Even with the World Cup and the excitement it brings soon approaching, just like most English football fans, I can’t help but keep one eye on next season. After a year of ups and downs for Sheffield Wednesday – the sacking of manager Dave Jones and introduction of the Stuart Gray and Lee Bullen as manager and first team coach combination, what can be realistically expected in 2014/2015 from the Championship side?
For many years now, it’s been no hidden secret that Wednesday have heavily relied upon the loan system, be it for promotion from League One in 2011/12 or avoiding relegation on numerous occasions. Great examples that come to mind are Ben Marshall and Michail Antonio (signed at the end of the campaign from Reading) who both helped the Owls clinch promotion during loan spells in the 2011/12 season. Leroy Lita was deemed an Owls hero for his contribution in the later stages of the 2012/13 campaign that saw Wednesday seal Championship status – in their first season back following a two-year absence – on the final day of the season.
With various departures already this summer, which include fan favorites like Jermaine and Reda Johnson, there’s already a sense around Hillsborough that Stuart Gray and his team are seriously looking to improve the questionable quality from the past two seasons and build on last season’s 16th placed finish.
The general consensus coming from many Owls fans is that the team require a consistent goal scoring striker, which was highlighted during Connor Wickham’s second loan spell in which he scored 8 goals and provided 2 assists in 11 games. However I believe what’s more important is a strong spine down the center; a goalkeeper, a centre-back, a central midfielder and a striker who all have experience and the quality required to make a top half finish if not push for promotion. The goalkeeper we already have in Chris Kirkland is one who has produced some game-saving performances during his two year spell at the club, which is shown through the awards he has received during that time. However other key positions are still vacant gaps that must be filled early on in the summer transfer window if we want to achieve a top half finish.
So far during his time at the club, many supporters have praised the positive changes Stuart Gray has made which have shown in the club’s results since his appointment. On December 1, Dave Jones was sacked and the Owls sat second bottom of the Championship with only 11 points after 16 games, a full five points off of safety! After this point, Stuart Gray and his men picked up 42 points from 30 games, averaging 1.4 points per game, meaning the Owls finished 16th in the league and clear of the relegation zone by nine points. In hindsight, the job Stuart Gray has done may not seem impressive but had the league begun when Gray took over the Owls would have finished in 12th place with a team that had low morale upon his appointment and weren’t “his players,” so to speak.
The brand of football Gray has tried to put in place has varied depending on the opponent; against stronger sides a much more defensive, counter-attacking style of play, and against weaker sides we’ve seen more possession football with the aim of moving the ball down the wings with huge involvement from the fullbacks. This has reassured the Owls fans that the man in charge has an acceptable level of tactical awareness to bring the team forward next season. However, improvements must be made next season as at times we have seen Owls sides out there who looked too one dimensional for the majority of the 90 minutes and without reluctance, almost like a second nature, changed back to the direct style of football known as the “hoof ball.”
There has also been a breakthrough of young up-and-coming players who weren’t in the frame for first team football last season but are being given the chance to prove their worth. Stand out players include Liam Palmer, Chris Maguire and Caolon Lavery who all have big potential, explaining why they are currently being watched by other clubs.
After years of financial insecurity, Milan Mandarić’s buyout of the club a few seasons ago has left the Owls – by footballing standards – financially stable. So far we’ve yet to see the chairman spend big on players, a policy which we, the fans, believe is him waiting for a time where he believes the club are ready to push for promotion. In my opinion, that has to be within the next two seasons. The chairman can also take reassurance in consistent income from match day tickets for the future; last season despite the Owls finishing 16th, they had the 9th largest home attendance in the Championship with crowds averaging over 21,000. This has the potential to be even bigger as Hillsborough is not just the biggest ground outside the Premier League (capacity of 39,732). It’s in fact the 11th largest in the whole of England.
Next steps for the Owls
I personally believe that as a club we, Sheffield Wednesday, now have the finances, the correct manager, a good youth set up and the fans – which have been the constant success throughout the club’s history — to push for a top half finish if not potentially sneak into the playoffs. However all this is dependent upon the financial backing of the chairman and judgement of Stuart Gary when signing players to add to the squad. His squad must be a compromise of talented youth and players with high championship and/or Premier League experience.