The end of any season is a time for reflection, but after the physical and emotional trauma of the first half of 2020, this season more than most we need to take stock of where we are, not just as a game but as fans.
Players come from across the globe to grace England’s top leagues, but when fans shout from the sidelines, they may not give much consideration to the struggles those players have faced in their past.
I don’t think football fans often look beyond the name and number on the shirt to see what made the man they see before them – but I strongly believe they should.
Atdhe Nuhiu is the Kosovan international who has left Sheffield Wednesday almost seven years to the day after he signed on a free transfer from Rapid Wien, and just days before his 31st birthday.
As a lifelong Sheffield Wednesday supporter, Nuhiu personifies what I love in a player. Hard-working, full of personality and unpredictable enough that his performances are never boring. Despite all these positives and the love he receives from some fans, I have been horrified at the abuse he suffered at times from fans in the ground and on social media. Win or lose, I want a team full of heart and that’s something Nuhiu has always brought to the squad.
I was lucky enough to interview Nuhiu in January, just before the UK went into COVID19 lockdown, for my book Get Your Head In The Game, which examines the intersection between football and mental health. When the interview took place, I had no idea Nuhiu was going to be released just months later, with his last appearance coming in an empty stadium on a dreary Wednesday night in July.
— George Smith (@_GeorgeSmith99) July 22, 2020
I had travelled from my home in Edinburgh to meet him in Sheffield: a footballer who escaped from a war zone as a child. I wanted to ask him – given all he’d experienced – what impact it had on him when fans booed from the stands.
I had arrived early at Sheffield Wednesday’s Middlewood Road training ground for the interview and, as I was fumbling in my bag for my dictaphone while waiting for Nuhiu in the club’s training dome, I heard a gruff “hello, Dominic?” from behind me.
I turned and felt minuscule as the 6’5″ of Atdhe Nuhiu towered over me, his smile seemingly brighter than the sun.
We shook hands and sat down. Nuhiu stretched his legs out, having just come straight from the training pitch.
He had a composure about him that unnerved me at first. He is extremely comfortable in his own skin, but I suppose that’s what you would expect from one of the highest-scoring and most-capped players for his country. It’s what you’d expect from a man who was born into a country at war. A man who forged – through sheer grit and hard work – a football career that has taken him from the streets of Austria, the country to which his family fled, to the brink of European Championship qualification with the country of his birth: Kosovo.
“Being a footballer means everything to me,” he told me. “When you come from a different country and have to settle down in another, it’s not easy. My parents had to work very hard in Austria to keep our family happy and it wasn’t always a nice time.
“They wanted me to be good at school, but it worked out with football and it has given us all so much. I couldn’t have done it without my family. My mum had two jobs. My dad had two jobs. They worked so hard just to make sure we had anything we needed. That’s something I can never pay back with money. I couldn’t have done anything without them, and I want to pay them back with my achievements.”
The Kosovan War, which began in February 1998 and ended in June 1999, was the fourth war in a decade in the Balkan region. First Slovenia, then Croatia, followed by Bosnia, and finally Kosovo fought for and won their freedom from Yugoslavia.
Before the war Kosovo was an autonomous province of Serbia. In 1989, Serbian President Slobodan Milošević looked to reduce the region’s power and began the oppression of the country’s Albanian population. In the turbulent years that followed, the Serbian Government continued to try and crush the populace, despite them voting for independence and declaring the birth of the Republic of Kosova.
Once the world could clearly see the ethnic cleansing and genocide that was happening in the region, military action was taken by NATO and the Kosovan Liberation Army. Despite this – and even after winning the war – Kosovo only became an independent nation in 2008.
“What happened to Kosovo was so terrible,” said Nuhiu. “My family, we escaped the country. Not all of my family could. It was 20 years ago now though, we are moving forward and I am happy to be a part of that.”
At only 30 years of age, Nuhiu is the second-oldest player ever to pull on a Kosovan national team shirt after captain Samir Ujkani, who is 32. This really demonstrates the newness of the country he represents.
The first Kosovan squads after independence comprised of players who were plying their trade in the major leagues of Europe, however – as a testament to how far they have come – many of the squad are now playing in the Football Superleague of Kosovo.
That journey through the domestic leagues wasn’t something Nuhiu could do himself though, as by the time he would have reached the age where he could sign for a club, he was already exiled in Austria.
“I signed for FC Wels and played in the second team and I scored a lot of goals. I was 16 but I did well and the first team manager invited me to play for the first team. It took a while, but when I was 17 I started scoring goals there too.”
Nuhiu scored on his debut for Kosovo as the team lost 2-1 to Iceland in a World Cup qualifier in 2017. The shirt he wore that day was more than cloth around his skin, it was a symbol of positivity.
“Pulling the on shirt for the national team is different. You can’t explain how it feels. There was so much going on for the people of Kosovo, they never thought they would see the day where their flag was on a shirt and their boys would run onto a football pitch. They never thought they’d hear their anthem. It is a lot of pressure.
“Who could have imagined that Kosovo would ever be in with a chance to go to the European Championship?”
Nuhui is right to ponder this question. If Kosovo qualify for Euro 2020 – now postponed until 2021 – then they’ll be the joint second smallest nation, with a population of only 1.8 million, to qualify for the tournament. In comparison, Iceland had a population of 330,000 when they qualified for Euro 2016, but that nation had not been in the midst of a devastating war less than 20 years earlier.
“You can’t buy the fight and the passion we feel as Kosovans,” Nuhiu told me. “To make the people proud is incredible. That makes us so hungry, we want to give it everything every time we step onto the pitch.”
I was at Nuhiu’s Sheffield Wednesday debut, and I saw him take on four QPR players and slam the ball home in the bottom corner from twenty yards out a mere 19 minutes into the match. 50 goals, countless assists, and so many happy memories later, he is gone.
He has been a special player for a club that is perennially down on its luck, there is no doubt about that. But over the years he has had unfair treatment from fans who neglect to see his wider game and only focus on his goal tally. Thankfully, this doesn’t seem to bother him.
“Most of the fans know what I am about, so what I can do? I know what I can do, and I know I can’t please everybody.
“I have been at this club for seven years and I have played for eight managers. All of them have given me a new contract, so they must see something in me. None of them have kept me here to do me a favour, I could go and play anywhere, but I want to play here, and those managers see what I offer the club.”
As Nuhiu begins to speak about his time at Hillsborough, he noticeably perks up.
“The fans with a football understanding know that deep down too. Even if I have a bad day, they know what I bring to the club. I must be doing something right, and the fans know that. The fans who see that are the ones who really support the club, who love the club so much, and I give everything for them. I promise. Every time I wear the shirt, I give it all for them.
“Sheffield Wednesday is my club but I know in football, whatever you’ve done before the game you’re playing in doesn’t matter. I know that every time I go onto the pitch the fans expect me to prove I am worthy of being a Sheffield Wednesday player.”
As we talk, there is one thing that Nuhiu keeps on coming back to, and that is what he wants to give to the fans – even the ones who give him hell from the terraces.
“I do it for them, the fans. I can’t please them all, but I give my all for all of them. If they want someone who can be a hero every week, then they should go and watch Messi. He’s quite good I’ve heard.
“When you sign for a big club like Wednesday you have to know what you’re getting into. The first time I signed for a big club, I signed for Rapid Wien in Austria. Their fans were brutal. I had to do well straight away with no time to learn. I had to do it. I had to be ready.”
My time with Nuhiu showed me that he understood that. He started playing at a high level too young to have really been a fan to the degree that those who spend their lives on terraces are – but after years of playing, he gets it. He’s seen the joy. He’s seen the agony.
It is vital, for the future of football, to understand the players on the pitch. Our community has always thrived on storytelling, so as more and more players make themselves accessible on social media, as their Insta stories bring their days to life beyond the pitch, we should watch and listen.
Some of them will come from loving homes, some not. Some will have escaped tragedy and war, others not. But by knowing their stories, we can relate to them, forget about the financial divide between us, and just enjoy the football.
“I’m a human being and I put on the shirt that means so much to so many people and I give it my best,” Nuhiu says. “The world-class players wear every shirt easily, but most of us players have to research the club, learn about why the shirt matters to the fans, and then play our best to give fans a good time.
“Some fans will choose to be unhappy. The same Sheffield Wednesday fans who were unhappy when we were in league one will be unhappy when we’re in the championship playing in a better league, and if we get to the Premier League, they will still be unhappy. Wherever you go, whatever club, you will always have those people.
“I love it when I hear fans kill their throats for 90 minutes singing. I want to stadium to rock with the sound of the fans. It helps us. If I don’t win for you, then you will boo me, and if I win for you, you will cheer me. I will always accept it and I always love your support.
“Being a fan is about making the stadium our home. It’s about making the opposition scared to be on the pitch at Hillsborough. That’s what being a fan is. When we play away too, oh, the noise.” Nuhui leaned back in his chair, put his hands to his face – which only served to frame his grin. “Man, it’s like nothing I have ever heard anywhere in the world. It’s amazing the atmosphere. Always.”
“I haven’t regretted a minute of my time here,” Nuhiu says as our time together comes to a close. “It’s not all been positive, but I have been part of this club for a long time. I try to repay everyone for the opportunities I’ve had every day in training and every time I step onto the pitch.”
We don’t need to give footballers who have had tough lives an easy pass, but we should treat them – like we should all footballers, and indeed everyone – with respect.
We know that each member of our team is someone with the ability to make us fans infinitely happy with the kick of a ball. We love them, we cheer for them, and in return they’ll do all they can to bring us victory, wherever they’ve come from, whatever they’ve experienced.
“No matter what anyone says, what no one can change is my heart and my passion for the club,” Nuhiu says. “I love Sheffield Wednesday so much. That’s something no one can buy, and it’s something no one can ever take away from me. This is my club.”
Dominic Stevenson – follow him on Twitter
Dominic Stevenson is an author and football writer. His first book, Get Your Head In The Game, examines the intersection between football and mental health and is published in the UK and US in December 2020 with Watkins Publishing. Buy it here.