Ritchie Humphreys, David Pleat and the Sheffield Wednesday team that topped the Premier League 25 years ago
Some magnificent strikes were scored in that 1996-97 season, most notably Eric Cantona’s iconic chip against Sunderland, David Beckham’s audacious effort at Selhurst Park to announce his arrival and a sublime overhead kick by Trevor Sinclair in the colours of QPR.
Ritchie Humphreys’ effortless chip over Leicester City’s Kasey Keller in a 2-1 win for Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough on September 2, 1996, was another contribution of sheer beauty.
It followed a driving run with the vision displayed to lift the ball into the net showcasing technique of the highest order.
Unfathomably, it did not even make the BBC’s goal of the season shortlist on Match of the Day. Seemingly forgotten, a bit like the Owls’ start to that campaign.
After that aforesaid success over Leicester – played out in front of a televised audience – David Pleat’s Wednesday sat five points clear at the top after four successive league victories.
As most suspected – and Pleat was wise enough to admit himself – the Owls could not maintain that searing pace. But that late summer was a time that Wednesdayites of a certain vintage will fondly recall and given what has happened since, they would be forgiven for wallowing in a spot of nostalgia. Especially Humphreys.
A boyhood Sheffield United fan, Humphreys was born close to Bramall Lane and attended the Blades’ centre of excellence before crossing the Steel City divide at the age of 14.
Four years later, the raw teenager was handed a place in the Owls’ starting line-up for the home game with Aston Villa on the first weekend of the 1996-97 season, with Mark Bright and David Hirst sidelined due to injuries sustained in pre-season.
The faith of Pleat – keen to promote youth to reinvigorate a squad which he felt was getting slightly long in the tooth in some quarters – was soon justified.
A thumping first-time volley from Humphreys in front of the Kop put Wednesday on their way to a 2-1 success with Guy Whittingham’s pinpoint looping header following a fine cross from one of the Owls’ undoubted star turns of that season in Regi Blinker, doubling the hosts’ advantage en route to a victory that displayed immense promise.
But it was the performance of Humphreys which set tongues wagging. Later reflecting about the early-season impact of the tyro, Pleat, no mean judge of young footballers from his successful time at Luton Town, said: “Humphreys was a decent footballer. He had good control, he was good with his back to goal – broad-shouldered, strong for his age, so he could look after the ball.
“He didn’t worry about coming up against the more physical opponents and the one thing that held him back, and what stopped him from being a top centre forward, was his pace.
“If he’d been quicker, it would have given him half a chance. We took him on a pre-season tour of Holland and he scored a wonderful goal that (Marco) Van Basten would have been proud of, and then of course we started off like a bomb.”
After those Villa highs, an encore duly arrived up the M1 at Leeds United three days later when Wednesday triumphed 2-0 in the final throes of the reign of former Owls manager in Howard Wilkinson, a Sheffielder to boot.
It was a notable victory which moved Wednesday to the top of the table. And at a time when all the nationwide talk centred around Alan Shearer’s £15m switch to hometown club Newcastle United, two rather more unheralded forwards stole the limelight at Elland Road.
Humphreys’ dream time of it would continue when he put the Owls in front to silence home fans in the crowd of 31,011.
He was the beneficiary of an initial slip by Lee Bowyer, one of five debutants in the Leeds line-up. Blinker seized on the error and set up Humphreys, who finished calmly with an angled drive for his second goal in successive games.
A home side containing a thirty-something forward line in Mark Hateley and Ian Rush pushed for a leveller before Wednesday hit them with a sucker punch late on, with Blinker again being the architect.
His astute pass found Andy Booth, bought for £2.65m from Huddersfield Town that summer and the young striker scored his first Wednesday goal, on West Yorkshire soil, to turn up the heat on Wilkinson.
Booth was among two summer signings who started that night alongside former Crewe midfielder Wayne Collins. While the beauty was provided by Blinker especially, there was ballast in the likes of Peter Atherton, Mark Pembridge, Ian Nolan and Graham Hyde and class at the back, albeit in an ageing general in Des Walker.
An unused substitute that day was a Leeds and Owls legend in John Sheridan, who would depart that winter for Bolton, while Chris Waddle headed for pastures new in the autumn.
Wednesday’s next port of call, four days later, was St James’ Park, with the visitors spoiling the party in Alan Shearer’s first Saturday home appearance in the esteemed No 9 shirt. It started well enough for the hosts when Shearer – who had opened his account three days earlier against Wimbledon – paid back another small instalment of his massive transfer fee by netting a 13th-minute penalty following a debatable award.
The lead lasted all of two minutes with Atherton restoring parity by cashing in on wretched defending to head home.
A misplaced header from a future Owls player in Steve Watson header then gifted an 80th-minute winner for Whittingham and while Kevin Keegan was left to emotionally lament on Newcastle’s worst home performance under his watch, Pleat’s language was more prosaic. “A good base for the season,” he simply said.
A fourth straight win at the start of September against Leicester – headlined by that marvellous winner from Humphreys, who had switched to midfield to accommodate the returning Hirst – ensured that the headlines firmly belonged to those in blue and white.
And one figure especially in Humphreys.
He recalled: “I actually played in midfield that night, which is maybe why I ran the ball from inside my own half.
“If you watch it now, Hirsty’s asking for the ball the whole time, and normally a young player will just give it to the senior pro, but this time I just kept going.
“When I got near the goal I decided to try the chip. That’s youthfulness, that’s just playing without any fear.
“You’re not thinking about missing the chance and hearing the groans from the crowd. Obviously it worked out for me that night.”
It certainly did, Ritchie.
...only for the bubble to burst all too quickly
NOTHING lasts forever and in Sheffield Wednesday’s case, it did not in 1996-97.
Proudly sitting at the summit of the Premier League after four matches, the Owls welcomed Chelsea in their next game with Wednesdayites arriving with expectation among a crowd of 30,983.
After the game, the Owls would remain in first spot, but they were provided with food for thought in the process.
Chelsea eased to a 2-0 triumph thanks to goals in each half from Craig Burley and Andy Myers and the ease with which the Blues sauntered to victory suggested that Wednesday’s hold on top spot would be temporary.
David Pleat, sensing a silver lining amid defeat, said: “The good thing about this is that it will suppress the expectations of people who don’t really know about football on the periphery of the club.
“I’m disappointed, but there were bright things. You have to look at them on days like this.
“It will get better. They are young players who will learn. They haven’t been here eight years, played under three managers and seen it all before.”
Wednesday ended the season in seventh spot, while reaching the quarter-finals of the FA Cup.
A big highlight came in December when they won 1-0 at Anfield.