FOR a player who has featured for most of his career in the lower leagues, matches like last Monday’s FA Cup encounter at Hillsborough do not come around very often for Giles Coke.
The Sheffield Wednesday midfielder, who appeared for the likes of Northampton Town and Mansfield Town before his move to the Owls, cut an ashen-faced figure at full-time after the South Yorkshire club lost their equivalent of a winning raffle ticket.
Monday’s 2-1 fifth-round home loss to Charlton snatched away the prospective prize of a Steel City derby and the chance to book a place at Wembley in the semi-finals.
It was another blow for fans who have been kicked in the teeth innumerable times in recent history.
While Wednesdayites picked up the pieces of a desperate episode on Tuesday morning, so did the players, with the likes of Coke – who readily admits he had a stinker – left to reflect on what might have been in a week which promised so much.
He said: “I think throughout my career, Monday was my biggest disappointment because it was the biggest game I’ve played in.
“I am not happy with how I played, so to play quite poorly in a big game like that really did hurt me; I was still thinking about it two days on. Like Stu (Gray) said, we might not ever get an opportunity like that again.
“I wanted it so much and maybe because of that, it affected my game. I am coming out with excuses, but I really wanted to win.
“But everyone was disappointed, not just me. There was a nervousness about us because of how big a game it was – we didn’t deserve to win, to be honest.
“It meant a lot to the fans, but we wanted it just as much as them.”
Wednesday face their third game in a week today, which will represent not just a test of their stamina, but also mental resolve.
The game may appear a run-of-the-mill Championship fixture, with both sides holding a comfortable points buffer over the sides currently entrenched in the relegation dogfight, but there remain incentives for both.
Middlesbrough are without a goal in 10 and a quarter hours and are desperate to rid themselves of that damning statistic, while the Owls are mindful that they can move within a point of the mid-table Teesside club with victory.
Given Wednesday’s horrific first half of the season, a mid-table finish would represent a wholly admirable achievement, according to Coke, especially when not so long ago their sights were firmly focused on those down among the dead men.
Coke added: “Monday’s gone now and there’s nothing to dwell on and we’ve got to look forward. It wasn’t meant to be, it’s gone, we must clear our minds and move on.
“We didn’t perform on Monday, but no one can take away how we have been doing in the league. We have been playing really well and I am confident we will take that into Saturday.
“It’s nice to have a nine-point gap (above the relegation positions) now. Three months ago, it wasn’t so nice. But you know how this league can change; you can lose two or three and you are back in it.
“But we aren’t really looking at the bottom but the top, and want to get as many points as we can from now until the end of the season.
“To finish in the top half of the table would be a very good achievement given where we were at the start of the season.”
Coke may have endured a bit of a mixed spell in the past month following his sending-off against Millwall at the end of January, but in the bigger picture he cuts a figure of contentment and stability at S6 under a manager who has been manifestly good for his career in Stuart Gray.
The perception of the quietly-spoken but determined Yorkshireman is that he is very much a “player’s man”, much more at home on the training ground improving his charges than stuck in the office by the phone concerning himself with the side-issues of management.
The clue is probably in his job title of head coach and Coke, for one, is thankful for the impact Gray has had – and is having – on his career.
Coke said: “To be honest, I’ve always had the utmost respect for Stu. He’s brought my career on and made me a better player when he signed me at Northampton. I have grown under him and I know how he works and he knows what my strengths and weaknesses are.
“He has played a big part in my career.”
That future for Wednesday will not. unfortunately. include Connor Wickham, whose return to Yorkshire has come up the M1 at Leeds and not, as many south of the border were hoping, at Hillsborough.
That unwelcome news may have compounded the blow of Monday’s cup loss, but Coke is confident the Owls possess plenty of other attacking options.
The club did at least “add” another forward this week in the shape of Gary Madine following his release from prison, and Coke feels that opportunity knocks for others in Wickham’s absence.
He said: “Anyone in this league would want Connor Wickham. He’s a great striker and proven in this league and we will miss him.
“But at the end of the day, he’s not here and has gone to Leeds and we’ve got Leon Best, another proven striker, so hopefully he can do what Connor did and score us goals.
“Even though we have missed Connor recently because of his goals, you can see it hasn’t affected us. We are still confident, playing well and scoring.
“Gary is also now back and a very good player; he’s obviously been away for ‘X’ amount of time, so needs to get his fitness and confidence back. But I have no doubt when he’s fit, he will play a big part in this team.
“Gary is a good player with a good touch and I am sure he will get things back really quick.”