by Chris Brookes
It was the summer to spawn a ‘confirmed’ takeover that never became reality, but in the aftermath of that false dawn there could be a new day rising at Sheffield Wednesday. Eight games into the season, The Owls are steadily creeping up the Championship table, with a 1-0 home win over Reading on Saturday moving Stuart Gray’s team into 6th place. The victory over the Royals brought a seventh clean sheet in all competitions, giving Wednesday the most of any professional side in England at this stage. The match-winner at Hillsborough was striker Stevie May and the young Scot is quickly becoming a fitting representation of an increasingly exciting time for us at S6.
The picture looked decidedly bleak for Wednesday last December as manager Dave Jones departed with the side 23rd in the Championship and with just one win to show from the opening 16 league matches. After stepping in as caretaker boss, Stuart Gray presided over a resurgence that dragged the team clear of danger, won him the job on a permanent basis, and transformed the atmosphere around the club.
Following a 16th-place finish in May, the close-season focus was dominated by the news of Azerbaijani businessman Hafiz Mammadov’s proposed takeover of the club. Wednesdayites were in celebratory mood on June 10th as it was officially announced that the deal had been done, subject to ratification from the Football League. After a state of limbo for almost three months, it was finally revealed at the beginning of September by chairman Milan Mandaric that Mammadov, owner of RC Lens and Baku FC, had not been able to fulfil his obligations.
Despite all the uncertainty, Owls head coach Stuart Gray had led the team to a promising start to the campaign. As ever, big spending was off the menu but the sale of winger Michail Antonio to Nottingham Forest in August for around £1.5million allowed Gray to bring in St. Johnstone frontman Stevie May for an undisclosed fee (reported by some as £800,000). The 21-year-old had scored 27 goals for Saints last season and since his arrival at Hillsborough he has become a key part of a tight-knit, industrious team unit that appears to be getting better all the time.
May’s winner on Saturday against Nigel Adkins’ Reading came via a deflected free-kick and it was his third in seven games. In truth, there are multiple reasons to feel good about Wednesday at the moment and May is just one of them, but in many ways he is a sign of what could be around the corner for the club. On his way to winning the support of just about every Owls fan, Stuart Gray has created a remarkable atmosphere, built on including each and every person and finding the right characters to buy into that unity.
It is early days of course but May looks to be just what he was searching for. The livewire has brought enthusiasm, character and a willingness to put everything into battling for the cause. His ‘little and large’ partnership with 6ft 6in Austrian striker Atdhe Nuhiu has shown genuine promise and their ever-growing understanding is allied with mutual footballing intelligence.
A club is about much more than just the tangibles of league positions, attendance figures and suchlike, and in Stuart Gray we have a manager who is something to be proud of. The one-time Southampton boss goes about his job with the utmost dignity and the minimum of fuss and he is a truly refreshing change from the managers who court controversy with their comments and behaviour. It is easy to create something of a moaning culture but even with some of the incredibly suspect refereeing in the Championship he keeps the airing of any grievances to a minimum. He is someone who players quite simply want to play for and although they have alluded to the fact he is not afraid to shout up when necessary, the gentlemanly manner in which he acts makes you want him to succeed that bit more.
Football is all about shared emotion and within that comes frustration, anger, happiness and celebration. Last year, those feelings had started to fade into apathy for many Wednesday fans before Gray took over, with bad results and a lack of direction and communication from the club. You should never be made to feel like your team’s results don’t matter and during Gray’s tenure so far we have recaptured that pride that had seemed under such serious threat.
After the win on Saturday, Gray said that the players were making his job easy. I felt it was extremely modest on his part because this is a man who has changed the entire direction of our club. He is out there with the players as they warm up before a game and is at the heart of everything that goes on. As many will have seen over the weekend, striker Dave Kitson, who worked with Gray when he was at Portsmouth, praised him on The Football League Show as the best coach he ever worked with in his 13-year career and someone who made training sessions so enjoyable that players went away from them wanting more.
What made our promotion season of 2011/12 so magnificent was the togetherness of the fans and that feeling of people sharing in something big, whether it was at the games, online, or through both means. Gray fits into that sentiment so well because he takes care of that connection with the supporters and you look over at the touchline during games and feel glad that he’s in charge of your team. It doesn’t take shouting at officials or making sensational comments to the press to achieve that. He has that balance of likeability and command of respect and he won’t leave players out in the cold when they’re not in his starting plans.
There is a real identity to the team Gray has assembled and you can feel a connection to these players. Stevie May is your prime example and aside from the obvious ability he brings, players like him make it fun. It is safe to say that we don’t often get to see a Wednesday player hitching a piggyback ride on an opposing defender while chasing the ball down, as May did with Reading’s Jake Cooper at the weekend. What can be easy to forget is that behind every player is a person (literally in that case…) and although it was an incredible opportunity to move to Wednesday, it was also a big decision for May to leave his family and his local club. He became a hero with St. Johnstone supporters and it is heartening that so many of them now follow our results because of him.
With Scotland manager Gordon Strachan watching against Reading, in addition to his goal, May displayed his self-confidence as he ran at the defence before flashing one wide from the edge of the box. It is the type of goal he has come up with for St. Johnstone and just as he showed with his strike in the 2-0 win at Birmingham after taking Nuhiu’s pass, he can carve out chances for himself and finish.
It is something a bit special when you can feel that buzz of happiness from your team’s result even though it is hours since the final whistle went. This was exactly how I felt on Saturday evening and after the 5-0 and 6-0 hammerings Reading gave us just a few years ago it is very satisfying to have beaten them three times in a row. I no longer feel that teams are going to sweep us aside without a problem and a record of only four goals conceded (just two from open play) in ten games is outstanding.
Two of the summer signings in particular have been terrific and they are goalkeeper Keiren Westwood and defender Tom Lees. I remember watching Westwood for Carlisle in the League One play-offs in 2008 and with the experience of Championship, Premier League and international football with Ireland since then he has simply gone on and on. He was a surprising signing to say the least, considering we already had one of the best in the division in Chris Kirkland, but Westwood has made an immediate impression. His penalty save from Glenn Murray and follow-up to grasp and hold onto the ball under pressure was absolutely pivotal in Saturday’s win and the back four of Joe Mattock, captain Glenn Loovens, Tom Lees and Liam Palmer seem to have every confidence in the former Coventry City and Sunderland man. As for Lees, to be allowed to leave Leeds for little or no transfer fee (depending on who you believe) is something we feel compelled to give thanks for on a game-by-game basis!
The departure of lightning fast wingers Jermaine Johnson and Michail Antonio has certainly brought about a change in our style. Even with loan signing Royston Drenthe, I feel it is an area to strengthen, but we seem more compact now with the emphasis moving away from looking to utilise pace down the sides. The fact we’re talking about two of our very best players in central midfielders Kieran Lee and Sam Hutchinson having a fight on to regain their place speaks volumes about how well we’ve done.
The start to this season has been fantastic and although Milan Mandaric is looking for the right person to hand over the reins to, he has a real chance here to push us forward himself. I have no doubt that someone will buy our club eventually but I’d love for it to be after Milan has led us to promotion. Talk of that may still seem some way off but you can try for years to put together what Stuart Gray has before him right now, and likewise in trying to find a manager quite like him. Changing the line-up at the moment would likely be unwise but the season is a long one and with the lack of depth in our squad we will need that bit more to sustain our position. Sometimes a chance to do something great presents itself and I believe we have that now, so don’t let the moment pass.
The hard times can make you forget temporarily, but there are so many brilliant things about Sheffield Wednesday. At 24, I’ve seen more struggle than success from following the club but being a Wednesday fan is like having access to the best group in the world, and I’ve never once thought about handing back my membership. It’s something you realise and appreciate all the more when you travel to new places far away but Wednesday give you that piece of home to take with you. For all kinds of reasons, plenty of us can’t be there at every game but with social media and other online means, everyone can stay part of it. We’ve been given reason to dream again and a home win in front of almost 30,000 to move into the top six and suddenly those lofty ambitions don’t seem all that unattainable. There is plenty of work to do and the whole outlook can turn in an instant in football, but the here and now is worth savouring.
We’ll have results go against us in the coming months but if we carry on with our approach as it is then we’ll always have a chance. It’s down to us to stay behind the team; no one can deny they’ve earned that. Think of that roar that sounds out at Hillsborough when an opposition defender slices a clearance out for a corner or throw-in as we attack the Kop – it’s magic for a Wednesday player to hear. Without fail this season we’ve applauded the team off at half-time and full-time and I hope we’ll continue to do that regardless of the scoreline as long as they’re giving their all. The support in numbers is always there from Wednesdayites but there are these extra special moments that you unlock when you’re doing well. Think of those 6,000 of us at Man City when Lee Bullen’s header went flying in, the team bus shuddering from the sheer noise as it passed the Wednesday fans before the play-off final in Cardiff, or those shivers of excitement before the first verse of ‘Singing the Blues’ as the volume went up ten notches before the Wycombe game. It’s something those who think football is just watching the Premier League on Sky could never feel. A picture of belonging and belief, painted in blue and white. Keep making us dream, Wednesday.