Club didn't expect a relegation battle
21 December ~ At the start of September Sheffield Wednesday travelled to Selhurst Park on a 19-game unbeaten run and second in the Championship. There they faced Crystal Palace, bottom of the league and pointless. Palace won 2-1, have lost one game since and are now second. Wednesday have picked up only 11 points from a possible 54 in the same period and lie 23rd, with serious questions being asked about manager Dave Jones's future. There have been some dismal performances during that time, particularly at Hillsborough.
Losing 4-1 to Watford and being comprehensively outclassed by Blackpool were low points that have taken their toll on a previously buoyant fanbase, many of whom were expecting at least mid-table security this season. Instead they find themselves embroiled in a relegation battle with new players who have struggled to fit in and fan favourites from League One who have yet to adapt to the higher league.
Too few of Jones's signings have made a positive impact; Chris Kirkland and Anthony Gardner have brought some experience at the back and in midfield Rhys McCabe and Paul Corry look good prospects but Martin Taylor, Joe Mattock, Kieran Lee and Chris Maguire have barely played, Nejc Pecnik looks woefully out of his depth and in attack Rodri, on loan from Barcelona B, has hardly had a look-in. Jay Bothroyd's lazy, ineffective displays gave him the role of pantomime villain in Jones's new-look team before injury ruled him out.
Many thought that defeat to fellow relegation strugglers Bristol City on December 8 would be the final straw for chairman Milan Mandaric and his infamously itchy trigger finger. Wednesday dominated the game but defensive naivety and an inability to play to the whistle meant they lost 3-2. It was a huge blow but still Mandaric resisted sacking Jones. He was rewarded with a 1-0 win over Barnsley at Oakwell last week. The positives – the Owls' first win in eight games and their second clean sheet of the season – were tempered by them being outplayed for the majority of the match by a poor Barnsley side who look good bets for relegation themselves.
Jones's record with signings hardly inspire confidence in what he would do if given some money to spend by Mandaric in January but one significant move may already have been made. In the summer Jones's assistant, the highly-regarded Terry Burton, moved to Arsenal to coach their reserves. Paul Wilkinson was promoted from within but the gap left has only just been filled by the experienced Stuart Gray, formerly of Aston Villa, Wolves, Burnley and Portsmouth. Cynics may suggest he has plenty of caretaker experience, should Mandaric decide Jones isn't up to the task, but it could also indicate the chairman has confidence in his manager. Jones rarely takes training sessions and allowing him to build his own backroom team to work around him with an eye on long-term goals is crucial to his management style.
Tomorrow sees Wednesday welcome Charlton, who were promoted from League One as champions ahead of the Owls and were one of only two visiting teams to win in the league at Hillsborough last season. Chris Powell has his club, like Huddersfield who went up via the play-offs, in a comfortable mid-table position and Owls fans will be looking up enviously, wondering what has gone wrong with their own team. It is the first of four games over the Christmas period from which Wednesday will be hoping to pick up at least seven points. Less than that and the New Year may bring yet another new manager to Hillsborough. Tom Hocking