By Rob McHugh @mchughr @TLE_Sport
Several clubs who were mainstays in the top flight at the end of the 20th Century have had a millennium to forget, and few have had a worse time than Sheffield Wednesday. League Cup champions in 1991, and defeated League and FA Cup finalists in 1993, the Owls entered the 90’s with real reasons to believe the club could challenge for top honours on a consistent basis. But this hope fell away amongst financial turmoil and relegation from the top flight, and since 2000, the club have faced one of the most enduring periods of misery in recent footballing memory. Nonetheless there are some real reasons for optimism around Hillsborough at the moment and a genuine belief that things may be beginning to turn around for this famous old club. It has been reported that a Thai Consortium are seriously interested in investing in Wednesday, which many hope will allow the club to finally challenge for a return to the Barclays Premier League.
Wednesday’s resurgence began in earnest with the takeover of the club by Milan Mandaric in 2010, for the nominal fee of £1. Up to that point, the Owls had never been on a solid financial footing since their first problems emerged prior to relegation from the Premier League in the late 90’s. Although Mandaric is not the super-rich owner most football clubs dream of, he is a steady hand and saved the club from going into administration, a near certainty following the disastrous relegation in 2010, partly caused by mismanagement under former chairman Lee Strafford. He gambled and lost that England would be granted the 2018 World Cup, and his dubious business model left the club teetering on the brink.
A more solid financial footing has allowed Wednesday to achieve more stability on the pitch, assembling a playing squad which, with the right additions in key roles, could genuinely push for promotion. Gone are the days when the likes Kim Olsen, Adam Proudlock and Jon Beswetherick led Wednesday to a 16th place finish in the final year of the old Division 2. Also seemingly gone are the days when The Owls were forced to let their best players go because of financial constraints. Players such as Chris Brunt and Glenn Whelan, who got their first breaks at Wednesday, were sold because the club could not afford to let them leave on free transfers at the end of their contracts. Wednesday now have a playing squad filled with good quality Championship players and a few who look like they could easily play at a higher level. Kieran Westwood, now linked with Liverpool, was a very astute signing on a free transfer in the summer, as was former England Under-21 defender Tom Lees. He now looks capable of fulfilling the early promise he showed at Leeds, and has benefitted from moving away from the turmoil at Elland Road.
The Owls also now have a tactically astute management team, led by Head Coach Stuart Gray. Gray was first brought in as assistant to Dave Jones and has built one of the meanest defences in the Championship which has made Wednesday a very difficult team to beat. At times the team has suffered from a lack of creativity, which Gray is looking to address in the January transfer window having added highly rated Lewis Baker from Chelsea on loan, and hopes to also add Lewis McGugan on loan from Watford until the end of this season. If Wednesday are able to add a cutting edge to their impressive defence, it is not hard to imagine them going on a run in the second half of the Championship season and pushing for the Playoffs.
Nevertheless Wednesday fans by now are rightly wary of false dawns, as there have been plenty at Hillsborough in the last 15 years. The progress under Mandaric could easily be derailed by the wrong takeover, so it is important that he sells to the right people, who are serious about running the club in a sustainable manner which allows progress up through the Championship into the Premier League. As with several other clubs outside of the top flight, Sheffield Wednesday should be performing better. They have a huge ground (even if it does need a new scoreboard) and a wonderful, loyal fan base that deserves a team in the top flight. Hopefully, the right consortium comes along in the near future to take the club back to where it belongs.