Owls face Man City in League Cup tonight
24 September ~ It's only seven years since Sheffield Wednesday took a Manchester City team containing Joey Barton to an FA Cup third round replay. That was probably the best Owls team since relegation from the Premier League and a lot has changed since, on both sides of the Pennines. City have added some billionaire owners, two League titles and a few cups while Wednesday are have just about clawed their way back to the same position after another stint in League One and a brush with financial meltdown. Yet Owls fans can go into tonight's League Cup third round tie optimistic that they can make an impact at the Etihad.
It was a summer of mixed emotions at Hillsborough, with initial excitement over the announcement of their own takeover by multi-millionaire Azerbaijani businessman Hafiz Mammadov – owner of RC Lens in France and FC Baku in his home country, plus shares in Atlético Madrid – spiralling first into uneasiness, then despair and finally apathy. Called off by chairman Milan Mandaric after two months of confusion and mixed messages that resulted in Wednesday fans digging out their GCSE French textbooks to translate Lens message boards, the takeover already felt like more trouble than it was worth – and not just because of the dubious human rights record of "Azerbaijan – Land of Fire", a slogan which still adorns the Wednesday shirts while Mandaric considers legal action against Mammadov.
Mandaric is not a perfect chairman but he has been open about wanting to sell the club at the right price. To do that he has to keep Wednesday moving forward on and off the pitch without risking another financial catastrophe, which suits the fans and this season appears to be happening. Manager Stuart Gray looked like the cheap option when he was appointed caretaker then full-time after the departure of Dave Jones last December. Yet he has shown a knack of making a threadbare squad more than the sum of its parts, prising excellent performances out of previously written-off players.
The former Southampton boss and serial caretaker manager has also proved clever in the transfer market on an extremely limited budget. Over the summer the best of last season's loanees were signed up permanently, while the free transfers of Ireland goalkeeper Keiren Westwood and Leeds centre-back Tom Lees have proved inspired, creating a defence that has so far kept seven clean sheets and conceded just four goals in ten games this season.
He's also not scared of making tough decisions, sacrificing Michail Antonio, the unhappy star winger sold to Nottingham Forest, which allowed him to add St Johnstone's 21-year-old 20-goal striker Stevie May on a permanent deal, plus headline-writers' dream Hallam Hope on loan from Everton and take a calculated risk on the enigma that is Reading's former Real Madrid winger Royston Drenthe. So far it is working, with the Owls sitting sixth in the Championship with one defeat in ten games – narrowly to leaders Forest. The squad is probably too thin to sustain a promotion challenge but Gray's team work hard, are solid but exciting to watch and crucially have built up a satisfying rapport with the fans.
Manchester City used to be a comparable club to Wednesday, their fans having stuck by their team through plenty of hardships and needing to look to the past for their glories. They are now on another planet in terms of spending power and expectations, but they are not infallible. They lost to Championship side Wigan in last season's FA Cup, have six first-team players injured or suspended and are without a win in four matches.
Granted, three of their opponents in that run have been Arsenal, Chelsea and Bayern Munich and any squad they put out will be packed with multi-million pound internationals, but as Wednesday winger Jérémy Hélan pointed out in a recent interview they are only human. If it does all go wrong at the Etihad tonight, at least Owls fans finally feel like they have the manager and players to put it right in the following match. And if Gray continues the way he is going, this might even be a league match in a few seasons. Tom Hocking