Hopeless Football League Teams 4: Sheffield Wednesday, 2002-3
Given the uncanny coincidence that artworks with the same title scooped the NME Album of the Year and Palme d’Or Awards in 2003, it’s appropriate that one of the blogosphere’s finest polymath’s should contribute the fourth in our fledgling series of hopeless teams. For Chris Ledger is none other than the brains behind Obscure Music and Football, a site with a sometimes unhealthy predilection for Salad (the band that is), the musical career of one Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne and the witticisms of everyone’s favourite xenophobe, Steve Claridge. Here, Chris looks back on one particularly rotten Sheffield Wednesday shower and Lord knows he had a lot of choose from based on recent years (we’ll be redressing the balance by looking back to at least one Owls side of the past for our Great Teams series in future weeks).
Some teams – Sunderland and West Bromwich Albion, in particular, spring to mind – find it easy to bounce back into the Premier League after being relegated. For others, such as Sheffield Wednesday, regaining their place in the top-flight is harder than it first seems. When the Owls were relegated from the Premier League in the 1999-2000 season, they soon became perennial strugglers in the Football League. For instance, only two of the Owls’ past eight seasons, in the second tier of English football, have not involved a relegation battle of some kind. One of them, the 2002-2003 season, ended in Sheffield Wednesday becoming the sixth former Premier League club to drop into the third tier (after Swindon Town, Oldham Athletic, Manchester City, QPR and Barnsley).The Owls’ first move at the end of the 2001-2002 season was the appointment of Terry Yorath as the club’s permanent manager, having been in charge on a temporary basis since Peter Shreeves’ resignation in October 2001. Yorath had only won 11 of his first 33 league matches in charge, but having kept Sheffield Wednesday in the First Division by a single point and taken them to the League Cup semi-final, his contract was renewed in order to maintain some much-needed continuity at the club.
Although, due to the Owls’ £20m debt, money was tight, the summer of 2002 saw some fresh faces at Hillsborough. Bringing in new strikers was Yorath’s main priority, after the Owls were the third lowest goalscorers in the 2001-2002 First Division season with only 49 goals.
Chelsea’s promising youngster Leon Knight joined the club on a season-long loan, after a highly successful temporary spell at Huddersfield Town, and Yorath fended off competition from Crystal Palace to sign prolific Brentford striker Lloyd Owusu on a free transfer. The pair, who had scored 37 goals between them in the 2001-2002 Second Division season, would provide stiff competition for Shefki Kuqi and Gerald Sibon, and they were also seen as replacements for the transfer listed Efan Ekoku and Michele Di Piedi.
Defensive changes were also made as South African goalkeeper Paul Evans and the much-derided full back Jon Beswetherick moved from Brentford and Plymouth Argyle respectively, while a proposed transfer for Rangers centre back Scott Wilson never materialised. Kevin Gallacher, Steve Harkness and Marlon Broomes were just a few of the departed players in a mass clearout, and the BBC predicted that the Owls would finish in a safe mid-table position. How wrong they were.
The fact that Knight and Owusu were ruled out of the season’s opening game against newly promoted Stoke City, through suspension and a knee injury respectively, was a troubling indicator that it could be a difficult season for Sheffield Wednesday. Although the Owls did not lose the match, they failed to score despite creating nine shots on goal. Neil Cutler was in inspired form for the Potters but Kuqi, Sibon and Simon Donnelly all missed good chances, which incurred the wrath of Yorath.
And things did not get much better, as the Owls lost their next three matches: 2-1 defeats against Reading and Rotherham United, and a pitiful 4-0 loss at Nottingham Forest. Just four games into the new season, they were second from bottom. Furthermore, by early September 2002, director Graham Thorpe resigned due to the “increased financial commitments” facing Football League clubs, despite Hallam FM agreeing to sponsor the Spion Kop stand and the Owls’ proposal to sell their training ground. On and off the field, they were becoming a club in crisis.
Winning games was clearly a problem for Wednesday. It took them until their sixth game to grab all three points, after a 2-0 home win against Sheffield United and a perfect debut for Owusu, having scored the opening goal, and they didn’t win another league game until mid-October. And, while they were losing fewer games than other struggling teams, they were drawing more: six draws in their first 13 games, to be precise, and three of them were scoreless, which led to The Guardian claiming that “Wednesday [are] still playing like it’s 1999”.
Yorath’s contract extension may have led to some continuity at Hillsborough, but there was little progression. When the manager resigned at the end of October 2002, the Owls were third from bottom and the only First Division club yet to win away from home (they finally won a league match, away from home, on New Year’s Day, after a 2-0 victory at Millmoor). From their first 21 games of the season, they had won the fewest games, a grand total of two victories, and were the division’s lowest goalscorers with 16 goals.
The former Wales manager, being a tough disciplinarian, also frequently berated his players’ efforts and was fining them as soon as pre-season started. He went as far as publicly criticising Kuqi for having “a head like a television”. Seeing that Yorath’s man-management style was tactless as best, and despite being backed by stalwart Kevin Pressman, he did the right thing by resigning, even if the BBC described the Owls’ high turnover of managers as akin to a “managerial merry-go-round”.
A new manager was quickly appointed, even if it was not the one of the big names that had been touted in the media. Considering how much they dislike Sheffield Wednesday, it did not come as a surprise when Rotherham United quickly ruled Ronnie Moore out of the running and “right club, wrong time” was Peter Reid’s verdict after he was contacted about the vacancy. George Burley was believed to have been interviewed for the role, but it was the boss of Division Three’s runaway leaders, Chris Turner of Hartlepool United, who became Sheffield Wednesday’s fifth manager in over two years.
Turner bravely claimed that he could take the Owls into Europe within five years, but his reign did not start well. It began with a 3-0 defeat at promotion chasing Norwich City and they were winless under Turner until they defeated Nottingham Forest on Boxing Day. By this point, though, they were the First Division’s basement club and taking 17 points from the first 25 league games was not promising. And, to add insult to injury, Ian Hendon and Philip Scott were suspended after being arrested on suspicion of assault. Hopeless doesn’t even come into it.
During the early months of 2003, funds were made available after Gerald Sibon joined Heerenveen – a transfer that reportedly saved the Owls nearly £400,000 in wages – and Owen Morrison departed to the red half of Sheffield. Experienced midfielder Darryl Powell joined on a free transfer and, on the negative side, Turner also signed Leyton Orient defender Dean Smith and Preston North End’s Brian Barry-Murphy.
On the plus side, several loanees had joined the club since Turner’s arrival – such as Lee Bradbury, Michael Reddy, Adam Proudlock, Allan Johnston and Gary Monk – and many of them made an immediate impact. It says a lot when Bradbury, Reddy and Proudlock’s combined tally of eight goals was greater than Knight and Owusu’s seven. But it still did not make much difference as, from 26 October 2002, the Owls remained in the relegation zone for the rest of the season.
Although there were brief moments of Sheffield Wednesday showing enough heart to climb out of the bottom three, they were unable to put a run of results together. They failed to win more than two consecutive league matches all season and it was typical when they followed an excellent 5-1 win over Coventry City by going on a five-match winless run during March 2003.
Wednesday eventually went on their best run of the season – taking 15 points from their last seven games – but it was too little, too late. After beating Wimbledon and the season’s First Division champions Portsmouth, as well as coming from behind twice to draw with Watford, they faced relegation rivals Grimsby Town at Hillsborough. And, due to other relegation-threatened sides being equally poor, beating the Mariners would have taken the Owls out of the relegation zone on goal difference, if results went their way. But, during the match’s final minutes, Steve Haslam headed a golden chance over the bar and it ended scoreless. With three games left, the Owls were now five points adrift of 21st placed Stoke City. Relegation seemed likelier than ever.
Realistically, on 21 April 2003, nothing less than a victory at Brighton & Hove Albion would do. It was recent signing Grant Holt who influenced the match’s outcome; he scored the opener after 16 minutes but, after handling a Kerry Mayo cross on 57 minutes, Bobby Zamora converted the awarded penalty to secure a 1-1 draw. On that day, it became official: Sheffield Wednesday would spend the 2003-2004 season in the Second Division.
Funnily enough, on the penultimate weekend of the season, the club achieved their best result, after beating Burnley 7-2 at Turf Moor, and their season ended on a positive note when they defeated Walsall at home. Maybe if Turner had signed Andrei Kanchelskis and Marcus Allbäck on loan, as rumoured, the Owls may not have finished 22nd and been four points shy of escaping relegation.
But, even for a relegated side, they had their fair share of luck; for instance, they scored four equalising and winning goals during second-half stoppage time. On the whole, and to put it mildly, the Owls were gutless and inept. The word you’re searching for, while describing Sheffield Wednesday’s performances during the 2002-2003 season, isn’t hapless, it’s hopeless.