Recently I had traveled to the UK to cover the Toronto Wolfpack for most of their Super 8 away matches. It was a great experience as I saw about half a dozen Rugby League games at various levels. While there however, I knew I had to get some kind of football (soccer) experience in the country where football was born. That amounted to visiting Old Trafford, the stadium where Manchester United play and also, hopefully, get to watch at least one football match. Due to the hectic Rugby League schedule I had set for myself, there was one… one solitary football match that fit in. It wasn’t a Premier League team as I had hoped, but it was a very good Championship League team in Sheffield Wednesday. So in essence, none of my soccer experiences were going to be by choice, it was because a) that was the closest stadium to where I stayed in the UK and b) that was the only match that was available for me to watch.
If you are a football fan at any level and you have a chance to visit Old Trafford, do so. The tour is incredible as is the on-site museum. From the first moment you start to soak in all of the great moments, the great players and great teams that have played there. It is truly a spectacle and the stadium does carry a certain air about herself that gives you the sensation that you are traversing hallowed ground. Rooney, Ronaldo, Giggs, Best, Beckham, Keane, Charlton, Cantona and so many more legends not to mention one of the best managers in Sir Alex Ferguson. You are dripping in history with every step and every glance you take, you just can’t help but be impressed.
The next day was the Sheffield Wednesday game as they hosted Chesterfield in the first round of the EFL Cup, The rain had been steady all day and continued as I entered the stadium. After getting my press pass I was directed to the press room where I grabbed a bite to eat and leafed through the game program. Apparently Sheffield was celebrating their 150th year of existence. Why does 150 ring a bell? Holy smokes I thought, this team is as old as Canada. After taking some final prep notes I then went to find where the press area sits during a match. I wasn’t too happy when I found out I had to climb four flights of stairs to get there. But as I was about to enter the staircase, I ran into (quite literally I might add) this little fellow. Fine… both of us are not so little but let’s leave that for another story.
Yours truly with Ozzie the Owl (I’m the one on the left)
This couldn’t have been a coincidence. I have a thing for mascots and now I (yes me) was light as a feather as I bounced up the four flights in glee. This evening was starting to turn into something special.
The press area is quite different than BMO field as it is situated in the stands itself and not in a separate room. Ugh I thought, as despite the overhang keeping us dry, it was a bitterly cold night. My zippered hoodie, wasn’t going to be enough. The first view I had was of the stands on the opposite side. Due to the inclement weather, they weren’t going to fill that today, but it had CHANSIRI written on it and I had no clue as to who or what that meant other than possibly they were a sponsor.
View from the press area
Thank you cell phones and free wifi. Turns out that Thai businessman Dejphon Chansiri bought out Sheffield Wednesday in 2015. His wealth coming from controlling the Thai Union Group which is the world’s largest producer of canned tuna. Interesting, apart from something that is heavily battered and covered in tartar sauce, the only fish I like is tuna. Another strange coincidence.
But I quickly put that notion out of my head as I started to get settled in. The players were on the field and it was just prior to kickoff when the song Hi Ho Silver Lining (I didn’t know that at the time) by Jeff Beck started playing. What happened next was similar to this.
Now there wasn’t even 12K in the stadium but to hear it in person, all around you was massive. That crowd sounded like 100K and the hairs on my arms stood on end as the stereophonic chorus of Hi Ho Sheffield Wednesday washed over me. The game started and Sheffield nearly scored 30 seconds in. They dominated the play with chance after chance and any time Chesterfield ventured forward, the Owls used short, precise passing to get themselves out of any pressure. Yes, Chesterfield is in a lower division but it was incredible to watch the beautiful display that Sheffield Wednesday were putting on.
But football or soccer as us Canadians call it, can be a cruel, cruel sport. In the 33rd minute and in what was probably their first foray into Sheffield’s 18 yard box, Chesterfield scored on a penalty kick. Owls coach, Carlos Carvalhal wasn’t worried.
“Even in that moment we never lose our head,” Carvalhal said about the conceded goal in the post game press conference. “We played our football, we moved the ball, open spaces and created chances.”
He was right of course as just before half time, not only did Gary Hooper tie it in the 43rd minute but Steven Fletcher put Sheffield ahead 2-1 just 2 minutes later.The second half was almost a duplicate of the first with Wednesday scoring 2 goals including a superb individual effort by Scottish international Barry Bannan who ran from his side of midfield straight up the middle and fired it into the top corner. It was a beauty and even won Best Goal of the opening round of the EPL Carabao Cup. All in all it was a 4-1 final victory and even included something you rarely see. Owls defenceman Sam Hutchison had to play in net after goalie Joe Wildsmith was injured and had to leave the game. Sheffield had already used their 3 substitutions which gave the coach no other choice. There was only about 7 minutes left in that game and it was funny to watch him play more as a sweeper than a keeper.
As I drove back to the hotel it dawned on me that I just may have found my team or more appropriately, they found me. I did a bit more research on the team that night and found out that their OWL logo also is inscribed with Consilio et Animis which means Wisdom and Courage. Pretty cool I thought and super cool to find out that their away kit was black with orange trim, my two favourite colours, that is, if you consider black to be a colour.
The next morning I drove back to the stadium’s Big Store and bought myself and my sons Sheffield Wednesday jerseys. At the beginning of this adventure, who who who knew… I was going to be an Owl supporter.
Through some dumb luck, my UK team had finally found me.
Photos by Chris Papaioannou
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