Those of a sensitive disposition, look away now. Go make a cup of camomile and read something less traumatic than FGR’s latest outing, maybe Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or a cheery bit of Frank McCourt. Still here? Well, don’t say you weren’t warned.
Our adventure in Sheffield begins in the red light district, or at least it feels that way if you attempt to slice some of the M1’s meandering from the map and spear into this great northern city’s underbelly by the more direct A6135. On the map, it’s dead simple: a straight line cutting north-west, pointing direct to Hillsborough. Except that ahead lie a forest of red lights that are only rarely and begrudgingly green. Couple this with the fact that Hillsborough signage has either been nicked or forbidden by some council edict to ensure anyone following a crow’s flightpath gets lost and you have a navigational headache that’s more than unwelcome for anyone who’s been driving since 7am.
For many reasons though, you had to be there. I mean, it’s Hillsborough. That sacred shrine of our footballing heritage, that home of illustrious Sheffield Wednesday – and our first big (as in upper case) away test now that we’re all grown up and swinging it with the heavyweights.
If, however, you’ve not been intently watching FGR’s progress in this new season (and that includes those hiding their eyes behind their fingers), you may be unaware that we’ve been having a tricky start: six goals conceded in the last two games, plus a match postponed, thus ensuring our vital stats in the EFL table of doom nudge us ever closer below the dotted line that marks relegation death.
Granted such table analysis is highly academic so early the season and, in truth, there are some smug clubs strutting their stuff at the top who inevitably, God helping, will come unstuck. But checking table status is like weighing yourself after every meal: mindless self-absorption yet justifiable if you wish to avert walking past the mirror any day soon and wondering who the hell that fat bloke is.
Speaking of burning calories, we offset the long journey’s stodge with some brisk walking, the aim being to hit the away stand turnstiles at Hillsborough in reasonable time to savour the buildup to the show. Too brisk a pace though and you might risk tripping on litter.
The side street I parked in, barely out of the shadow of Hillsborough’s lofty outline, was a fetid lasagne of take-away trays, cans, vaping canisters, dog droppings and discarded car parts. From there, things barely improved. Sheffield’s pride in this club doesn’t seem to extend as far as making the area around it tidy. If the city wants to keep it like this to daunt visitors, it works: as we got closer, my son kept his away shirt covered and even insisted I hide my lapel badge.
If we were heavily outnumbered as visitors for Lincoln’s recent game, here we were mere haemoglobin in the pulsing veins of SWFC. Such interloper anxiety was probably misplaced: as all interaction with locals proved, they’re as warm and welcoming a people as you could wish to meet. Except the few thousand inside. As the match finally got under way and Forest Green’s net began a series of stress tests that threatened to wear it out, I can’t say that the sweaty torsoed gentleman who led a mob of jeering gesticulators to endless barracking of our little fanbase was doing much to enhance our enjoyment of the game. I presume he doesn’t work for Visit Sheffield.
By half time, we’d stomached four. That’s ten goals, then, if you must use the word, in three games, and the gift of clean sheets for all three teams we’ve played. The good news, however, was that we fought back a bit more in the second half, reinforcement finally arriving near the hour with Regan Hendry, Josh March and Oliver Casey. Along with Armani Little and Jacob Jones eventually being brought on, that helped stem the blood loss to just one more. Most of this play I witnessed, though not all: sadly I can concur with a litany of one-star Tripadvisor reports that suggest Hillsborough has contempt for visiting fans.
I queued for 20 minutes at half time in a forlorn concrete underpass beneath the west stand, watching the small snack hatch ahead of me serve frustrated fans, I have only one request for this club: give us hell on the pitch, but at least sort out your broken hospitality. Behind me, in the queue, Dale Vince loitered without complaint; maybe he was consoled by the realisation that, for visiting fan hospitality, Nailsworth knocks Sheffield into the back of the net?
Predicted or not, the drive home was long, albeit less winding than the road ahead for our team. Before the signal faded, I heard BBC Sheffield declare how the Owls had felled the Forest this afternoon. A garden shredder would have been my metaphor of choice. But we’ve been chewed up before, and despite this being a faceplant on the loftiest peaks we’ve ever reached, only a fool would be so hasty as to start penning a League One obit.
We do not, as our fans today vocally informed the Wednesday throng, only sing when we’re winning. So with lessons learned, I hope, it’s upwards and onwards. Forests can be felled, but they always regrow.