If you think about the qualities of Milan Mandaric, patience and loyalty would not be the first things that spring to mind. So after Sheffield Wednesday’s home defeat to Leicester City on Saturday which dropped his side into the bottom three, Dave Jones may be cautious about planning too far ahead in his managerial future. Mandaric released a statement on the club’s website calling for Wednesday’s “football family” to stick together and trust in him, and his manager, to get the results needed to move them up the table.
It didn’t look like it was going to be this way in August. Wednesday had been on a staggering run of form. Dave Jones’ side headed to Crystal Palace on the first day of September 19 games unbeaten. One more needed for a club record.
Jones had taken over from a club legend in Gary Megson, controversially dismissed by Mandaric despite ending a barren run by beating local rivals United 1-0 at Hillsborough. Jones, and his new chairman, faced a backlash from Owls fans incandescent that their man Megson had been dispensed with so callously.
But it’s the way you deal with adversity that says a lot about you. And as Rafa Benitez has pointed out this weekend, the way to win hostile fans over is to win games. And the new Jones boys did exactly that, winning and winning, putting together a blistering run to turn up the heat on Danny Wilson’s Blades. It should not be forgotten that Wilson’s men went on a pretty amazing run themselves but it was ultimately not enough to keep pace with Wednesday and the Owls were promoted.
So, on a wave of confidence and optimism, and backed by a raucous away following, Wednesday started the Championship season pretty well. Two wins and a draw in August was a great start and the fans began to dare to dream of doing a Southampton or Norwich, bouncing back into the Premier League with a double promotion. But that game at Selhurst Park is where the season began to unravel for Jones and his team. The end to the unbeaten run was always likely to be a test. When you are going into every game thinking you’re going to win, what happens when you lose?
The answer for Wednesday was lose again and forget how to win. The next nine games yielded just two points as the wheels fell off Wednesday’s promotion bandwagon and they started free falling down the table. Safety began to look an appealing proposition.
So what’s gone wrong? Many Wednesday fans now seem to blame Jones, and perhaps reasonably so, despite that rich run of form that got them to the league they’re in now. His tinkering of the promotion winning side has perplexed fans as he has tried to rediscover the blend for winning football. Fifteen players have made their debuts for Wednesday this season, and he has used 26 players in the league already this season. Sounds a lot, but it is comparable to the other promoted sides (Charlton have used 25 and Huddersfield 22). But only two players have started every league game – the biggest signing of the summer Michael Antonio and the goalkeeper Chris Kirkland.
Antonio terrorised League One when on loan from Reading at the end of last season and many fans both sides of the city point to him as the reason the Owls went up. He has struggled to find the goals and assists so easy to come by this season but remains the side’s most dangerous threat. But goals represent a big problem for Wednesday. The highest goalscorer in the league with four is Ross Barkley, the talented Everton midfielder whose loan has been ended early thanks to Phil Neville’s injury. Otherwise Chris O’Grady’s return of 3 goals in 15 games is the best it gets. The loan signing of Jay Bothroyd promised much but he has failed to deliver, and he has been on the receiving end of frustrated Wednesday fans on Twitter as a consequence. The loan deadline day signing of injury-plagued Mamady Sidibe from Stoke smacked a little of desperation, as moves for Connor Wickham and Cameron Jerome were rebuffed.
Kirkland has also struggled, having kept just one clean sheet all season. Wednesday were strong at the back last season but this season they seem porous, and Jones’ key defensive summer signings in Anthony Gardner, Martin Taylor and Kirkland himself have been disappointing in their performances. In fact few of Jones’ signings have really come off, leading to growing murmurings from disgruntled fans that he got Wednesday up with Megson’s team.
Wednesday have lost four on the bounce after picking up two crucial wins against fellow strugglers Ipswich Town and Peterborough United. Rumours abound amongst Wednesdayites that Jones is on the verge of the sack, potentially as early as this week if Tuesday night’s game at home to Watford goes sour. This might seem a little harsh, especially given that those four defeats all came against sides likely to be play off contenders. The games coming up over the next month, including Bristol City and Charlton at home and Barnsley away should be more significant. Poor results in these three games would really increase the pressure on Jones, especially with the transfer window a potential salvation for a new manager.
This really depends on Mandaric though and his expectations for the season. He told the Telegraph following promotion that “this club belongs in the top 10 of this country”. However he suggested that this was not his immediate vision saying “I’m not going to tell you we will get to the Premier League next year. That would be wrong…But we have a plan to get there”. Mandaric’s plan is not likely to include a return to League One. In his club statement he said “I will manage these difficulties with the best interests of Sheffield Wednesday at heart”, echoing the words he used when justifying the sacking of Megson. Dave Jones needs to find that winning formula, and fast.