by Richard Brook

The dust has barely settled on the Hillsborough pitch, following the jubilant pitch invasion that followed Saturday’s promotion clinching victory against Wycombe, but a large section of Owls fans – me included – and the wider football world should be vastly rethinking at least some of their words directed towards Milan Mandaric.

Following the Sheffield derby victory at the end of February Mandaric took a very unpopular decision to sack lifelong Sheffield Wednesday fan, Gary Megson as manager of the Hillsborough club. At the time the club lay in third place in League One. Megson’s sacking was shortly preceded by that of Lee Clark at Huddersfield Town, again at the time the club in question sat in third place in England’s third tier. These two decisions combined to escalate the question of ‘impatient football chairmen’ beyond a point of discussion on local radio phone-ins, and made it a matter of interest for the national sports media.

It was a foreseeable repercussion of Megson’s appointment, given his status as a fan, ex-player and as a member of a family deeply ingrained in Hillsborough folklore, and given Mandaric’s reputation for ruthlessness as regards changing managers, that a controversy would eventually be on the cards.

I covered Megson’s sacking myself voicing the concerns of many Wednesday fan’s who, in the days that followed, found themselves confused and angry by Megson’s shock departure. There is much I wrote in that article that I would not retract, despite witnessing an apparently nerveless Owls side secure automatic promotion at the weekend. I still feel that while Mandaric backed Megson, he had not provided a level of backing that meant he should feel entitled to expect, rather than hope for, automatic promotion. I continue to believe that Megson’s player recruitment was nothing short of masterful on the budget provided. I will always feel that a manager who is dismissed for being third in any league, in February has reason to feel very much aggrieved. Most of all I still miss going to Hillsborough and knowing that the man in charge of first team affairs, knows without doubt, exactly how the fans feel and evidences it in his every action and interview. I remain very proud to have paid glowing tribute to Gary Megson’s love of Sheffield Wednesday.

In spite of all this, the league table speaks for itself. Mandaric got his decision right. If anything maybe the chairman, as he has acknowledged himself, was slightly late to act to arrest the declining results, as he was understandably anxious of taking the decision to sack an avid fan of the club in the lead up to a game of such local significance of the Owls versus the Blades.

Mandaric took his decision against a backdrop of four straight defeats, in all competitions, in the run up to the Steel City derby, and because he believed it was best for Sheffield Wednesday and by default for his own investment. The Wednesday Chairman made this point, repeatedly in his own defence, and at the time received less credence than he retrospectively deserved.

Bringing in Jones for the popular Megson was a controversial move by Mandaric.

While Mandaric didn’t have the right to expect automatic promotion, he never claimed that he did. He should however be credited with having the foresight to envisage that something more was possible with the talent within the Owls squad.

We will never know what Megson might have gone on to achieve had he been allowed to continue. It is worth noting that the skilful loan player Ben Marshall, who departed in January, was only adequately replaced in Megson’s last game. There is no doubt that throughout January and February, Wednesday delivered the work ethic and industry that was the hallmark of their promotion season, but lacked the flair and invention that Marshall had provided. When the replacement finally came in the form of long-term Megson target Michail Antonio, it was on the eve of Megson’s final game. The match ended in victory, in which the new arrival played no small part. There is room for debate in whether a more timely replacement for Marshall would have provided the results that would have seen Megson keep his job.

There is an equally valid argument that no-one could expect Mandaric to employ a ‘wait and see’ policy given the level of investment he has provided to rescue the club from a decade and a half of financial decline that nearly proved terminal.

Even the staunchest of Megson fans would have had to acknowledge that Mandaric’s chosen replacement, Dave Jones, was one of considerable calibre and experience, and could not have Megson’s dismissal held against him. Jones managerial ability has been evidenced during the run in, constituting ten wins, two draws and not a single defeat – a staggering 83% win ratio.

Had Wednesday lost Megson’s last match they would have found themselves in fifth place on 57 points, with Sheffield United in second on 65 points. United would also had two games in hand at that point. The race for automatic promotion could have been over with the Owls hoping to stay in the play off places. This situation led to online Blades fans warning their cross-city rivals to “mind the gap”.

Spurred by Jones appointment, Wednesday retained their predisposition towards hard work and a never say die mindset, but coupled it with some of their most attractive football of the season and produced a string of results that saw the gap overhauled on the penultimate day of the season with a spirited 2-1 victory at then play-off hopefuls, Brentford.

No-one who was present for the final match of Sheffield Wednesday’s 2011/12 season is likely to forget the atmosphere. 38,082 people packed Hillsborough, with under 500 of those away fans, housed in a small corner stand. All four sides of the stadium bounced with Wednesdayites. From long before kick-off there was no hint that this was a nervy, must-win encounter – it felt like the promotion party had already begun. Hundreds of beach balls, balloons and other inflatables were flung around the crowd, as familiar songs rang out with an oft-absent fervour that is simply not possible in a half-full stadium, however well supported the half-full figure makes the club. The players duly delivered an impressively assured performance, under great pressure, to cement their places in Wednesday history and once and for all to vindicate Milan Mandaric’s brave and difficult decision to change management. Credit for the Owls promotion must be attributed to Gary Megson, Dave Jones and Mandaric himself.

Wednesday fans have had it as hard as most during their spectacular fall from the Premiership and have become used to a hierarchy that do the wrong things right. A hierarchy that will give a manager those few extra games for the sake of stability, while running up a huge debt against the football club. Having a chairman that makes the right decisions even when they feel wrong is going to take some getting used to. In truth the Hillsborough faithful have grown tolerant of failure, and are only just waking up to that fact. It is going to take a while to learn what must be done to achieve success in a sport that is unrecognisable from the time of Wednesday’s last major successes in the early nineties.

Whether any other way could have been right for Sheffield Wednesday can only be a matter of conjecture. Milan Mandaric’s, whether one likes it or not, has been justified and proven correct. He has protected his investment and moved Sheffield Wednesday forward, and Owls fans are massively grateful for that fact. Milan Mandaric has proven he is only satisfied by achievement that matches potential. Why should Sheffield Wednesday’s fans feel any differently?