Regular readers will know I eschew romance. While Daniel Storey sobs at the sight of the City Ground, the sound of an emotional Geordie and videos of tiny kittens, I remain impassive. Don’t talk to me of fairytales and romance, of footballers working in factories or old men who have seen every game at Upton Park since 1923. But there’s something about Sheffield Wednesday and Hillsborough that does funny things to my iron stomach and dry eyes.
It helps that the Owls hail from Yorkshire but not West Yorkshire. It helps that they play in blue-and-white stripes. It helps that they served the most wonderful homemade pie to the press, asked for a pound for a children’s charity and did not discourage second helpings. It helps that the vision of Chris Waddle jinking with ball at feet is never far away. They’re the perfect soft spot for the ageing, greedy Huddersfield Town fan.
The name of Wednesday’s stadium has become synonymous with tragedy, injustice and grief, and yet it is also uplifting in its old-fashioned, run-down simplicity. Name me another stadium wedged between a park and terraced housing, by the side of a busy dual carriageway. Name me another stadium with a weird little corner stand that looks like my toddler has been let loose with Lego. I love Hillsborough in a way that I can never truly love the McAlpine/Galpharm/John Smiths Stadium. Even on duty as a journalist, I bounced almost imperceptibly in my seat in fear that I would be mistaken for a Blade.
In ten seasons of covering largely Championship games for the Daily Mirror, I relished my trips to Wednesday above any other, outside the near-naughty thrill of being paid to watch my own team. For obvious reasons I loathed trips to Elland Road, never warmed to Bramall Lane and cursed long-distance trips to Middlesbrough, Sunderland, Hull, Derby and any other soul-free stadium at the end of a motorway.
Looking at the line-up for the Championship play-offs, it’s Friday’s opener between Wednesday and Brighton that captures the imagination. Nobody outside of Hull can care a jot for Hull, especially Steve Bruce’s Hull, while fanciful talk of ‘the Derby way’ and a squad so expensively assembled that Darren Bent, Andreas Weimann and Jacob Butterfield are often on the bench, make it difficult to warm to the Rams. Compare the prospect of a Saturday lunchtime at Pride Park to Friday night at a sold-out Hillsborough and there really is no competition.
I have no beef with Brighton but they seem such a long way away from Huddersfield that they may as well be in France. Although it’s been 33 years since the Seagulls were in the top flight, memories of Chris Hughton and his well-meaning dullness are sharp enough to edge me closer to Sheffield Wednesday and a manager who regularly tweets blue hearts to the Owls faithful. Blue hearts. Now that’s what I call romance.
Emotion permeates the club, from chairman Dejphon Chansiri talking about the club’s “unbelievable supporters” and looking genuinely moved during a lap of honour, to striker Fernando Forestieri admitting that he sometimes goes home after a match and cries tears of joy; he is 26 but has already spoken about ending his career at the club. We’re petty sure he never said that about Watford; there’s simply something about Wednesday.
Twelve years ago, Sheffield Wednesday finished 16th in League One and still boasted an average attendance of over 22,000. As we prepare to lose at least one proper old club with a proper old ground from the Premier League, it would be lovely to gain another. And if I squint, I can pretend they’re the Terriers.