Should Wednesday fans be looking up or down?
Stuart Gray has now been ensconced as Sheffield Wednesday manager for a year. His post wasn’t made official until January of this year, but he initially took charge of the first team as caretaker manager when Dave Jones left at the end of November last year.
Since that time, Wednesday seem to be making steady progress on limited funds. A comfortable relegation-avoiding season last year seems to be being steadily built on this year. After Saturday’s victory over Wigan Athletic, Wednesday lie 13th – almost bang in the middle of the table and six points behind Blackburn Rovers, who currently occupy the last of the play-off places in sixth.
At the time of Dave Jones’s sacking, Wednesday were just one off the bottom and facing a long scrap against relegation. Jones might have turned things around himself, but Gray certainly did and whilst fans always hope for more, Championship survival is the absolute bottom line.
In other words, a steadying of the ship was vital and the first couple of months of the new campaign have also been mildly encouraging given the position the club were in last year. But Owls fans want more and justifiably see themselves as a big club of Premier League status. So can that happen under Gray and with the funds he has available at his disposal?
No one knows the answer to that question and Gray hasn’t really been tried and tested at this sort of level for any great length of time. His longest stint in a managerial capacity came at Northampton Town between January 2007 and September 2009 and it doesn’t make for pleasant reading for Wednesday fans. Gray was sacked as the boss when Northampton were relegated from League One at the end of the 2008–09 season and then placed 16th in League Two after just six games of the following season.
But there are myriad reasons why managers fail at clubs and it isn’t always of their own doing. There is only so much one man can achieve in the face of an obstructive or over-bearing owner or board of directors, for example, and with limited funds etc. So we have to base our judgement on the current situation. On this basis, the jury is still out.
As we’ve said already, the bottom line is safety. But as Wednesday don’t yet look in really serious danger of going down or of getting caught up in the relegation scrap, our eyes naturally drift up the table to weigh up whether getting into a play-off place is at all realistic.
As things stand, the bookies think this is unlikely. At the time of writing, Wednesday are 20-1 shots in the football betting to be promoted with Betfair, whilst the aforementioned Blackburn are priced at just 4-1.
This probably reflects their realistic chances. The squad doesn’t look strong enough to mount a serious challenge in trying to make the play-offs as things stand. Gray is doing his utmost to make the shrewdest deals he possibly can in the transfer market – but he can only do so much with limited funds available.
What’s more, to try and make their way up the table, Wednesday will surely have to start playing more attacking football. And this simultaneously opens them up to risk. So whilst they’re just short of the play-off spots, they’re also only seven points off the relegation zone as the whole division is very tightly paced, points-wise, towards the middle and lower end of the table. Ask any Wednesday fan what the priority is – and it’s to stay in the division at the very least – particularly with fierce rivals Sheffield United knocking on the door of promotion from League One.
Currently, United lie in fifth place and will surely be in the mix for automatic promotion come next May. To fall through the trapdoor as their city rivals move the other way is too terrible a scenario to even contemplate for Wednesday fans and Gray will no doubt realise that he’ll quickly be sacrificed if the Owls start looking like relegation fodder again. So it’s a fine balance for the man at the helm – always a very unenviable task.
Fans will also be conscious of the fact that, before beating Wigan, Wednesday’s run had been uninspiring to say the least. The Owls had gone 10 league games without a win – with their previous three points coming at home to Reading back in September. And even that 1-0 home win wasn’t exactly emphatic. To make matters worse, if we look at Wednesday’s form at Hillsborough in the league before then – we have to go all the way back to March for their previous win, so poor was their home form. This is why there was mounting discontent at Hillsborough prior to beating Wigan. With no win in their previous 10 games, Wednesday had gone more than 400 minutes without scoring a goal at home. And if anything, The Owls were lucky to come away from Hillsborough with one point after their lacklustre 0-0 home draw against local rivals Rotherham at the last time of asking. The Millers dominated play and possession for long periods and came closer to hitting the net than the home side.
It’s really only Wednesday’s impressive run of dogged away draws that has kept them out of the relegation zone so far. From 10 away games so far this season, Wednesday have won three and drawn five – a far more impressive record than their home performances. This tends to suggest the players feel under greater pressure at Hillsborough than on the road – where they perhaps play in a more relaxed way.
So do Wednesday fans look up to the play-offs with justifiable optimism or down with fear at the relegation zone? Beating Wigan gives cause for new optimism and Gray had been feeling the pressure before now suggesting Wednesday’s luck is changing. But a relegation fight looks a far more likely prospect given that past run of form.