For Barry Bannan it ultimately came down to iron-clad belief. Yes, Sheffield Wednesday did not play well in the League One playoff final on Monday, and yes Barnsley arguably deserved to win given the fight they showed after being reduced to 10 men, but Wednesday’s captain was never in doubt – his side simply had to triumph. More than that, they knew they would.
The collective sense of destiny sprung from that semi-final victory against Peterborough, a 4-0 deficit overturned on a raucous, rollercoaster, incredible night at Hillsborough. There was no stopping Wednesday after that as far as Bannan was concerned and that meant, one way or another, overcoming Barnsley on what proved to be a hot day at Wembley in more ways than one. As he put it after Josh Windass got the job done with the latest of late winners: “The main thing for us was turning the [Peterborough] game around. We won it then. Promotion.”
And so Wednesday are back in the Championship after a two-year absence and Bannan, having celebrated with teammates, family and friends, outlined how important a strong mentality was for the team in terms of resetting and going again after 96 points ended up not being enough to secure automatic promotion for the first time in English league history. It was, as Bannan put it, a “devastating” setback, and in that regard there was an individual within Wednesday’s ranks of little acclaim who, arguably, proved just as important as any coach or player to their eventual success: the sports psychologist Tom Bates.
Bates, having worked at clubs including Cambridge United, Charlton Athletic, Bournemouth, Brentford and Aston Villa, and with Team GB Olympians, was hired by Wednesday shortly after their relegation from the Championship with the brief of bolstering the squad’s psychological makeup as they sought an immediate return. It didn’t have the required effect but Bates impressed the head coach, Darren Moore, enough to be kept on and it turned out to be a wise decision.
“Every now and again he [Bates] comes in and in the last three weeks he’s been in every day,” Bannan said. “He’s been a massive help for us, especially after the first leg [against Peterborough], showing us videos, making us believe.
“The mindset has been massive for us this season. We never thought we weren’t going up because there’s no point turning up to these games, semi-finals and finals, if you’re thinking: ‘What if we don’t?’ So we’ve always believed. Not everyone, but once you’ve got a strong nucleus of people who do believe they drag the others along with them.”
Few did more to drag Wednesday to victory at Wembley than Bannan. Again the 33-year-old was their driving force from midfield, winning tackles, making passes, getting forward, having shots and inspiring those in blue and white until his substitution deep in extra time. It was required, too, given how flat Wednesday were, remarkably so having gained a one-man advantage after Adam Phillips’s 50th-minute dismissal for a reckless lunge on Lee Gregory.
Barnsley reacted better to that incident, no doubt fuelled by a sense of injustice after being denied a clear penalty shortly before the red card. Yet they fluffed their big moment – Luca Connell’s wild, sliced miss when unmarked inside the area – whereas Wednesday took theirs, Windass sending a diving header past Barnsley’s excellent goalkeeper Harry Isted six seconds before what would have been a third penalty shootout in three playoff finals across as many days.
It was a spectacular moment and a case of history repeating given Dean Windass’s decisive goal for Hull against Bristol City in the 2008 Championship playoff final. Fifteen years and five days on, it was very much like father, like son. “I knew he’d score,” said Dean of his “unbelievable boy” afterwards. “I’m so proud for him.”
Life in the Championship will not be easy for Wednesday given the arrival of Leicester, Leeds and Southampton in a division already containing clubs such as Middlesbrough, Blackburn and West Brom, but Bannan is unfazed. “We’ll recruit in the summer and be ready to go,” said the Scot, looking ahead to his ninth season at the club. “Look at Sunderland – they went up to the Championship and harnessed the momentum to reach the playoffs at the first attempt. We’ll be taking a leaf out of their book.”
That would be a tall order but, equally, it is not a surprise that is Wednesday’s target. After all, this is a club that well and truly believes.