8 June ~ Considering that Sheffield Wednesday have just endured the third-worst League placing in their 144-year history, there’s a genuine sense of optimism around Hillsborough. Now that Wednesday have finally shrugged off the crippling millstone of debt and neighbours United were kind enough to drop down and join us in League One, the feeling among most Owls fans is that the “natural order” of football in Sheffield will soon be restored. Admittedly, the fact that there will be Steel City derbies in the third tier for the first time since 1980 is a source of acute embarrassment for England’s fourth-largest city.
Starved of success, the bitter rivalry between Owls and Blades has created an insular attitude towards the wider world of football – “I don’t care where we finish as long as we beat them lot twice” is a common mantra from both sets of fans on local radio phone-ins.
Yet, by the end of March it looked like the clubs might not be renewing hostilities next season after all. The appointment in February of former Owls midfielder Gary Megson was supposed to have galvanised a talented yet collectively incohesive squad to push for at least a play-off spot, but things actually got a lot worse. Wednesday slipped perilously close to the relegation places and an unthinkable first appearance in the Football League’s basement division was becoming a distinct possibility. This was a scenario not even the most pessimistic of Owls would have envisaged after Milan Mandaric’s 11th-hour takeover enabled the club to avoid a second winding-up petition of the season and clear colossal debts amassed by over 15 years of financial mismanagement.
As a player, Megson’s tenacious style had made him a key member of Howard Wilkinson’s 1984 promotion-winning side and, just like his old boss, he picks a team where fitness and physicality come first. This ethos eventually steered Wednesday to a comfortable finish but it has caused ripples of discontent among fans that would prefer Wednesday to start their long overdue revival playing something akin to the champagne football of Ron Atkinson’s early-1990s side. Megson can, however, do something no Wednesday manager has been able to do since that era: be competitive in the transfer market. We aren’t expecting Di Canios or Carbones but it will make the long summer break much more exciting.
Across the city, another former Owls player, Danny Wilson, has become perhaps the most controversial managerial appointment in Sheffield United’s history, being welcomed to Bramall Lane by “Love United, Hate Wilson” banners. Despite playing in Big Ron’s 1991 League Cup-winning side, as Wednesday manager painful memories of an 8-0 humiliation at Newcastle and subsequent relegation from the Premier League had already tarnished his reputation. Taking charge of the Blades is fine by us. In fact we found the whole furore highly amusing. If he does half as good a job as Micky Adams did, then his Hillsborough hero status will be reinstated. Richard Salguero