My Hero No. 4: Chris Waddle

My Hero No. 4: Chris Waddle

I’ve written a few articles and reports for Owlsalive over the past 5 years but I’m feeling the pressure of this one. When Steve asked me a while ago to write an article for the My Hero series there was only one person I wanted to write it about. But I’m extremely conscious that this will be many others’ hero too, so I hope I can do the great man justice.

As a 30 year old Wednesdayite I’ve seen enough ups and downs to fill many football fans’ lifetimes. I feel I can confidently contribute to debates about the best and worst players to ever play for the team, as we have had many of both in the last 20 years. But the one that will always be ‘the best’ in my opinion remains the same, and I suspect he always will be.

Chris Waddle.

The thing is, despite my age and (alleged) maturity, the mere mention of his name makes me get a school-boy like tingle of excitement. Adults aren’t supposed to have ‘favourite players’ like kids are, but he will always be mine. The way he entertained, engaged with and embraced the Wednesday support in the 4 years he was with us was a joy to watch.He signed for us in the summer of 1992, after our first season back in the top flight had resulted in us finishing in 3rd place and qualifying for the UEFA Cup.

Trevor Francis knew he needed to sign players to boost that European challenge and to try to move us onto the next level and that signalled the arrival of Waddle. We paid £1 million to bring him back to England from Marseille, where he had won 3 French titles in the 3 seasons he’d been there, as well as reaching a European Cup Final.

There’s no doubting, this was a huge signing and a real coup for the club.
For a 12 year old like me it was exciting but I really didn’t know much about Waddle. I knew he played for England but the penalty miss in the World Cup was the only real reason I knew that. But lots of teams were interested in him and for us to pay £1 million for anyone was a huge thing, so there was a real sense of anticipation about his arrival.

His impact was almost immediate: his skill on the ball, comfort on either foot and dazzling wing play made him a huge favourite straight away. You just don’t get wingers like Waddle anymore – in fact I’m not sure you ever did. He was a one off.

He wouldn’t beat his man with pure pace, or with pure skill or with guile or by picking a pass. He wouldn’t go outside, or inside. He didn’t hug the touchline or drift infield. He wouldn’t use step-overs or drops of the shoulder. He would use all of the above.

Full backs would come off the pitch after facing Waddle with twisted blood after trying to stop him. No-one knew what he would do next. And it was amazing to see him doing that in a Wednesday shirt. It was like he was addicted to taking players on.

Sometimes he would beat a man, look up, see nothing on, and then go back and beat the same man again just for fun. He would drop his shoulder one way and the other, step over the ball 3, 4, 5, 6 times before touching it. He would play a 60 yard pass onto a sixpence, swing perfect dead ball deliveries in from both sides and hit fierce shots in from all angles.

Waddle played 147 times over 4 seasons for The Owls. Looking at his SWFC career stats, the 15 goals he scored seems so low, but the hand he had in so many is probably not possible to count. That team we had in 1993 was the best I’ve seen at S6 and alongside Sheridan, Hirst, Nilsson etc Waddle made us not only one of the best, but most exciting to watch teams in the country.

Waddle won the Football Writers Player of the Year award in that first season, a huge achievement and the only SWFC player to ever win it. For some reason he wasn’t good enough to get back into the England team under Graham Taylor and there was a nationwide campaign to get him back in at this time. But maybe England’s loss was Wednesday’s gain – he was all ours.

Everyone who saw him play will have their own favourite memories of him. For most the free kick against Sheffield United in the FA Cup semi-final will be the single defining moment of his SWFC career (it really should have been 10-1). Many will talk of Saturday December 18th, 1994 – “The Waddle Game” against West Ham. We won 5-0, Waddle ran the game and must have given David Burrows nightmares for months afterwards. But in truth that game was just one where everything clicked at once for Waddle – it was far from an isolated match in that respect. Others that stand out are a 3-1 home win over Everton, where he scored his first league goal for the club, the cup games against Spora Luxembourg (h), Derby County (a), Blackburn Rovers (a) in that famous first season, and the winning goal at Leeds in 1995.

One of my favourite moments was when we played Man Utd at home in the league and they had a young winger called Ryan Giggs on their left wing. There was one moment when Waddle turned him inside out, once, twice and then again, leaving Giggs on the floor. A few minutes later, if I remember correctly, Giggs managed to skin Waddle in return. The apprentice learning from the master. Wonder what ever happened to that Giggs kid?

But I think the reason that we all took Waddle to our hearts so much wasn’t just for his undoubted ability – but for the attitude that went with it.His languid style, the banter with the crowd, his general openness to fans when out and about in the city.

His humble beginnings as a sausage factory worker in the North East when playing for Tow Law Town seemed to keep his feet on the ground and meant he was so much more in touch with the fans than many other players. A friend of my Mum ended up making some curtains for Waddle and she got me his signed picture. I’ve still got that picture – the signature is faded, so is most of the picture actually, but even now I love the fact that he’d written to me by name. As I say, it’s like the response of a school boy.

Waddle was blessed with amazing talent, but it seemed not much luck. He had an almost cruel record in cup finals, he added to his World Cup penalty miss with another one in the infamous defeat at Wolves (where we managed to lose a shoot-out from a 3-0 lead) and when we lost the FE Cup final replay to Arsenal Waddle was heartbroken. But again, this vulnerability just made him all the more heroic to me. The first and last footballer I ever referred to as ‘God’.

There are numerous Waddle videos on youtube, type in his name and sit back. Clips of him playing for Newcastle, Spurs, Marseille, Wednesday and others will remind (or show) you what the fuss was about. He was loved by every fan he ever played for – Marseille fans named him their 2nd best player of the 20th Century – and only a tiny minority of football fans ever had the privilege. We are some of the lucky few.

If you have the time just sit and watch them all…you’ll need plenty of time, maybe a little time off work, as there is that much good stuff out there.  It could take a while…but be prepared to be enchanted, to be mesmerised and to fall in love all over again…it’s just that good.

The fact that when Waddle retired from football he continued to live in Sheffield, playing Sunday league football wherever he could get a game, just showed how he is basically just one of us – but with the skills of a God.He was 50 last week, and apparently has just started playing for a pub in Greenhill that I often go in when I’m back there.

I may just swing by to catch a game next time I’m there and feel like a schoolboy once more.

The man who says “pelanty”, the man who Thierry Henry put in his ‘all time best 11’, the man who still gets the fur up when he is invited onto the pitch before a game.

There really is only one Chrissy Waddle.

Chris (Baldy)
Owls Alive

TWITTER: @OwlsAlive or @chris_shelley

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