Sheffield Wednesday travel to Chelsea this Sunday for the two clubs’ first meeting since April of the year 2000, when Craig David’s ‘Fill Me In’ topped the UK singles chart.
As it transpires, David’s choice of song title becomes unexpectedly pertinent as I attempt to interview one former player, who was in the Owls’ side that day but now has barely any recollection of it.
I try my best to jog his memory, reminding him that Wim Jonk’s penalty gave Wednesday a 1-0 win in the Premier League encounter at Hillsborough.
I also describe how his cross led to Andy Booth almost doubling the Owls’ advantage, and how his pass-back overshot Kevin Pressman and led to George Weah hitting the bar for Chelsea.
But despite my three minutes of YouTube-based research, Peter Atherton remains none the wiser.
“Right…” replies the former Wednesday full-back and captain, humouring me as I attempt to lasso something, anything, for him to latch on to. “I don’t remember that! I think I’ve got a mental block on all of my mistakes.
“But I remember playing away at Chelsea, when we had the orange kit. We went 2-0 down early doors. The manager (David Pleat) changed it and I had to go and man-mark Gianfranco Zola! We ended up coming back and drawing the game 2-2.”
Yet pitting his defensive wits against the attacking elites such as Zola was not as daunting a prospect for Atherton, a veteran of more than 300 English top flight appearances, as it might have been for many others.
“It’s a task you’re given from the manager and for the good of the team,” he explains. “You do what you can. It’s a tough role. But, as I say, it’s one I did enjoy. I was fortunate to do that with a number of players – (Georgi) Kinkladze, (Steve) McManaman, Juninho – in my time at Wednesday and, thankfully, I generally did well in that role.”
But the Chelsea game to which I was referring was one of Atherton’s final opportunities to do so, at least in the blue and white of Sheffield Wednesday.
Despite having boosted their survival hopes with back-to-back victories against Wimbledon and the Blues, the club then managed by their perennial caretaker, Peter Shreeves, proceeded to lose the next three in a row.
It left the Owls requiring an unlikely three points away at Arsenal to avoid relegation. They were 3-1 up but drew 3-3.
With Wednesday’s financial difficulties well-documented, the Hillsborough exit door was in frequent use that summer. Atherton’s contract was one of several due to expire.
“The contract discussions from September (1999) just went slow,” he recalls. “I was happy to stay. I really enjoyed my time at the club. But things didn’t happen in terms of the contract.
“After Christmas they were saying, ‘wait until the end of the season.’ The focus was just to keep us up. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Then Bradford came in and it was just, basically, an opportunity to stay in the Premier League and play at the top level.
“Looking back, do I have any regrets? Maybe. It certainly wasn’t for financial reasons (on his part).”
I ask if things would have been different had Wednesday not been facing a relegation battle that season.
“Possibly,” Atherton replies.
“I think at that time it was the start of (the club’s) financial difficulties. But like I say, I had no long-term intention to leave.”
After an injury-ridden five years at Bradford followed by a brief spell at Halifax Town, Atherton retired from playing at the age of 36.
“I’d just had my fourth knee operation,” he recalls. “The surgeon just said, ‘enough’s enough.'”
He went on to coach the kids at Wigan Athletic (“my boyhood club, my hometown. Trying to give something back”).
“I wanted to try and help somebody do what I did,” he expands. “Help a bit of local talent come through.”
Then an approach arrived from his former manager at Halifax – a man who will need little introduction to those of a Sheffield Wednesday persuasion.
“I got a phone call from Chris Wilder,” he reveals. “Wayne Jacobs, another ex-Wednesday player, was going back to Bradford to help Stuart McCall. I got invited to go in as assistant manager (at Halifax), which I did for a year, and was great.
“But unfortunately, at the end of that season the club went back into administration and got liquidated. It was sad times for them, and myself losing my job. I actually packed up football for a couple of years then.”
But after another spell at Wigan – this time managing the Under-23s until the Latics, temporarily as it transpires, ditched their development squad last summer – Atherton is back working as a number two.
It is a role similar to the one his former adversary, Zola, now occupies. But as the Italian helps to prepare Maurizio Sarri’s side for Sheffield Wednesday’s visit from the comfort of Chelsea’s £20 million training complex in Surrey, Atherton has been travelling back-and-forth down Ms 61 and 62, from his Wigan home to Rochdale.
His employers are Barrow AFC, whose Holker Street ground is located around 100 miles north-west of their Greater Manchester base (it takes around two hours by car).
“It’s fortunate (for him) in terms of locality,” Atherton explains. “It’s basically to attract players because, obviously, in modern football now, players don’t move and relocate like they used to do.”
Barrow are 12th in the National League (formerly the Conference), eight places higher than they finished last season. Atherton was recruited by their then newly-appointed manager, Ian Evatt, with whom he had no obvious prior connection, via a third party last summer.
Atherton believes his background in youth development was an important factor. “He (Evatt) knew we were going to have a young squad at Barrow, so I sort of fitted into what he was looking at from a manager’s perspective,” he says.
On Saturday they travel to Chesterfield, which will see Evatt back at the club for whom he played until taking the Barrow job, and Atherton reunited with one of his old Hillsborough teammates.
“Shez (John Sheridan), yeah,” he affirms. “We actually played Carlisle in pre-season, so we had a quick catch up. I’ve seen him out on the circuit over the years. It was a funny one him going back there (having dropped from the top of League Two to the bottom of the National League last month).”
But Atherton’s work commitments mean that such encounters are often by chance and, sadly, few and far between.
“You see people from time to time but, obviously, people move around and (they’re in) different localities, so it’s difficult keeping in touch with everybody.
“I’ve seen Boothy a couple of times when I’ve taken teams to Huddersfield. Mark Pembridge. I still keep in touch with Guy (Whittingham) but, obviously, he’s back down in Portsmouth and I’m back in Wigan so it’s nothing on your doorstep.
“I speak from time to time with Stevie Haslam (who played in Sheffield Wednesday’s most recent encounter with Chelsea and is now the Owls’ academy manager). Wigan played Wednesday in a couple of 23s games over the last few years. I played with Stevie quite a bit (Haslam was also managed by Wilder at Halifax).”
The same goes for Atherton’s run-ins with Wednesday.
“It’s a club that is close to my heart,” he says. “I came over once when I was not involved in football for a Saturday game. I did a Q&A with David Hirst up in the corporate.
“I’ve had another invite since but, being involved in football now, it’s hard to get that time to get across.”