PETER ATHERTON can only shake his head in disbelief at the way things have gone downhill for his old club Sheffield Wednesday.
Tomorrow, for the first time in 11 years, however, the Owls are involved in the fifth round of the FA Cup – and against another of his former clubs, Birmingham City.
Atherton, who spent six years at Hillsborough before joining Bradford City, was club captain when the Owls waved farewell to the Premier League in 2000.
He also played in that last fifth round tie – when a side brimming with highly-paid internationals, suffered a shock 3-1 defeat away at third tier Gillingham.
Every statistic tells its own story and the Owls have been a club in decline for the majority of the time since that game.
Tomorrow’s trip to St Andrews offers the possibility of another Cup upset but, unfortunately for the Owls, the roles are now reversed and it is they who are playing ‘David’ to Birmingham’s ‘Goliath’.
Atherton, who retired from football two years ago, manages a health club in his native Wigan but still keeps a close eye on events at Hillsborough and believes things are about to improve under new owner Milan Mandaric and manager Gary Megson.
“There have been some tough times at Wednesday over the last few years and a club of that stature should not be down in League One,” he said. “But the signs are there now that they could be ready to bounce back.
“When we got relegated it was one of my biggest disappointments in football. I still remember the feeling as we drove home from a game at Arsenal which had been billed as ‘D-Day.’ It was awful. To be fair, I don’t think we always got the results we deserved but, once you get on a bad run, it can sometimes be hard to stop the slide, no matter what you do.
“The FA Cup game at Gillingham was another bad afternoon and, looking back, it was probably my last chance to get anywhere near the final. I joined the club in 1994 so wasn’t around for the two finals in 1993 and we lost in the quarter-finals against Wimbledon three years earlier. We still had a lot of top quality players but, on the day, we were just not good enough.”
England internationals Des Walker and Andy Hinchcliffe, Dutch midfielder Wim Jonk, and Belgian striker Gilles De Bilde, a £3m summer signing from PSV Eindhoven, were among the various big names in the Owls side.
Manager Danny Wilson, who had invested heavily in a string of flops, was sacked soon afterwards and his replacement, Peter Shreeves, was unable to save the club from the drop.
Atherton started the subsequent season at newly-promoted Bradford yet finished it on loan at Birmingham where he was reunited with former Owls manager Trevor Francis. Initially, it was a move that offered great things, ultimately it ruined the rest of his career.
“The move to Birmingham was ‘political’, shall we say! I played every game for Bradford, until that stage, but I was still on my way. We reached the play-off semi-finals at Birmingham but it was against Preston that I got a major injury which ended my career.
“It was an innocuous challenge in the air with Sean Gregan and we both got hurt – I damaged my knee and it felt like my leg was hanging off – but in those days you just carried on regardless!”
Although Atherton extended his career for another five years at Bradford and Halifax Town, his knee required four operations and the defender was more often sidelined than not.
The Owls are regarded as 5-1 outsiders to win tomorrow’s tie by the bookmakers but Atherton says it would be wrong to rule out the possibility of a shock.
“We all know upsets can happen and the romance of the Cup is not always there now for some Premier League clubs. Both teams will be going into the game on the back of defeats but, importantly, there is absolutely no pressure on Sheffield Wednesday. Victory in a game like this can sometimes turn a season around. Hopefully, that will be the case.”