Resurgent Sheffield Wednesday Seeking Top-Level Perch
In the 1950s, Sheffield Wednesday were known as the ‘yo-yo club’, oscillating between the old Division One and Division Two seven times during the decade. With 2006/07’s ninth-place Championship finish being the pinnacle of a meagre three successful seasons since their Premier League relegation in 2000, many Owls fans might settle for a similar period of pinballing between the top two tiers of the English game in the coming years.
However, expectations are always high at Hillsborough as befits a club with an immense floating support to add to the loyal 16,000 who attended the less glamorous fixtures in last season’s League One schedule, and the old chestnut of ‘consolidation’ many not be in many Wednesdayites’ thinking.
So, how will The Owls fare in the Championship next season? Well firstly they have arguably the best asset that any club can have, namely a top-class manager. Dave Jones is in the vanguard of his profession, having won the last two divisional Manager of the Month awards of the 2011-12 season and finishing top of the final-quarter LMA Managers’ Performance table. His results compare favourably with the vast majority of his peers. With Jones’s experience of working in the second tier no one should doubt that The Owls are in safe hands.
There is Championship experience in the squad and all of Jones’s summer signings from English clubs have experience at that level or higher with the exception of Kieran Lee who nevertheless remains an exciting prospect after sweeping the boards at the Oldham Athletic player of the season awards for the past two seasons. Slovenian international Nejc Pecnik and fellow midfielder, the Portuguese Diogo Amado are unknown quantities in this country, as is Rhys McCabe who made nine appearances for Glasgow Rangers last season and was handed a surprise debut in Wednesday’s opening league fixture at Derby County.
The only survivors from the Owls side that was relegated from the division in 2010 are young centre-half Mark Beevers, the ever-reliable Lewis Buxton and scintillating winger, Jermaine Johnson. Johnson has often been labelled the best player outside the Premier League and when confident and in full flight, the Jamaican is almost unstoppable. Some fans complain about his inconsistency but wingers who can sparkle constantly in virtually every game are almost unheard of and very few players possess his ability to scorch past opponents. As has happened in the past, it is likely that Johnson will win Wednesday points in games in which they have struggled.
Jones has jettisoned his predecessor’s direct style of play, but to Gary Megson’s credit, he was responsible for the signing of Wednesday’s most popular player since their Premiership days in José Semedo. The Portuguese midfielder monopolised Wednesday’s player of the season awards in their promotion-winning campaign and his unerring ability to win the ball for the team should be repeated at the higher level.
Also, integral to the Owls’ chances of making their mark in the Championship is ex-loanee Michail Antonio who was hugely influential in Wednesday’s stupendous unbeaten run in the final 14 games of last season. Jones’s attempts to sign him from Reading permanently bore fruit late in pre-season and Antonio will be crucial in providing the attacking incisiveness that is crucial to success at this level . He and fellow right-footer Johnson are likely to switch wings which will go some way to rectifying the weakness on the left-hand side of midfield that has been evident since the departure of Chris Brunt to West Bromwich Albion in 2007 although it remains to be seen if a left-footed wideman will be necessary as Mike Jones and Danny Mayor who provide back-up to Johnson and Antonio are both also right-footed.
There are no shortage of reasons for Wednesday fans to optimistic about their Championship season. A good manager, the momentum gained from their stunning run that culminated in automatic promotion, several young players who are capable of improving further and a strong physical presence should all ensure that a struggle-free season beckons. Allied to a strong team spirit, fostered by Megson and augmented by Dave Jones, mid-table should be the club’s minimum objective.
One cause for concern, however, could be in the striking department. Gary Madine, Chris O’Grady and Chris Maguire have limited Championship experience and while all possess the ability to play at this level it is likely that Jones will seek a more experienced addition to his forward line. The worry about the return from the strikers is offset by the fact that the club spread their goals around last season and defenders Reda Johnson and Miguel Llera are likely to be as dangerous set-pieces as they were in League One.
If The Owls get off to a good start, Jermaine Johnson and Antonio stay fit for the majority of the season and Jones can add at least one striker with pedigree at Championship level or higher then it is likely that Wednesday will be a formidable proposition, especially given the huge support that they can muster. This has already been witnessed in the 2-2 draw at Derby when an awe-struck Jones lavished praise on the 6,000 travelling Wednesdayites .
The manager’s calm presence, with an emphasis on passing the ball, catalysed Wednesday when he took over in February. Now can he repeat his success in the Championship? If so, one thing is for sure: there will be queues for tickets stretching down Penistone Road back to the Leppings Lane roundabout.