Chris Brookes searches for the positives amidst the stupor at Sheffield Wednesday.
As the minutes ebbed away in last weekend’s Championship draw with Ipswich Town I thought back to some of the great last-minute Sheffield Wednesday winners I’ve seen at Hillsborough in days gone by. Looking around for any kind of sign that we could pull one out of the bag and grab our first win of the season, I came up short. The seconds ran out and a 1-1 result left Dave Jones’ team still searching for a three-point haul as we head further into October. Out of the country’s 92 league clubs Wednesday are the only one yet to win a game in league or cup competition. Our place in the Championship relegation zone after 10 matches is concerning but the saddest aspect of our current plight is the hurt from many supporters turning into detachment and disinterest.
It’s been two years with much change for Wednesday. Gary Megson laid the foundations and Dave Jones secured an unforgettable automatic promotion from League One in May 2012 after beginning his tenure with an almost immaculate ten wins and two draws. The momentum in the Championship slowed as losing runs set in during the 2012/13 season but Jones eventually found a way to get us over the line and avoid relegation after a largely improved second half to the campaign. Fast forward to the present and that feeling of swimming against the tide is getting impossible to ignore.
From 11 games in total we have scored more than a single goal on just one occasion – in a 2-2 home draw with Millwall in August. We have faced just three of the current top-half teams and with a takeover a priority chairman Milan Mandaric appears reluctant to back the manager further or part company with a third Owls boss in his near three-year era at the helm. It all leaves us in limbo at the moment and the fortunes on the pitch are suffering badly.
One thing you need as a football fan is faith but you also need to look at what is going on at your club and see signs that you can believe in. When Mandaric sacked Alan Irvine in February 2011 he mentioned how if you don’t feel things are right you make a change. He has stuck with Dave Jones throughout some really testing times and it is commendable to a certain degree. Right now however there’s just that feeling that we’re trying to tread water until a takeover materialises and the longer it drags on to the detriment of the on-pitch results the more chance there is of that tide becoming too strong. I have to make clear that this is not a simple ‘Jones out’ article and I have supported him strongly during the 19 months he has been in charge. However, responsibility has to be taken by certain individuals for a struggling team and a fanbase that feels lost and disillusioned.
When we play the ball forward there’s an expectation that it’s coming straight back and it feels like it’s a strain to keep it in attacking areas and to make the right decisions. The team often looks like one without a proper plan or a defined way of playing and there have been puzzling choices made. For example, midfielder Stephen McPhail not taking corners against Ipswich because he was told to save his legs instead of jogging over to take it, leaving centre-back and goal threat Miguel Llera to take two poor efforts that didn’t clear the first man. Rhys McCabe being constantly overlooked when we’ve been crying out for someone to unlock a defence with the passes he has in his armoury. The decision to play winger Michail Antonio up front so often when his confidence suffers such a hit by being asked to take on a role that just isn’t him. Then there’s striker Chris Maguire who Jones signed from Derby for a significant (undisclosed) fee last summer but spent the majority of the season out of the picture. Maguire was apparently someone we wanted badly but even this season with our attacking options so limited he has been cast aside. He has voiced his displeasure lately and from what I have seen of him and the technical ability he possesses I have to feel that he’s right to be aggrieved at not even getting a chance when we’re playing so poorly.
The club’s situation is far from being all down to Dave Jones but you have to consider how much longer this can last. He has done plenty of good for Wednesday: coming in and taking Megson’s team, who had faltered, onto a new level and winning promotion, followed by survival last season, however rocky the road may have been. I love the characters in football who play from the heart and get the pulse racing as a supporter but I’m not going to use the perceived lack of passion against Jones. We don’t see what goes on behind the scenes and if it was all down to outward displays of emotion then Barry Fry and John Sitton would be two of the world’s greatest managers of all-time. What I will say though is that with a club that is in the soul of the community like Wednesday some fans just won’t be able to take to you if they don’t feel like you have a connection with it too.
Looking at the table, when you start to realise that it will take more than three points to get out of the relegation zone it all seems a lot more serious, and that isn’t far away. Relinquishing a lead in the closing minutes against Millwall and letting 10-man Yeovil come back to draw in another of our home games were, with all due respect, throwaways. Don’t let this drag on because before we know it those so-called ‘must-win games’ really will be. The problems go deeper than the manager and any new man who would be brought in has to be afforded more resources if we are to expect to truly move onwards towards the top end of the league. That said, to use ‘nobody out there could do better’ doesn’t hold weight with me as an argument for sticking with losing football.
The situation at the very top of the club goes hand in hand with the team’s results and the ever-increasing disillusion coming from supporters. As Wednesday fans know more than most from recent years takeovers can be a long while in the making. Mandaric has been great for us but it’s no secret he is looking to sell and he deserves to bow out as someone we can hold in high regard. We’re just looking for something, some clear communication from him on where we are. Are talks ongoing with interested parties? He has put out some fantastic statements to the fans in the last three years and we could really do with one now, followed by some action. Just tell us what’s going on with our club because what can’t be allowed is apathy transmitting itself at all levels, and there’s too much of it emerging at present. We should never have Wednesday fans thinking of things they’d rather be doing when there’s a game at Hillsborough – let’s keep Meadowhall empty on a Saturday! The support is loyal but give us something back and don’t take it for granted. We’re not asking to be running away with the league (although note that one down as an idea) but the feeling like we’re just letting things slide without grasping hold of the situation is a crying shame and it can’t happen.
There is hope and there is positivity for us to take forward. The level of support will always be talked about and although 20,000+ fans laying into you can be very tough it doesn’t half drive you on when they’re fighting your corner. The backing of Sheffield Wednesday is something to be proud of and when we feel that those leading our club have got us all pulling in the right direction we’ll always be there and louder than ever. We might need a kickstart at the moment but once you start that momentum going with this club it can be unstoppable, as we all saw and felt en route to promotion and on that magical day against Wycombe to cap it all.
Chris Kirkland is all you could want from a keeper at this level and if we can get full-backs Lewis Buxton and Reda Johnson settled back in and free from injury alongside centre-backs Miguel Llera and Roger Johnson then that gives us a base. Plenty of Dave Jones’ recruitment can be questioned but one of his ex-Cardiff players Stephen McPhail has been impressive. He’s look assured in the middle of the park and although he’s nearing 34 we’ve got to use the ability and experience he has and get him working with the young midfielders like Rhys McCabe, Paul Corry and Liam Palmer.
I like to see the good in players and in striker Atdhe Nuhiu I can see enough positive aspects of his game to work with. The 6 foot 6 Austrian has been left to plough a lonely furrow all too often this season and we’ve got to help him out. I think there’s potential in his partnership with on-loan Hull City striker Matty Fryatt but as is always the way with turning to loan signings it could be broken up at any given moment. I want to give some support to winger Michail Antonio because he’s had some criticism and I feel it’s over the top. This is the guy who was the difference in our promotion run-in and the player who scored 9 in all and was amongst the Championship’s best for assists last season. He’s powerful and he can pick out a superb cross – just think back to those pinpoint assists for Miguel Llera and Leroy Lita last year for example. He may be erratic with his finishing at times but if you tell me he’s no good in front of goal then I’ll have to dig out some of the 16 he’s got for us. At 23, there are rough edges of his game to work on but that’s why we were able to get him from Reading. He needs belief not singling out because assets like him will ultimately take the club forward.
You could be forgiven for wondering why we put ourselves through the disappointments. When you remind yourself of moments like those derby day wins, Drew Talbot’s finish hitting the net in the play-off final, and that shuddering feeling of elation when the final whistle went against Wycombe, it all makes sense again. Don’t forget those moments that made you shiver with pride as a Wednesdayite because brighter days are around the corner if we get it right. For years I was waiting for a takeover and all the false dawns exhausted me but we need one now more than ever. However far along that process we are I ask those in charge to just communicate with us and kick some life back into our season in the meantime. Mandaric is looking for a deal that is right for the club and himself but he also has to balance it with protecting our Championship status. Whether it’s a slight loosening of the budget constraints or a change of manager, it’s down to him to decide but we can’t let it rumble on aimlessly as it is. Don’t let the young supporters and the future of our fanbase lose their interest. There could have been no greater springboard from the position we were in than to seal promotion in May 2012 in front of a full and joyous Hillsborough, beating our greatest rivals to 2nd and reigniting that fire of intrigue and excitement in Wednesdayites everywhere along the way. The opportunity to push on is still there but there’s not another moment to waste. Wake up from the sleepwalk Wednesday, there’s a game on here!