BY HUGH WRAGG
Fifty matches, little in the way of entertainment, record-low goals total, record-equalling defence.
Even the most fanatical Wednesdayite would struggle to be engaged by a review of the 2014/15 season that reads ‘and then we won there, lost at home to Wolves, drew away at Bolton…’
Last season could prove to be a water-shed moment for Wednesday. So let’s instead look at the moments that could have a lasting effect on the future and sweep under the carpet the Tuesday night 0-0’s, of which, it seemed at the time, were plentiful.
Land of fire and false dawns
June 2014 was a terrific time to be blue and white. Wednesday were purchased by a wealthy-beyond-compare oil baron, Azerbaijani Hafiz Mammadov, a man with links to Atlético Madrid and recently promoted RC Lens in France. His aggressive financing would – we hoped – finally see us challenge for promotion.
The ‘r’ word then overshadowed the summer. Ratified – a word I’ve seldom seen in football reportage before or since. Local radio phone-ins, the Sheffield press and even Twitter became obsessed with the word.
Weeks dragged on, punctuated by some free transfer arrivals and the worrying sale of star asset Michail Antonio to Nottingham Forest. Then, shady details about the financial situation at Lens and the stability of Mammadov’s investments surfaced.
Milan Mandaric pulled the plug on the deal. Back to square one. Another season of commonplace, forgettable Championship football in prospect.
The Championship, Part One
August and September would prove to be a good indicator of both Wednesday’s outstanding successes and progress-halting limitations over the season to come.
Keeping clean sheets had been a problem the year previously, so Stuart Gray looked to rectify this by signing Kieren Westwood (free, Sunderland) and Tom Lees (nominal fee, Leeds).
Both were inspired signings.
Victory at Brighton, fair draws at home to bogey-side Derby and early pace-setters Millwall preceded away victory at Middlesbrough. Stevie May had opened his account, we enjoyed a run of four consecutive clean-sheets and beat Premier League Burnley away in the League Cup.
Almost 30,000 watched Wednesday defeat Reading courtesy of another goal for Stevie May.
Our back four was settled, Portuguese midfield grafter Jose Semedo was outstanding and fans were salivating over the prospect of May’s goals. The dark cloud of the aborted summer takeover was long forgotten. Things were going well, suspiciously well.
A 7-0 Cup defeat at Manchester City then burst the Wednesday bubble, somewhat. Seven second-half goals unfortunately threw the side off; the Owls were quickly winless in ten, but crucially, remained tight at the back, only losing three. Two of these defeats were against clubs destined for the ‘Promised Land’.
Moving forward, any form of pressing intensity was lost, sub-standard wide play (the brief loan of Royston Drenthe aside) and terrible form in front of goal was inhibiting progress.
Suddenly Stevie May looked lightweight, the much maligned Atdhe Nuhiu couldn’t buy a goal, and loan signings Hallam Hope (Everton) and Gary Taylor-Fletcher (Leicester City) were both disasters.
Christmas approached with Wednesday stumbling around mid-table.
Enter Lewis McGugan, stage left
Wednesday remained toothless in wide areas, but McGugan’s arrival brought a level of composure, measured passing and driving runs that have been absent at Hillsborough, at this level at least, for many, many years.
Five wins in eight at the turn of the year propelled Wednesday back into the top 10, and only a few points off of Watford – yes, Watford. Play-off hopes were distant at best but anyone genuinely looking over their shoulder had their neck cricked back in a forward direction.
Even another date with Manchester City wouldn’t derail us.
Atdhe Nuhiu’s goal to take the lead at Eastlands gave way to the best goal celebration I can remember. Television footage of the goal itself contains scenes of City fans pointing, smiling and laughing at the Wednesday fans. Wednesday entered the break ahead, and wouldn’t surrender the lead until Manuel Pellegrini mobilised some of the £150million worth of talent sitting on his bench, Unfortunately, Wednesday surrendered an FA Cup Fourth Round berth courtesy of two late James Milner goals.
Unlike the seven goal lesson, Wednesday were inspired by a superb performance and the following week hammered another nail in Stuart Pearce’s Nottingham Forest coffin by delivering the display of the season.
By the end of January, Wednesday were nine points off the play-offs with one game in hand.
Still struggling for goals, however, any late charge looked unlikely.
The takeover and the Championship Part Two
And here is that ‘watershed moment’. The purchase of the club by Dejphon Chansiri, Thai food-magnate and total football amateur was greeted with excitement, expectation and gratitude in the direction of the overwhelmingly respected Milan Mandaric.
Mandaric purchased Wednesday for £1 in 2010, made a deal with the Co-Op bank and other loan note holders, stabilised the club from within and sold it after four-and-a-half-years for £37.5m, playing comfortably in a division higher than when he took over and with a wage bill that had seen minimal increase since his arrival. Moneyball, anyone?
As for Chansiri, the opening weeks of his tenure saw Wednesday slot comfortably into mid-table, leaving the final few months of the season as nothing more than a footnote. Chansiri’s promises of aggressively financing Wednesday to the Premier League by the club’s sesquicentennial year in 2017 had fostered debate as to where this seemingly unlimited pot of gold needed to be spent.
Hillsborough’s terrible pitch would be ripped up, the club is to have the ‘biggest screen in the football league’ to replace its 1980s predecessor and all her mid-game failures.
‘RIP, SHHHHHHHHHH T’ – if you know, you know.
On the pitch, Lewis McGugan was still leading a merry dance in the centre of midfield and many see his capture from Watford as key to Wednesday’s future. It looks as if Player of the Season Westwood will stay despite adoring glances from Merseyside, which would be a bonus.
The teams promoted from this division have quality (and the frequently referenced depth) in every position and Premier League standard players in most. Wednesday have neither of these and so a total rebuild of the playing squad will be necessary. Promotion will not come next year, barring miracles, and fans need to recognise this. Spouting nonsense on the internet in November when the team lies in 9th place helps nobody.
And the BAFTA for Best Supporting Actor goes to…
Sheffield Wednesday. Three games to go, and Bournemouth lie in top spot. They are the best team in the division, but may still be playing in it next season. Wednesday hit the south-coast with tenacity, fairly attractive football, and a very late goal. After taking the lead and then surrendering it, The Owls took a deserved point with a 97th minute Chris Maguire penalty.
By the time Wednesday arrived at Vicarage Road on the final day, both Watford and Bournemouth were sure of their Premier League status. There would be a final day title decider.
And Wednesday played a starring role again. After going behind in the first half, another very late Nuhiu leveller meant the points were shared and the title would go to the club ruing our existence just a fortnight previously?
Our pleasure, AFC Bournemouth.
Wednesday finished in 13th on 60 points, a level that represents one of the best league finishes this century (!) and one from which progress *towards* the top six is achievable next season. The club also equalled a clean sheet record that has stood since the managerial tenure of Jack Charlton in the early 1980s. At times the defence showed a spirit and level of commitment that was reminiscent of the big man himself. Their ability to maintain that next season will be key to progress.
There is a spine of a team which can move forward; Lees, Westwood, captain Glenn Loovens and McGugan (transfer pending) with a couple of the club’s younger talents look set to be involved next year.
The club bade farewell to long servant Lewis Buxton, whose seven year stay includes a promotion, a Player of the Year winning campaign, a double league win over United and the name-tag ‘The White Cafu’. Injury prone and the wrong side of 30, it was a shame to see him leave, but ultimately the right decision.
Wednesdayites wait excitedly for that first piece of transfer news. The upcoming summer could be revolutionary. As far as this club is concerned, don’t expect it to be straight forward.
See you in August.
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