One of England’s oldest clubs, venerable Sheffield Wednesday are aiming to celebrate their 150th anniversary in 2017 with a return to the Premier League.
The last appearance came in 2000, at the end of a decade when the Owls – so-called because their location in the suburb of Owlerton – enjoyed a long-awaited revival. But apart from a rare, solitary League Cup in 1991, the club hasn’t won any major silverware since before World War II.
In a scenario played out across the north in the 19th century, local cricketers looking for winter sport established this football club. The Wednesday Cricket Club had been formed in 1820, playing in the middle of the week. In 1867, in Sheffield’s Adelphi Hotel (now the iconic Crucible Theatre, the Wembley of snooker), club members agreed to form a ‘Wednesday’ soccer team.
They played their first match, against The Mechanics, on October 19, a Saturday, and won their first trophy, the local Cromwell Cup, the following February. Wednesday won according to Sheffield Rules, an early version of the game that also involved touchdowns. It would be another decade the football hub of Sheffield and the Football Association in London agreed on a universal code.
The stand-off also prevented Wednesday from entering the FA Cup until relatively late, 1880. During that time, the club’s most eminent players, the Clegg brothers, Charles and William, had played in England’s first international matches. They would go on to be key figures in Wednesday’s early years, with the move to professionalism and break from the cricket club.
With players to pay, Wednesday moved from groundsharing Bramall Lane to their own pitch at nearby Olive Grove, a site now coveted by historic city rivals, currently non-league Sheffield FC.
Reaching their first FA Cup final in 1890, Wednesday won the trophy in 1896, gaining Football League status in 1892 thanks to the expansion of top-flight First Division. Top scorer in those days was Fred Spiksley, later to coach teams to league titles in Mexico, Sweden and Germany. Spiksley’s swansong would be Wednesday’s first championship-winning season, 1902-03. A mean defence was the key to the club retaining the title a year later.
The club had not long moved out of Olive Grove, needed for railway expansion, to Owlerton, then north of the city limits. William Clegg, then city mayor, kicked off the first game at what would become Hillsborough in 1899.
Hillsborough would later become a venue for the 1966 World Cup, 1996 Euros and many FA Cup semi-finals – with fateful consequences in 1989.
It was during their most successful period in the 20th century that the club gained their current name. With goals from Jack Allen, the Owls won back-to-back titles in 1929 and 1930, first as Wednesday, the second as Sheffield Wednesday. Also in the line-up was Ellis Rimmer, who would go on to score in every round of the FA Cup in 1934-35, including the two late winning goals in the final.
It would be three decades before the Owls were back at Wembley, losing the 1966 FA Cup Final to Everton 3-2 after going 2-1 up. The game is best known for a comedic chase of an Everton fan by police across the pitch. Shortly afterwards, Wednesday goalkeeper Ron Springett was part of England’s winning squad at the World Cup.
His international team-mate Jack Charlton led the Owls to an FA Cup semi-final in 1983 but it was his successor, Howard Wilkinson, who took the club back to the top flight. The Wednesday revival was crowned by the League Cup win of 1991, a scorcher by Irish international John Sheridan the only goal against Manchester United. Months later, key men Nigel Pearson, David Hirst and Trevor Francis helped the Owls regain the First Division. In its last season before being rebranded as the Premier, Wednesday finished a creditable third, the popular Francis enjoying an impressive debut season as manager. He was unable to sign Eric Cantona, though, who stormed out of his trial at Wednesday to go to Leeds.
The high league placing allowed the Owls to enter Europe for the first time since the Springett era, losing out in a high-scoring tie with Kaiserslautern. A home-coming Chris Waddle also starred in runs to the finals of both domestic cups, Wednesday losing out to Arsenal each time.
With Mark Bright bagging the goals, great things were expected of Wednesday in the big-money Premier League but after two seventh-placed finishes, form dipped, Francis was sacked and the club hasn’t really recovered since.
The 2015-16 campaign, however, was the club’s most promising since the 1990s. On acquiring the club from Milan Mandarić in 2015, Thai tuna mogul Dejphon Chansiri had a clear-out of staff, bringing in coach Carlos Carvalhal from Besiktas and revived Italian striker Fernando Forestieri. With a capable, mainly Portuguese midfield, Wednesday made the play-off final for the Premier League, but didn’t quite have enough against Hull on the day.
Forever tainted by the tragic events of 1989, when 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death at the crumbling Leppings Lane end, Hillsborough still feels like a stadium for another era. Created on the eve of World War I – when a wall collapsed at the other end, the Spion Kop, during a replayed FA Cup semi-final – Hillsborough has been Wednesday’s home since 1899.
Moving out of Olive Grove near Bramall Lane, the club saw potential in buying ten acres of land three miles from the city centre in the then undeveloped suburb of Owlerton. Transporting the main stand from Olive Grove to this then inaccessible outpost, Wednesday played before low crowds until profits were poured into the new ground, allowing showcase fixtures to be staged. The Owlerton Stadium became Hillsborough in 1914, shortly after the Spion Kop was expanded and a South Stand built, with seating for 5,000-plus at the back.
Hillsborough became a preferred neutral venue for FA semi-finals – though the 73,000 record attendance of 1934 was for a Wednesday home tie with Manchester City.
The South Stand became all seated for the 1966 World Cup – Franz Beckenbauer bursting onto the international stage for West Germany – and extended for Euro 96 when holders Denmark played their three group matches here. Still topped by the clock and triangular gable from Olive Grove, the South Stand backs onto the river Don.
It faces the North Stand, built in 1961 when Wednesday hosted Pelé’s Santos. Behind it are the main ticket office and club shop.
Away fans occupy the West Stand, or Leppings Lane End, usually just one tier. The home end opposite was once the biggest kop in Europe.
Not all the stadium is covered – two corners remain open – and the Leppings Lane End is feeling its age, its wooden seats only replaced in 1997. Improvements and a capacity increase from 40,000 to 45,000 were earmarked for 2013 but England’s failure to host the 2018 World Cup has put these plans on hold.
There’s a memorial for the Liverpool 96 by the main entrance.
Hillsborough is easily reached by tram. From Sheffield station, the blue line runs to Hillsborough Interchange, just before the terminus at Malin Bridge. From the city centre, the yellow line (direction Middlewood) runs parallel to the blue from Cathedral but carries on right up to the stadium at Leppings Lane. Changing from the blue line to the yellow on the way (or at Hillsborough Interchange) saves you a 10min walk at the end. There are also plenty of pubs en route for an easy hop-off beer. Each line runs every 10min and takes 10min from town and 20min from the station.
With average gates just over 20,000 and a capacity almost twice that, availability for Championship games is rarely a problem.
The main ticket office (Mon-Sat 9am-5pm, match-day Sat 9am-kick-off and 45min after match, eve game 9am-kick-off) is part of the Owls Megastore on Vere Road behind the North Stand. Tickets can also be ordered by phone (0871 900 1867) and online.
Prices are set in eight categories, ranging from £20 to £52 around the ground (average £30), with over-65 reductions £15-£42, under-17s £10-£25 and under-11s £5-£21. There’s relatively little differential between areas of the ground – the Kop is slightly cheaper.
The Owls Megastore (same hours as the ticket office, see above) behind the North Stand proffers branded items such as knitted trapper hats, hip flasks and door hangers.
The tram ride up to the ground allows you to hop off for a beer and still make the game quite easily. Reasonably close to Bamforth Street, just before Hillsborough Interchange, the New Barrack Tavern is well worth the detour for its sought-after ales and continental lagers, home-made pies and live music and comedy. Home and sensible away fans welcome.
Halfway up to Hillsborough Interchange, the Queens Ground Hotel is cosy and friendly.
Right by Hillsborough Interchange, The Rawson Spring is a Wetherspoons set in a Victorian swimming baths while just over the river, the Hillsborough Tap specialises in cask ales and world beers. There’s TV sport, decent food and live music/DJs too.