990s. Living just up the road from the stadium, I’d often turn up on a Saturday to watch the Owls struggle against smaller sides who had clearly treated their trip to Hillsborough as a cup final. Little did I know that the same fate would befall my own team 13 years later.
On support alone, both sides deserve to be back in the top flight. If only that was how league positions were decided.