Stick or Twist in S6?

As the last of the joyous Sheffield Wednesday fans filtered out of Hillsborough on an idyllic day last May, few would have predicted such an arduous autumn and bleak mid-winter for the Owls. The Yorkshire outfit defeated an already relegated Wycombe Wanderers 2-0 in front of a capacity crowd to secure a return to the second tier of English football.

Although the majority of the legwork, namely the assemblance of a battle hardened outfit, was undertaken by Gary Megson, it was Dave Jones who galvanised a flagging squad in March and ultimately led the Owls to success. Upon appointment, Jones’ side remained unbeaten in their final 13 league games, winning 10, to reel in and eventually overtake Sheffield United, consigning their city rivals to another season in League One. Wednesday were tipped by many, including Jones himself, to maintain the winning habits they’d gleaned in League One and follow in the recent footsteps of Norwich City and Southampton, achieving back to back promotions.

Move on 7 months and any lingering ambitions for a continual climb up the football pyramid were extinguished long before Burnley became the latest team to depart Hillsborough with 3 points on New Years Day. The Lancastrian outfit ended the Owls recent mini revival, condemning the Owls to a spot in the dreaded drop zone in the process.

Last season an impressive home record was a bedrock within their promotion campaign; this season 8 home defeats in 13 matches have played a key factor in Wednesday’s struggles. At times this season the Owls have gone into home matches with an uncharacteristic 4-5-1 formation, seemingly a more structured and compact approach. In reality Wednesday have instead appeared tedious and sombre, seriously lacking in nous and creativity, delivering just 28 goals in 26 outings. This dissatisfying home record is just one several decisive reasons behind the Owls grapple with relegation.

Witness also the failure of last season’s stalwarts to establish themselves at Championship level. Both Gary Madine and Jose Semedo were influential last season, the former netting 18 league goals and the latter epitomising grit and determination in his combative approach.  The aforementioned, and others, who made up the spine of last season’s first eleven have either moved on to pastures new or struggled to step up to the mark at this higher level.

 An inability to extend the short term loan of Everton midfielder Ross Barkley hasn’t aided a flailing cause. The England U21 International was impressive whilst at Hillsborough, adding 4 goals to the outfit and bringing some much needed creativity. Wednesday’s transfer dealings on a whole, over the summer and since, have left a lot to be desired, bar the impressive Chris Kirkland and the permanent capture of Michail Antonio.

More perplexing is the fact that the Owls gathered 7 points in their first 3 outings back in the Championship, seemingly adapting well to their competitive surroundings. A meagre 18 points from 23 league matches have been picked up since defeat at Crystal Palace an unbeaten start. This paltry total could indeed be even more damning, if not for a slight resuscitation yielding 10 points from 4 matches over Christmas, prompted by a hugely unconvincing derby success at fellow strugglers Barnsley. Only time will tell whether Jones is able to bring in the appropriate re-enforcements and string together a much needed run of positive results.

In Jones’ defence, a point which he has personally re-iterated to the local media many a time lately, is a strong track record. To coin an American term, Jones has an impressive resume. Dating back to his first foray into management, at Stockport County in the mid 1990’s, Jones has enjoyed relatively consistent success throughout his career.

It was with County that Jones gained his first promotion in 1997, leading the club to the 2nd tier. Following a strenuous spell at Southampton, a period during which Jones faced criminal allegations (that were later thrown out of court); Jones was again successful at Wolves. Sheffield United were again the victims, as Jones led the Midlands outfit to the top flight for the first time in two decades, via a play off triumph at The Millennium Stadium. Passage to The Premier League was a feat Jones failed to repeat during his 6 year tenure at Cardiff City, as a succession of hurtful play off failures undermined his valiant efforts in the Welsh capital.

Lest we forget that it was indeed Jones that led Sheffield Wednesday to promotion in the final knockings last season, harnessing an efficient yet free flowing style of football. Jones is a bullish character, and although he perhaps lacks the infectious and charismatic mannerisms of a natural leader, he will be sure to drum home the importance of survival to his struggling band of players. Many managers in the Football League have been handed their p45’s this season for struggles much less terminal than Wednesday’s, and Jones must know that time is now of essence as the club look to retain Championship status.  

It is undoubtedly refreshing, and credible, to see a well respected manager given an opportunity to turn his fortunes around. The fact that Wednesday’s struggles haven’t concluded with the banishment of Jones is made perhaps even more surprising when you take into account he works under the previously unforgiving and curt Milan Mandaric.

Ultimately, if the Owls continue to struggle for results and are unable to drag themselves out of the lower echelons of the Championship, it will be a matter of when, not if, Jones is relieved of his duties. However, in the midst of a key transfer period and a tough assignment at promotion chasing Hull City this coming weekend, it appears Mandaric is, for now, going to keep faith in the man that bought his latest project one step closer to the Premier League.

Sustainability remains a desired concept, not just in sport, politics and economics, but in all realms of life. The development of a previously financially ravaged football club is typically an ongoing process, requiring patience and the ability to pull together in the face of adversity. If Wednesday are able to both stay up this season, and improve next, perhaps more clubs will use Mandaric’s seemingly loyalty driven, albeit uncharacteristic, ethos as a blueprint for success.

Michael Dobson