by Richard Brook

Sheffield Wednesday signed off their first season back in the Championship with a 2-0 win against Middlesbrough, at Hillsborough. It was a game the Owls had to win, to retain the second tier status that the club fought so hard to attain the season before. However Wednesday’s season was not your typical tale of a newly promoted club struggling all season to come to grips with the new level at which they find themselves playing, scrapping and scraping their way to the universally agreed 50 point water mark. The Sheffield club showed themselves to have far more than that. The problem was that it was a year when everybody else showed they had more than that too.

Like a number of other pre-season previewers I noted, in the summer, the more optimistic internet chatter talking of a play-off push, but stated my opinion that mid-table consolidation was more realistic. I did not thinking that Sheffield Wednesday would be in a relegation fight despite being the Championship new boys. Despite the fact that the Hillsborough club found themselves requiring a win on the last day, or having to rely on the results elsewhere, that is an assessment that I stand by.

The Championship has historically been known as a competitive league, but even by its own standards the margins in 2012/13 have been minuscule. Clubs went into their final day encounters knowing that not one, but two sides would definitely be relegated with more than 50 points. To put that into context only three teams, with more than 50 points, had been relegated in the ten years since 2002/03, before this campaign. It had not happened at all since 2008, when Leicester City achieved the highest relegation total of the three sides – 52 points. This time out we went into the last game with the mathematical possibility of Huddersfield Town being relegated although they stood on 57 points.

A year ago the safety mark for Championship survival happened to be a meagre 41 points. Wednesday’s finishing total of 58 points would have been good enough for 16th place in 2011/12, and Peterborough United chalked up four fewer points than they recorded on their way to relegation. 2012/13 was not your ordinary season – a fact that makes Wolverhampton Wanderers decision to sack Dean Saunders, and Kenny Jackett’s resignation at Millwall look unwarranted.

The Owls began their return to second tier football in fine form. In August, across all competitions, the side achieved four wins and a draw from their five games. Come September Wednesday’s fortunes immediately reversed and they began a run of form that could not be arrested until mid-December. Wednesday lost 15 out of their 19 league games during this period and some sections of the support were calling for manager Dave Jones’ head. The Owls found themselves second bottom with just 15 points from the first 21 games, and almost half of those points were won during August. Chairman Milan Mandaric has a reputation amongst the media as being a chairman who is impatient with managers. Mandaric’s decision to stick with Jones goes some way to disproving this and his overall record regarding managerial changes at Wednesday, whatever your opinion on the morals of the matter, shows him to be a chairman that gets the big calls right.

It seemed that the South Yorkshire club had been something of an unknown quantity in the early part of the season, and the pace down the flanks of Jermaine Johnson and Michail Antonio had been a valuable asset. Clean sheets were always conspicuous by their absence however. Looking at the goals the club conceded, during their early run and in the poor form that followed makes it apparent that opposing sides had found a way to make Wednesday’s attacking strengths their defensive weaknesses. By countering into the gaps that were left by the Owls marauding pace men, teams were drawing full-backs out of position and attacking the resulting space at the near post.

So began a process of tactical experimentation as to how to prevent the soft goals that were being conceded without the nullifying the attacking threat of Antonio and Johnson. Initially the reaction was to drop one of them, to the bench and leave the other on the wing. The corner was turned however when Antonio began playing off the striker, with the wing positions often filled by more defensive players such as full-backs Kieran Lee and Jeremy Helan. This was often deployed in away games, and on an ‘as required’ basis at Hillsborough. Helan himself has pace in abundance and as the team’s organisation and most importantly confidence grew the Owls found themselves more able to play with two out and out wingers.

The Owls put up a battling display in their local derby with Barnsley in December and came away with a 1-0 win that they scarcely deserved. The match proved to be a catalyst for the second half of the season which saw Wednesday win 12 and draw 7 of their remaining 25 fixtures. The Sheffield side found themselves topping the Championship form table at regular intervals. Unfortunately for Wednesday their fellow strugglers were matching their every move. Every game the Owls won it seemed like every other result went against them too. It was this unpredictability of the division that drew the likes of Wolves and Millwall into the frame, as much as their own form, and prevented Wednesday from climbing the table. Indeed the Owls finished four points off the relegation places and three points away from tenth place.

One cannot help but feel that Sheffield Wednesday could have achieved survival more quickly had not both Antonio and Johnson suffered injuries. Top-scorer Antonio was ruled out for the season after the defeat at Cardiff City on March 16th. Johnson proved a very able replacement, not least in scoring a brace as in his scintillating display as Wednesday won by the odd goal in five at home to Blackburn Rovers. However Johnson was struggling to complete matches due to hamstring tightness, and on some occasions such as the match with Leeds United, at Elland Road, this was turning games in itself. Wednesday were leading thanks to a terrific goal by Johnson however when he was replaced Wednesday’s momentum dissipated and they ended the game on the losing side.

Johnson missed the penultimate game of the season against Peterborough altogether as the Owls turned in a very lack-lustre attacking display and lost the game. His return for the final day of the season, against Middlesbrough, to give everything he could, appeared to lift the crowd and team-mates alike. Johnson turned in a performance that Dave Jones rated as “unplayable” even if in the manager’s opinion it was only for 20 minutes “and after that he might as well have sat with [the coaching staff]”. By that point Wednesday had already taken the lead as Steve Howard latched on to a wonderfully picked through ball from centre half Miguel Llera and thundered the ball beyond Jason Steele. Leroy Lita added a second, converting Lewis Buxton’s corner and, though Johnson came off at half-time, Wednesday were well on their way to Championship safety that their points total suggested should not have been in doubt.

Dave Jones considers that the club staying in the championship this season is an achievement that eclipses that of the previous season’s promotion, and in terms of the standard of opposition the team had to take points off to stay up, and the way the club were pushed to the wire by numerous other teams, he is undoubtedly right. The manager has already been quoted as saying; “Do we push on or do we stagnate? You don’t employ me if you want to stagnate. I want to push on”. It remains to be seen whether this is a challenge to Milan Mandaric to increase the playing budget to allow the club to progress.

The history books will show that Sheffield Wednesday narrowly avoided relegation in 2012/13 but that is not half the story. They achieved a points total that should have put them comfortably out of danger, and arguably into mid-table. Added to this is the fact that Wednesday’s form over the last 25 games, of 12 wins and seven draws, if extrapolated over a full season would have put them either second or third in the table. If Wednesday truly have found their feet in the division, and Mandaric is prepared to invest in the squad who knows what next season could hold at Hillsborough?