Sheffield Wednesday somehow create history but their ultimate job is still only half-done
In coming from four goals down to beat Peterborough in the League One play-off semi-final, Sheffield Wednesday have created a little piece of history.
This probably wasn’t the Fergie Time that Peterborough United supporters had been hoping for. Beyond the minimum six minutes of stoppage-time at Hillsborough – there may be a lesson to be learned about time-wasting there – they were hanging on in a way that they probably shouldn’t have been. Their 4-0 lead from the first leg had been nearly completely chipped away, and Sheffield Wednesday scented blood.
It was, if you haven’t seen it, exactly what you’d expect a last-minute equaliser in a play-off semi-final to look like: a last throw of the dice of a cross swung diagonally into the penalty area; a header back across goal; a flurry of legs three yards out; a Wednesday limb sticking out and prodding the ball over the line to bring them level; absolute unrestrained delirium at what had been achieved.
And the drama wasn’t done yet. In the dying seconds of the first period of extra-time an own goal edged Peterborough back into the lead, only for Wednesday to haul themselves level again with seven minutes left to play. One 4-0 win and one 5-1 win, yet these two teams ended up in front of the Hillsborough Kop in a penalty shootout.
Seasoned Wednesday watchers were already fully aware that any narrative of their team inevitably winning this shootout could end up seriously misplaced. The club have, in recent years, made something of a habit of pulling defeat from the jaws of victory. But on this occasion, they held their nerve. Peterborough missed one, their second kick thudding off the middle of the crossbar and high into the air. Wednesday’s five penalties were all perfect. With the final kick, there was a joyful pitch invasion. Manager Darren Moore was quick to try to remind everybody that they’re only halfway there.
To come from four goals down to win a play-off match is completely unprecedented in the history of the EFL, with the previous record deficit having been two. It’s not difficult to have some degree of sympathy for Peterborough supporters who were surely as certain that they’d won the tie with their first-leg performance as Wednesday supporters may have been that they lost it with theirs.
But there was something of a feeling of natural justice being served by Wednesday prevailing. After all, they’d finished their regular league season with 96 points, edged out of the automatic promotion places by the big-spending Ipswich Town and the extraordinary Plymouth Argyle. They’d finished 19 points ahead of Peterborough over the course of a season and while we all know that, well, this isn’t how play-offs work, there does seem to have been something of a collective sigh of relief that Wednesday got over this line. Wembley now awaits.
Of course, it also helps a club’s popularity when their manager is Moore. One of the most likeable people in the professional game, Moore has had his share of tough times. His second gig as a player came at Doncaster Rovers, where he arrived just days after – as things turned out – goons hired by chairman Ken Richardson burned down the main stand at Belle Vue with persistent rumours that the chairman – who would end up in prison over this – was picking the team.
Moore stayed two years as Doncaster collapsed into chaos around him, and it says something for his strength of character that he would go on to have a successful playing career, including Premier League football with West Bromwich Albion, after having been subjected to mid-1990s vintage Doncaster Rovers for two years.
As recently as April 2021, he was fighting for his life after developing complications from Covid-19, including pneumonia and blood clots on his lungs. After the first-leg defeat in this match, he received some pretty vile racist abuse on social media. There’s a spine of steel behind that gap-toothed grin.
And he has his perfect representative on the pitch in captain Barry Bannan, who’s been at Hillsborough for eight years now and matured into a captain and outstanding role model for the team’s young players, a tireless worker and motivator whose obvious affection for the club might have kept him at Sheffield Wednesday when careerism could have seen him return to the Premier League. He had been there before with Aston Villa and Crystal Palace, but you don’t stay at a club through relegation and defeat in the play-offs unless you care deeply about them. This particular evening belonged as much to him as it did to Moore.
It bears repeating that the job is not done yet. Sheffield Wednesday still have to beat either Barnsley or Bolton Wanderers at Wembley if they’re to return to the Championship. Complacency would be just about the worst thing for them and the end of the season still has the capacity to end in heartbreak. But the flip-side of that is momentum, and whatever they lost of that from missing out on automatic promotion by a single point and then losing their first play-off match in such a horrific manner might have returned with the way in which they came back.
When Sheffield Wednesday missed out in the play-offs at the end of last season, it felt as though the urgency surrounding their need to get out of League One was growing. The next set of company accounts are due in just over a month – and these will cover the 2021/22 season, regardless – but it has felt for much of this season that Sheffield Wednesday have been starting to turn things around. Even though they couldn’t make that extra step to automatic promotion, their performance on the pitch was demonstrably better and this was reflected in a rise of attendances from an average of 22,908 last time around to 25,647 this season.
The Championship isn’t Shangri-La. Getting back there wouldn’t fix the issues that Sheffield Wednesday have had over a period of years. But reaching the final of the play-offs is a step in the right direction, and to have done so in the way that they did may be considered the same. And regardless of what happens in the future, Sheffield Wednesday supporters have already had a night that few of them are likely to forget. Their job may only be half-done, but at least they have that forever.
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