Now that the dust has settled, and the pain is less raw, the overwhelming feeling is one of pride. We fell agonisingly short, but the season has been remarkable and Monday night was such an incredible occasion that it would be remiss of me, not to commit it to words.
As a defence mechanism, I think a lot of Albion fans were approaching the game with the mind-set that success was beyond us, but we would treat it as a celebration of the season. The events of Friday night had killed us – yet more outrageous misfortune decimating the side and leaving the proverbial mountain to climb – with half of our best climbers watching from the side-lines.
But then – a glimmer. A text from a trusted source – “Knockaert fit”. Surely not? The little magician had been stretchered off the field 70 hours ago, in huge and obvious pain – having bent his ankle double. Got to be a mistake.
Then another e-mail suggesting the same. Just maybe.
On arrival at the ground, word was out – the buzz akin to the rare days when glory be – Vicente had got out of the right side of the bed and declared himself fit to play. And not just ‘Knocky’ – Sidwell too had defied the odds and with the help of copious pain-killers, was also down to start. Suddenly the team didn’t look so threadbare – mission impossible, downgraded to mission improbable.
The Amex was alive – a crowd to a man, determined that if it wasn’t to be, we’d go down fighting. The deafening PA blared The Great Escape. The teams came out to 28,000 blue and white flags waving – to ‘Sussex by the Sea’ positively bellowed out, like rarely before. The artificial noise of the PA gave way to the organic roars as the game kicked off.
The referee might have fired a starter’s pistol, rather than blowing on his whistle – such was the intent with which the Albion flew at a startled Wednesday. What was to follow in the next 25 minutes was simply unbelievable. It felt like there were 15 men attacking the Owls’ goal. Within two minutes, a dream start was denied only by desperate last ditch blocks. Chance after chance after chance. Knockaert, Wilson and Baldock tearing at the Wednesday back line who looked utterly shell-shocked – early bookings for two – resorting to stopping the tide by any means.
The noise was incredible. Unprecedented. So loud. The Wednesday fans were seemingly singing – at least they were jumping about and their mouths were open – but they might as well have been miming – they were on mute.
Knockaert was a man possessed – a man intent on turning this tie round by himself. On another, luckier, day he’d have achieved it. He was everywhere – down the line – into the box – at the full backs – the centre backs. He missed a big, big chance with a far post, close range header, it should be said, but we’ll forgive him that.
A series of free kicks on the edge of the box, as in turn the Frenchman, then Kayal, then Skalak, were crudely brought down. Knockaert stepped up – curled it over the wall and surely IN!? - 28,000 roars to aaahhs, as the ball defied the laws of physics – striking the inside of the right post, before somehow flying along the goal-line and out past the left post.
The next, from the same spot – as he looked to line up the same top corner – the wall jumped to block – only for Knockaert to cleverly side-foot it under their feet. A little more pace and it would have been in, but (the excellent) Westwood scrambled across in time – puffing out his cheeks as he lay clutching the ball.
The onslaught was constant – Wednesday, rabbits in the Albion headlamps, had barely touched the ball, as pressure rained down on them. Surely, they’d crack? Baldock turned his man on the edge, shot first time, excellent tip over from Westwood.
Another desperate lunge, another free kick, down the side of the box. Knockaert swung it in at pace – Bruno got the tiniest flick on with his bald head – and finally - finally it’s in! Lewis Dunk from a couple of feet out, volleying into the roof of the net. An absolute explosion of noise. The Amex erupted. Belief poured from the stands – not that we COULD pull this off – but that it WAS going to happen. At that moment it felt like we were unstoppable – I for one felt it with absolutely certainty.
The Albion continued to sweep forward. Owls’ fans silenced. The North chanted “You’re shitting your pants, you’re shitting you’re pants, Sheffield Wednesday…” And they absolutely were.
And then, from nothing – from absolutely nothing, a massive spanner in the works. A Wednesday equaliser – not even a shot at goal – a cross fortuitously drifting in at the far post after a clear foul on Dunk had prevented him heading it away. Let down by the officials again. Yet again. You could scarcely write it. The linesman certainly saw it on the big screen replay, but wasn’t empowered to, or prepared to act on it. Dunk furious. It doesn’t ‘even out’, it really, really doesn’t.
As the protests continued, Beram Kayal gestured to the stands, imploring us to stay with them – to keep going. We can still do this.
Back to onslaught – big chance for James Wilson, taking Kayal’s square ball brilliantly in his stride, but his low poke well saved. Another free kick - Jiri Skalak whipping over the wall and brushing the bar. Then a huge scramble from a corner, not once, but twice hacked off the line. Parity in the score-line at half time massively flattering to the visitors, after a Championship record 17 shots at their goal, yet incredibly they might have been ahead – the last action of the half, a quick breakaway – a free header for Hooper from 8 yards, spectacularly saved by Stockdale.
A chance for the crowd to recover their breath. For the Albion medical staff to patch up wounds, apply more strapping, and administer more pain killers. For the Wednesday team to count their blessings.
In truth, the break did the Albion no favours – after another flurry of half-chances early in the second half, the tempo inevitably began to drop. The 12 day break for Wednesday’s first team now looking very important, as the efforts of the last two weeks began to tell. Referee Mr East was busy with his cards as the game became more frantic, more scrappy – yellows for Hutchinson for fouling Kayal, and for the unfortunate Hunt – the fall guy for his side’s collective time-wasting. Yellows for Kayal and Knockaert, both for cynically bringing down the breaking Forestieri. Kayal lucky moments later, not to receive a second for a lunge.
Chris Hughton’s last throw of the dice was to push Dunk up front, Rosenior on for Greer to add some pace to the numerically challenged defence. Dunk showed willing, but in truth the desperate long balls were succour to Loovens, who could head them away all night.
Another break away – another foul – another yellow – Bruno this time, on Helan. Then one last chance for the Seagulls, Dunk’s low drive beaten out by Wednesday’s hero Westwood. In fairness to the away side, from their perspective they were all heroes – it wasn’t pretty or controlled or comfortable, and involved a huge slice of luck or two, but they somehow withstood the first half pressure. Many teams wouldn’t have, so much credit to them.
They now look forward to Wembley, whilst the Albion are left to pick themselves up. The players were visibly devastated at the end – most prone – many in tears. It was horrible to witness, but somehow uplifting too – to see that they care as much as we do. It hurts, but it should hurt. The two captains, Bruno and Greer inconsolable. Rosenior in bits. Skalak distraught – then consoled by his compatriot Pudil. Stockdale roaming the pitch dragging team-mates up. Then a response from the crowd – a huge and warm show of appreciation.
This is a very special Albion squad. They just fell short of their goal – just failed to realise our collective dream – but all Albion fans should be hugely proud of their efforts.
Thank you for reading. Until next time…