Following the exploits of Norwich and Southampton over the past two seasons, it’s now almost expected that a big club from League 1 can use the Championship as a stepping stone. This year, Sheffield Wedneday could be that team: Tom Johnson provides his thoughts:
Something strange is happening at Sheffield Wednesday at the moment and there is a feeling that hasn’t been apparent for quite some time. It is a strange sensation that has become so alien in parts of S6 that some fans have forgotten what to call it. For the first time since Benito Carbone and Paolo Di Canio graced the team’s blue and white stripes there is a climate of optimism around Hillsborough.
The promotion from League One last season was only made sweeter by the fact it was snatched from underneath bitter rivals Sheffield United’s feet after the penultimate game and confirmed in glorious fashion at Hillsborough on the final day. The scenes then will be remembered for a long time, as years of woe on and off the pitch have made Sheffield Wednesday quite an unhappy club to support. For this reason there is still a feeling of worry that absorbs all Wednesdayites as though we are all part of The Matrix and about to swallow the red pill that reveals to us that we aren’t even in the Blue Square Premier League.
When Milan Mandarić bought the club last year, his first aim was to get the Owls back into the Championship and after a strange yet inspired decision to sack lifelong Wednesday fan Gary Megson for Dave Jones, it has finally happened. So what now for the Yorkshiremen?
When a club gets promoted there is a checklist that needs to be completed in order to have any kind of hope for the coming season. In typical Blue Peter fashion, here’s one I made earlier:
- Add a mix of quality and experience to the squad.
- Make sure the happiness surrounding the club post-promotion is carried into the start of the new season, usually through keeping the fans upbeat.
- Don’t make any financial gambles.
- Make sure the players are looking forward to the challenge and are not worried about making the step up.
In order to tick off the first two points on the checklist Dave Jones had to make the temporary signing of Michail Antonio a permanent one. In the first half of last season Ben Marshall was the star loan player that Megson used to whip in quality crosses for one of our towering centre backs or centre forwards to score from set pieces but Marshall didn’t stay. Then results deteriorated and Megson eventually got fired.
Dave Jones used Antonio’s pace and trickery to great effect in the new year and it paid off. He was pivotal in the bid to catch up with Sheffield United and scored a ninety fifth minute winner against Carlisle to get us within a point of our rivals and shift the momentum in our favour.
Antonio is held in high regard by the Hillsborough faithful and by publicly identifying him as a main transfer target Jones is doing what every fan in blue and white would do; therefore gaining their trust. So when it surfaced that the Owls had a bid of £350,000 rejected, many wondered why on earth we weren’t doing everything in our power to make the youngster a Wednesday player?
Fortunately a fresh bid of £750,000 is said to have been accepted – according to the buzz on the Wednesday rumour pages – and the quicker Antonio is made a Wednesday player the better the morale in the team and amongst the fans.
This is vital to any manager of Sheffield Wednesday because when morale is down and the players don’t perform, Hillsborough can be a nasty place to play. I know as I’ve been in the crowd during some very dark days.
Jones has also added plenty to the squad in terms of experience and skill to keep the current squad on their toes. Chris Kirkland, Chris Maguire, Diogo Amado, Kieran Lee, Joe Mattock, Anthony Gardner and Slovenian international Nejc Pečnik constitute a group in possession of experience at the top level alongside youngsters desperate to prove themselves on the big stage.
Overall our transfer dealings have been welcomed but I saw a rumour recently that made my blood curdle. Dave Jones announced his interest in taking on Joey Barton if he becomes available. I don’t need to tell you why Joey Barton is bad for any club because it has been said so many times before but if this man signs up, it could attract a lot of negative press and change the mood in the camp dramatically. Wherever he has been he has only cared about how he is perceived and not about the fortunes of the club and I only hope his inflated ego will stop him from moving down a division.
Jones seems to have all the ingredients for a tasty season and so much so that the mention of ‘doing a Norwich or Southampton’ has even been uttered in Owlerton. Due to a lot of false dawns over the years it is admittedly talked about in the same breath Lord Voldemort gets mentioned in the Harry Potter series but at least it’s out there.
When Mandarić first took control of the club, many an Owls fan was worried and who wouldn’t be? – they say there is no smoke without fire and with Mandarić there’d be more smoke than in Mario Balotelli’s bathroom – but it’s a case of so far, so good for Milan. Off the pitch he has made sure to keep the fans happy by releasing the first phase of season tickets and making them cheaper than the last time we were in the Championship. Not only that but we have introduced a direct debit scheme to allow fans to pay over a period of six months rather than up front, contributing to more than 4,000 extra season tickets being sold in comparison to last year. Mandarić knows the importance of the fans and is making sure he keeps the good times rolling so that the vibe of ecstasy that engulfed the club last season can be carried into the new one.
With all these new signings and affordable season tickets you may be wondering why on earth any Sheffield Wednesday fan would be worried about next season but while the unpredictability of the lower leagues in England is a joy for the neutrals, it’s also one of the chief reasons for heart pressure to soar to new highs for any hardcore fan.
With the Championship being so unpredictable, the importance of a good start can be the difference between a top half finish and relegation – just look at Brighton last season. This is not the first time Wednesday have bounced back from League One as it happened in 2005 via the playoffs. After that we never seemed stable in the Championship, feeling a bit like Renton in Trainspotting when he’s in the dock at the court for robbery; we could talk the talk in that situation but found it very difficult to walk the walk and allowed the pessimism off the pitch to creep onto the field of play. Eventually we were relegated again and that was when the doom mongering which I link strangely and endearingly with the Hillsbrough hardcore set in like concrete cancer.
The cut throat actions of Mandarić must not be forgotten too. During his time at Leicester City he went through four managers in a little over a season before settling on Nigel Pearson and although his dismissal of Gary Megson may have lead to an upturn in the Owls form but it was incredibly harsh and left a nasty taste in the mouths of many fans.
However this time around we have money to spend and players that want to play. On the swfc website a video comes up showing one of our established midfielders, Chris Lines, saying how ‘For the first time I’m actually excited about pre-season.’ Lines was a consistent performer last year along with Gary Madine ‘the Goal Machine’, Captain Rob Jones and League one PFA player of the year José Semedo. With Jermaine Johnson and Mark Beevers both signing new deals, we actually have players that want to stay and not just use us as a stepping stone.
This is crucial for our future because for those that are a bit below the star performers in terms of class, playing for the club certainly isn’t meaningless. Rather than a game being a stage for the big timers to show off their skills to potential suitors, it is now like a Roman fortress which we use to tell the world that we are here and we mean business. But like any Roman fortress the spectators can turn on you.
This is my main concern for next season and as much as it pains me to say – it’s our fans. In my opinion the years of relegation battles, broken promises by chairmen and managers alike and some poor signings in regards to attitude have meant that most Sheffield Wednesday supporters expect the worse when a goal is conceded or a penalty missed. I know because I have been a member of the crowd that has turned on its players quicker than Nick Clegg turned his back on the students of England. For our return to the Championship we need to approach each game as though it isn’t the end of the world if we don’t win, to get behind a player if he makes a mistake and to give our manager full support in the bad times as well as the good.
I may be biased but I believe Sheffield Wednesday is a big club that deserves to play in the Premier League. We have the stadium, a chairman willing to invest in us and now we have a manager that knows how to get there because he has done it before. Last season was the first time since I was 10 that I was proud to say I supported Sheffield Wednesday and in order to keep that pride, we as fans need to treat our team with respect and encouragement.
We have the team ready for the Championship, a manager ready for the Championship and a chairman ready for the Championship. Let’s give them the support ready for the Championship and dare I say it, a promotion push?