By Chris Brookes
As Sheffield Wednesday beat Queens Park Rangers 3-0 at Hillsborough, a great deal of neutral discussion focused upon a further setback in the huge-spending West Londoners’ Championship promotion bid. However, what much of the mainstream football media will be unaware of is how this was another step forward in a remarkable revival for Wednesday over the past four months. The man leading the resurgence for The Owls is one-time Southampton manager Stuart Gray and the turnaround has been about much more than simple tactical reshuffles.
When Dave Jones was sacked as Wednesday boss on December 1st, the club were six points from safety in the Championship with just one win from the first 16 league games. One of Jones’ coaches, Stuart Gray, was put in caretaker charge and after 12 matches he had impressed enough to be given the job permanently by chairman Milan Mandaric.
That was on January 25th and Gray guided Wednesday to a third successive home win on Tuesday night to move the team up to 14th. The comprehensive 3-0 victory over Harry Redknapp’s 4th-placed QPR means The Owls are now 13 points clear of the relegation zone with ten games to go.
A 35th-minute penalty from Chris Maguire followed a red card for QPR’s Richard Dunne and Wednesday took their visitors from the capital to pieces in the second half, adding goals from Leon Best and Lewis Buxton. It was the latest in a number of enjoyable games from a Wednesday viewpoint since Gray stepped into the role and as he has turned results around he has transformed the whole mood around the club.
In truth, he was the most unfancied of candidates at first but Gray, who also managed Northampton Town, has galvanised the team and also the supporters. He has won half of his 24 games in charge and as fans we have taken to him, witnessing first-hand how the clouds of the opening months of the season have parted during his tenure so far.
The atmosphere around the club was in a sorry state as November drew to a close and supporters’ anger had more worryingly turned to apathy. In Gray’s first match we beat now-runaway leaders Leicester 2-1 at home and it was the archetypal team performance that evening to secure the win. That has been the overwhelming quality of his reign up to now and as spirit between the players has grown ever stronger so too has our enjoyment watching from the stands.
Gray immediately gave chances to wide players Jacques Maghoma and Chris Maguire after they had previously been out of favour and he has established and harnessed a culture within which everyone feels like they matter. Midfielder Jose Semedo was one of the first to comment on how Gray speaks to each individual, whether they are in the team or not, and ensures they feel part of the group. I really believe this transmits itself to the fans too and you can feel that what was a divided club just a few months ago is now completely together.
Striker Leon Best, on loan from Blackburn Rovers and back with us after eight years away, is the latest player to speak in glowing terms about the manager. He commented on how Gray is there for everything they do as a team and how he gives players confidence. It just makes the world of difference to have someone like that leading you. We can all think of people in our lives, maybe at work or a friend or family member, who had that faith in us and the positive impact it made compared to someone who didn’t value us. Everyone wants someone to believe in them and it’s no coincidence that our players want to run that bit further for Gray. He is a likeable man and he goes about his work with dignity and without any fuss. He doesn’t make provocative comments in the media and he doesn’t lambast officials. There are so many managers out there who do the opposite but how refreshing is it to have someone in charge of our team who is a gentleman as well as effective at his job?
As for the performance against QPR, how do you pick out individuals after that?! I’ll have a go. I’ve talked all about midfield maestro Kieran Lee previously but starting up front, Leon Best and Atdhe Nuhiu epitomised that desire to work and will to win. Nuhiu, who had what seemed a perfectly legitimate goal ruled out in the win over Birmingham, has got the fans on his side and that counts for so much. He was the last off the pitch at half-time and was given a great ovation as he headed for the tunnel. The 6 foot 6 ex-Austria Under-21 has struggled for goals in his first season in England, scoring just four so far, but his fortunes are starting to turn and he deserves it. The touches he is taking to control the ball under pressure and the link-up play he is producing are evidence of that. I love the relationship he has built up with the fans. Footballers get a lot of privileges but he is still a relatively young person at 24 trying to find his way in a foreign country and do his best in a new footballing environment. All I can say is we’re all in his corner and you won’t find a more popular goalscorer.
All around the team we have players with talent who just seem to be relishing playing for the club. In the last two games, Jeremy Helan, who has rarely been first choice at left-back, has been superb in combining his electrifying pace with assured defensive output. Forward Caolan Lavery has been on the wing and scored two fantastic goals in the 4-1 win over Birmingham last Saturday. At 21, he is a prospect we are all excited about. With the pace and the alertness he shows he will always worry defenders and as well as being comfortable running with the ball he can finish so naturally. Talks are underway about extending Lavery’s contract as well as that of right-back / midfielder Liam Palmer, another player who just appears to be loving his football with us.
As a group we look incredibly motivated and although the QPR team we faced has established names they showed not an ounce of the unity we have. Chris Maguire, who worked with Gray when he was assistant to Michael Appleton at Portsmouth, has gone from being out in the cold under the previous manager to being at the heart of our attacking play out on the flank. In the centre of defence, the partnership of Glenn Loovens and Oguchi Onyewu has been a joy to watch. 30-year-old Dutchman Loovens and USA international Onyewu, 31, are contracted to the club until the summer and it is up to us to do all we can to keep both. Onyewu has been clear about the fact he came to Wednesday to impress national team boss Jurgen Klinsmann enough to make the World Cup squad and if he achieves that it is likely the ex-AC Milan defender will have plenty of offers. However, there is a lot to be said about being at a club that makes you feel wanted and in a team that is together like this one. Both Loovens and ‘Gooch’ will be in demand but we have to sell the Sheffield Wednesday dream to these two. Make them believe we are going places and back it up.
To our chairman Milan Mandaric I would say we’ve got a real basis here and the foundations to go on and achieve something. While he is looking for a suitable buyer for the club I hope he recognises just how valuable the spirit we have at present is. It is a springboard I felt we had in 2012 after promotion that we didn’t capitalise on, but we can really take this on from here by putting forth that bit extra to keep what we have and add some firepower. Resources may be scarce but we will see just how ambitious the club is this summer. I hope Stuart Gray’s great work is rewarded by allowing him the chance to bring in sought-after players to push us on. If we can hold on to what we have now it won’t take much more but we cannot be scrambling around trying to patch up a side as we were at the start of the season. In many ways the transfer market will provide one of the truest tests of Gray’s long-term capabilities so let’s have a properly executed plan for next season.
The defeat to Charlton in the FA Cup fifth round hurt me, more than any game has for a long time. The prospect of a Sheffield derby in the quarter-final and a potential trip to Wembley had me dreaming (as we always should!). As I’ve got a little bit older (almost 24 now…) I’ve learned to switch off from the disappointments of losing games but that one took some extra effort. That result and performance (along with the 2-0 defeat at Yeovil earlier this month) is the blot on the copybook for Gray so far. Every individual and group has their setbacks though and we should take great encouragement from how we responded to those games. We have a South Yorkshire derby at Doncaster on Saturday and I’m aching for us to get the win and keep this great feeling going. It is time we beat them again – I still remember all too vividly Elliott Ward’s overhead kick against us in front of the Kop in 2010 and Billy Sharp’s handball before it!
I like to think of the good times we get as Wednesdayites as ‘days in the sun’ (even if it’s a cold midweek game). You really have to enjoy every bit of success, no matter how miniscule it might seem, and not dwell on what’s been and gone. There are so many reasons to feel great about supporting Wednesday, especially at the moment. For me, a lot of the beauty in being a Wednesday fan lies in those little things that only we know about. The memories, the in-jokes, the feeling you get when you hear the start of ‘Singing the Blues’, and the true meaning of the word ‘dink’.
Recent months have given us some more of those moments. Beating Leeds 6-0 was incredible but the scene after Chris Maguire’s 97th-minute winner at home to Barnsley said it all about this group. It was Wednesday togetherness at its best – three sides of Hillsborough frantically celebrating, players sliding towards the corner flag and Stuart Gray with his arms in the air on the touchline. One of those memories that make you realise there’s no other club that could ever come close for you.
All Owls fans know already but for anyone else I’ve kept you waiting until now to explain the title of the article! All you have to do is listen to a Stuart Gray interview and keep a tally of every ‘as such’. I think it’s just another reason to like the guy. It’s certainly more enjoyable than counting the number of times Alan Irvine said ‘bitterly disappointed’!
I’m really enjoying it all at the moment, even if it does mean I can’t stop myself singing ‘Kieran Lee, Kieran Lee, Kieran Lee’ all the time. We have a group that is up for the battle and one that looks after the connection with the supporters, and that is brilliant to see. We don’t want players and managers who give off the impression they don’t wish to be here and that they don’t understand what Sheffield Wednesday means to us. As fans we invest probably more time, money and emotion in the club than we do in most relationships! It’s so good to have a team and manager to feel some identity with. It’s not about expecting us to win every game. We’d love to be challenging for trophies every year but all we really want is a team that gives us that pride and reasons to smile. Thank you Stuart Gray and the players for giving us that back.