Third’s the charm, or make or break? Opposition Profile
Thursday, 10th Aug 2017 17:06 by Clive Whittingham
After 15 barren years two successive near misses in the play-offs is substantial progress for Sheff Wed, but given the money spent what will the consequences be if they don’t go one better this year?
It’s 17 years now since Sheffield Wednesday saw in the new millennium by getting themselves relegated from the Premier League. They managed 31 points, and just six home wins all season, finishing five points adrift of Bradford City who were fourth bottom, 13 away from Coventry City who are now in League Two. Wimbledon and Watford went with them.
Wednesday’s was a decline from mid 1990s highs of cup finals and European football that we’ve seen several times, including with our own club, but most recently with Aston Villa and Sunderland. Talent drains away, the club over-stretches itself trying to replace brilliant players in an overheated market place, managerial appointments are botched, player turnover increases, managers come and go rapidly, near misses start to pile up until eventually the water laps over your head for a final time.
Wednesday went from getting to cup finals with a team containing Chris Woods, Roland Nilsson, Viv Anderson, Des Walker, Chris Waddle, Mark Bright, John Sheridan, David Hirst and yes, go on then, even Carlton Palmer to one losing 8-0 at Newcastle in a league game with the likes of Gerald Sibon, Gilles De Bilde, Emmerson Thome, Petter Ruddi, Wim Jonk and Danny Sonner wandering around. Manager Danny Wilson, who’d excelled up the road in Barnsley, rated Scott Donnelly and Phil O’Donnell as two of Europe’s brightest midfield prospects when they signed from Celtic on £16,000 a week each (big stuff at that time). By the end of the season David Blunkett and the other MPs were signing a letter to the club pleading with Wilson to leave.
When you’ve been in decline for a while, when you’ve spent big to try and paper over the cracks, the fall can be especially hard. Leeds found it previously, QPR are finding that at the moment, Aston Villa certainly will do if the gamble on Big Racist John doesn’t get them back this season and you fear for Sunderland. Wednesday went a full 15 years without so much as a sniff of a return to the top flight. In fact, they’ve spent four years in the third tier in two separate spells since last rubbing shoulders at the top table.
In that time (deep breath) Paul Jewell, Peter Shreeves, Terry Yorath, Chris Turner, Paul Sturrock, Brian Laws, Alan Irvine, Gary Megson (yuck), Dave Jones and Stuart Gray have all had a bash at awakening what, through size of stadium alone, is lazily seen as a “sleeping giant” of British football. The nearest any of them came to the Premier League was when Laws, hired seemingly to stop his Scunthorpe team knocking them out of cup competitions, won nine and drew three of his last 13 league games in 2006/07 to miss the Championship play-offs by four points. A 2-0 defeat at Birmingham in front of a rabid away support three games out from the end derailed a brave bid. Had the season gone on a fortnight longer they’d have made the six, and gone into the knock-out as the form team. They finished ninth. Laws was out of a job 18 months later.
Carlos had a dream
Of Sheffield Wednesday’s 31 managers prior to Carlos Carvalhal, 27 had been English with three Scots and one Welshman. He was not an obvious choice, for this and other reasons.
Between 1998 and 2012 he managed 15 clubs in Greece, Turkey and his homeland Portugal. Prior to his appointment at Hillsborough in 2015 he’d been inactive professionally for nearly three years, and had never played or managed in England before. He did, however, write a book entitled Soccer – Developing a Know-How which focuses on his theory of “tactical periodisation” and the “principle of horizontal alternation specificity”, particularly with regards to the Galatasaray team of 2010/11.
The Telegraph’s Jonathan Liew has read it so you don’t have to and it includes such gems as: “Tactical Periodisation is a practice concept that has a Conceptual Matrix – the play, the collective intent, the Tactical, supported by the Game’s MacroPrinciples; it’s operationalised based on another matrix, the Methodological that is supported by its own Methodological Principles, respecting a Standard Morphocycle in building a Specific style of playing.”
As well as working through a dozen managers and hundreds of players in their forlorn quest to bring Premier League football back to the leafy bit of the Steel City, Sheff Wed have also had more than their fair share of dodgy owners. Dave Allen ended up hated (remember the black balloons protest on our promotion day at Hillsborough), Ken Bates was circling for a while, Milan Mandaric stuck around for a bit. Carvalhal’s arrival coincided with the arrival of Dejphon Chansiri, a Thai businessman whose company is the world’s largest producer of canned tuna – he’s now seemingly aiming to match what he makes from processed fish with income from some of the Championship’s most extortionately priced tickets.
When an out-of-work Portuguese manager who hasn’t had a job for three years but apparently did his pro-licence with Jose Mourinho suddenly pitches up at a Championship club under new Far Eastern ownership you can’t help but smell – particularly as a QPR fan – a dodgy agent at work somewhere.
But Carvalhal’s eclectic CV and rapid progression through clubs masks significant achievements. In 2002 he led Portuguese Third Division side Leixões to their equivalent of the FA Cup Final where they lost narrowly to Sporting Lisbon, conceding a blatantly offside goal and hitting the post twice themselves. Carvalhal describes the referee that day as “a catastrophe”. In 2008 he exacted some sort of revenge by beating Sporting in the final of the secondary cup competition with Setúbal, qualifying for Europe and finishing sixth in the league with one of the best defensive records in Europe.
A bold start to life in South Yorkshire – just three defeats in his first 19 matches and a 3-0 home win against Arsenal in the League Cup – had the natives believing again. The team has been playing for two seasons now to the steady backing of a new anthem, based around Carvalhal having a dream and Wednesday being on their way back. The manager signed a three year contract extension this summer but speaks more of “the triangle” between the manager, board and supporters – as long as that is intact, the manager should stay.
Trouble at mill
For a club clinging onto one four-point miss with the play-offs under Brian Laws getting on for ten years ago, two defeats in the knock-outs in the last two seasons represents substantial progress. They should have beaten a Hull City side mired in the ongoing malicious mismanagement of the Allam family at Wembley in 2016 but froze on the big day. The hope that a year’s experience would stand them in good stead for last May’s play-offs were extinguished, on penalties, at Hillsborough, by Daniel Wagner’s excellent Huddersfield team. You only stay flavour of the month for so long in the dugouts of the Championship.
Wednesday are one of the favourites to make it third time lucky this season. The division is weaker, with Newcastle and Brighton heading out of it to be replaced by basket cases Sunderland and Hull. They have two years of promotion-battle experience under their belt and a collection of strikers every team in the division would swap them for. Jordan Rhodes, Gary Hooper, Fernando Forestieri, Sam Winnall, Steven Fletcher and Lucas Joao are all squad numbered, Atdhe Nuhiu also exists. At Preston on day one Hooper didn’t make the starting eleven and Winnall didn’t even make the matchday squad. Compare and contrast with QPR sweating the blood out of Conor Washington, Idrissa Sylla and Matt Smith.
But they lost that match at Preston (something of a bogey ground for them to be fair) and there’s the growing sense that everything isn’t quite as well as it might be. Rhodes cost £8m from Middlesbrough last season and has not fired – to the point where he asked not to be considered for a penalty in the semi-final shoot-out with Huddersfield and instead let full back Jack Hunt and defensive midfielders Sam Hutchinson and Kieran Lee go up before him. Winnall was prolific at Barnsley but doesn’t get a look in. Forestieri begged to go to Derby, of all places, this time last year and has struggled to hit the heights since. As the end of last season approached, with Carvalhal’s contract running down and his record of 16 clubs in 15 years looming large, Alan ‘Pards’ Pardew was casting admiring glances through those fucking thick rimmed glasses with no lenses he wears.
Even with Wednesday’s gates, and eye-watering ticket prices, and even allowing for relaxed financial fair play rules, there’s only so many £8m Jordan Rhodes you can buy. Burnley’s George Boyd looks like a superb acquisition this summer but he is their only purchase so far. Attempts to cure a shortage at centre half by signing Sean Morrison from Cardiff (decent idea, turned them down) and more recently Johan Djourou (laughable, no more drink for you) from Hamburg have come to nought.
FFP says clubs cannot lose more than £39m over a rolling three-year period and, in a clear sign of panic that they’re going to breach that, the club is asking supporters to fork out upfront for a three-year season ticket which would start as soon as promotion to the Premier League is achieved. Cynically marketed as “Club 1867” to mark the 150th anniversary of the club, it’s asking people to pay now (£1,500 behind the goal, £1,800 down one side, £2,100 in the main stand) for a three-year season ticket which is only valid once/if promotion is achieved. Supporters gambling on future achievement, the club already spending its future income.
Other, smaller, things you might recognise from when glorious new dawns at QPR have unravelled have started happening: the club crest was changed without consultation to a worse-looking version; this year’s kit has turned up late, and is still not available to purchase from the club shop a week into the season at the time of writing.
Despite QPR’s bright start against Reading they look fairly ripe for Wedsnesday to tee-off on and blow a few cobwebs away. But if that doesn’t happen, Carvalhal’s special song may be replaced by discontent from long-suffering locals being asked to fork over considerable amounts of hard-earned for the privilege.
The 2017/18 season is starting to feel not so much like third time lucky, but make or break for Sheffield Wednesday.
The Twitter @loftforwords
Pictures – Action Images
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