by Richard Brook
If they have not fully turned the corner yet, supporters of Sheffield Wednesday Football Club will be glad to be tentatively poking their collective head around it. A decent run of results in recent weeks, importantly coupled with much improved performances give grounds for optimism that the Owls can leave the last few months behind.
Only a few weeks ago there was a certain amount of speculation regarding Dave Jones position as Wednesday manager both in the press and amongst supporters, with at least one major bookmaker taking bets as to who Jones’ successor might be. I confess that I had already more or less planned out what I would write in the event of Jones losing his Hillsborough job, though this was borne more of expectation than a desire to see Jones leave. I want Jones to succeed as I have liked what he has tried to do in terms of trying to get the ball down and play, right from his first game in charge.
I do not believe any Sheffield Wednesday supporter would bear Dave Jones any ill-will after the incredible second half of last season. That period saw Jones attain an incredible 83% win ratio, after controversially succeeding Gary Megson, to overturn a points gap that the Owls steel city rivals United had warned Wednesday to mind, and steal promotion from under the Blades’ noses, amidst incredible final day celebrations against Wycombe Wanderers, when the words “Jonesy is our King!” rang out around Wednesday’s famous old ground.
In spite of all that Wednesday’s Chairman is Milan Mandaric. Rightly or wrongly Mandaric is victim to a media perception that he is impatient with managers. A perception that many Wednesdayites felt was proven correct when he axed Megson, on the back of a Sheffield derby victory, with the Owls flying high in third place in last season’s League One table. Whether one is fully comfortable with that decision or not, it cannot be said that it turned out badly for Wednesday.
In addition to this Mandaric’s reputation is wholly at odds with what we have seen from the Sheffield Wednesday boardroom this season. Mandaric has provided Jones with patience that many a manager would be very envious of, and on the face of it maybe – just maybe – that patience might be beginning to reap its rewards. For a football manager to lose seven league games in succession and going back further 15 out of 19 in all competitions, and still keep his job shows a phenomenal amount of faith on the part of the chairman. The opening few weeks of this season saw Wednesday looking bright. League Cup wins against Oldham, and Premier League Fulham coupled with two wins and a draw from league fixtures against Derby, Millwall and Birmingham City hardly spelt a disastrous start for the newly promoted Owls.
Then Wednesday’s goals dried up, exposing the fact that conceding twice per match was unsustainable if the side were to avoid a struggle. The decision to retain faith in Jones, coupled with Wednesday’s on-field improvements recently may yet serve to prove that rather than an impatient chairman, Mandaric is merely a chairman that makes good decisions at the right times.
Like all successful businessmen Mandaric counts the cost of everything. He estimated failing to get out of League One at the first attempt cost £6 – £7 million, and was delighted last season when Jones delivered promotion through improvement on the foundations laid by Megson. Mandaric is a chairman that historically makes a profit from running football clubs and would certainly not take relegation from the Championship lightly.
Since promotion player recruitment at Hillsborough has been patchy, though in modern football it is rarely known who is truly responsible for identifying potential signings: The manager, the chairman or the chief executive. There are some summer signings at Hillsborough who have barely featured at all or appear to have been given up after only a few weeks of the season. Left-back Joe Mattock, a previously highly regarded under-21 international, Slovenian international Nejc Pecnik and former Derby striker Chris Maguire have all struggled to make the breakthrough at Wednesday despite all ostensibly being Jones players. Rodri, a forward on season-long loan from Barca B, was sent back to his parent club in January having failed to build on an impressive debut performance. Short-term loan deals for QPR striker Jay Bothroyd, who never looked fully committed to the cause and for Stoke target-man Mama Sidibe who was returning from a serious long term injury, and had only averaged a goal every seven and half games in his career, did little to improve Wednesday’s fortunes in front of goal.
However Jones has proved himself to be prepared to experiment in terms of selection, formation and tactics. Jones began to trial providing more cover on the wings – an area of vulnerability I previously highlighted in The Daisy Cutter – by the novel method of effectively playing four full-backs two of whom, Kieran Lee and on-loan Jeremy Helan, can also play midfield, and in a new look pacey and energetic attack began playing two quick wingers up front, at the expense of our strikers. The pace of Helan, Jermaine Johnson and Michail Antonio going forward enough to frighten any defence, but the sacrifice being made in terms of finishing. Jones also boldly thrust two centre midfielders into the side, who had been out on loan for much of the League One promotion campaign, however the energy, presence and balanced attributes of Giles Coke and David Prutton, a division higher than when allowed out on loan, have been central to the Owls recent upturn.
This way of playing has been introduced gradually initially with Chris O’Grady or Sidibe playing as a lone striker with the pace of two of Antonio, Johnson or Helan playing wide of the forward. For the last two fixtures Wednesday have returned to this with new loan signing Leroy Lita playing upfront with Antonio just off him, Lita scoring in both games. The striker on loan from Swansea, completely regardless of goals looks the most impressive striker the Owls have had since their Premier League days. The combination of confidence, strength, pace, finishing and movement make him a handful for anyone. Since mid-December Wednesday have secured six wins, two draws and one defeat. It is an incredible turn around in form, that the players and management must take a great deal of credit for.
It is possible that performances and results earlier in the season had a lot to do with to big a change in personnel too soon. Plainly Jones felt that a number of players were not good enough for the step up to the Championship and that he had to bring a large amount of players whilst staying within budget. The downside of this being that all the momentum of promotion was lost, as many of those that achieved it were no longer in the team, or in some cases at the club. Further to this the team spirit would have taken time to develop, the understandings that develop between players regarding each others’ game, and the ability to pick each other up when heads drop. Crucially Jones did not seem to know his best team, chopping and changing at every turn, and now it seems that he does have a preferred eleven and a preferred system.
Make no mistake Wednesday’s impressive form for the last month and a half does not make them safe, or even close to being safe, from relegation to back to League One and it will take a continuation of all the effort we have seen during their rise towards the top end of the Championship form table to attain such safety. The outlook is brighter than it has been for the rest of the season but it seems clear Sheffield Wednesday have a plan for how they want to play and it is currently baring fruit. Dave Jones has said many times during his Wednesday tenure that he is a builder, and I have always liked the blueprint. It is just to be hoped that during the building process that the club can retain enough a modicum of success for Jones to retain the chairman’s patience, so that he can see the job through.