Yorkshire derby at Hillsborough
10 January ~ Sheffield Wednesday go into Saturday's lunchtime televised Yorkshire derby against Leeds off the back of an FA Cup stalemate with non-League Macclesfield, with no permanent manager, eight senior squad members out injured – including club captain Anthony Gardner and key winger Michail Antonio – and lying just one point above the relegation zone. Still, with striker Connor Wickham returning on loan from Sunderland there is hope they can win some matches – until the end of January at least.
Wednesday endured an abysmal start to the season under Dave Jones, not winning a game until November 2 and putting in appalling displays against some of the division's weaker teams. With a danger of being cut adrift in the Championship relegation zone and increasingly hostile fans chairman Milan Mandaric had to act. It has since become clear that this was not something for which he had a contingency plan.
Stuart Gray was made caretaker manager at the start of December and – despite various rumours of managerial targets – is still in charge this weekend. Talks about whether he will stay, or if Mandaric has other ideas, are set to take place next week. Gray has stabilised a team low on confidence, taking three wins and two draws from seven league games to drag Wednesday out of the relegation zone. The Owls still aren't good to watch but the fight is back.
Yet "new manager syndrome" is not the real catalyst for this turn around in form. Wickham, the England Under-21 international brought in on loan by Jones in February last year and again in November, has gone from strength to strength. Seven goals in nine appearances grab the headlines but his work-rate, enthusiasm and skill lead Wednesday from the front, raising his fellow players. The returning Chris Maguire, bizarrely frozen out by Jones, has added energy but the frailties of a Wickham-less Wednesday were highlighted during the 1-1 draw with Macclesfield.
Gray and Mandaric have both stated they are looking to sign two or three players before the Leeds match, almost certainly on loan. The feeling that Mandaric is just papering over cracks in the team to survive the season so he can sell up is hard to shake off. Some of Wednesday's loans have been good and Wickham is fantastic but Sunderland will want him back, probably at the end of January, and then the Owls are back to where they started, with no strike force. Another loan could solve the problem but it stinks of short-termism and is an inefficient way of spending what little cash Wednesdy have, something fans were promised would end under Mandaric.
Some long-term systems have been put in place, with heavy investment in a development squad and scouting system that had been inadequate for too long. The first signs of this working can be seen in 21-year-old striker Caolan Lavery, recalled from Plymouth where his run of goals has impressed. But it is in the medium term that the Owls are still lacking: the spine of the team is weak, meaning there is little to build around and a lack of continuity.
Leeds also go into the match after a terrible FA Cup result – they lost 2-0 to Rochdale and the fans vented their fury at the final whistle. Despite two draws and two defeats in their previous four league games, Leeds sit just one point outside the play-offs and will be eager to rediscover a bit of form. They would expect a win against a team on the brink of the relegation zone, but then they aren't really playing a team; they will be facing one of the most exciting young strikers in the country and ten others. Tom Hocking