Premier League champions won last meeting 7-0
3 January ~ Ahead of their League Cup tie with Manchester City in September I suggested that Sheffield Wednesday fans had plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the future. Manager Stuart Gray, I said, had instilled a confidence that they could bounce back even if it all went wrong at the Etihad. Wednesday duly lost 7-0, which began an 11-game winless run that included just four goals scored. However as the Owls prepare to return to the Premier League champions in the FA Cup this weekend they have got, somewhat surprisingly, as many reasons to be cheerful as fearful.
Having won four of their previous six matches, Wednesday find themselves tenth in the Championship – only once have they started the new year in a higher position since relegation from the Premier League, which was when they were ninth under Brian Laws in 2006-07. The Owls have the second-best defensive record in the division and have kept 11 clean sheets in 24 matches, joint-most with promotion-challenging Middlesbrough and Derby.
Alex Ferguson once said that “a great goalkeeper is worth 15 points over the season”, but Wednesday’s Keiren Westwood has arguably saved his team more than that already this term. When he was signed in the summer many people questioned whether the money could not have been better spent elsewhere, considering the Owls already had the outstanding Chris Kirkland. Yet Westwood has been the player of the season so far, combining with centre-backs Tom Lees and Glenn Loovens to organise a formidable defensive unit and pulling off plenty of spectacular saves when they are needed.
Westwood’s form has also reportedly grabbed the attention of Liverpool, and while Wednesday could use a few million pounds to spend on a striker, creative midfielder and a winger who can actually cross the ball, it’s unlikely any new forward-thinking players would earn Wednesday so many points in the second half of the season.
It’s also unclear how much would be reinvested in the team, with chairman Milan Mandaric stating in November that the club are losing around £6 million per year. Avoiding more financial turmoil while remaining competitive in the Championship is proving a tough balancing act for Mandaric and, after four years in charge, fans are well within their rights to ask serious questions about where the money is being lost.
The winless run showed up the frailties of Gray’s team. Wednesday are the joint-lowest scorers in the division with 18 goals, equal with Blackpool who are cut adrift at the bottom. Only once have Wednesday won by more than a one-goal margin and they have only scored more than once in four league games. This lack of confidence up front means frustrating results such as a 1-0 defeat to Wolves at Hillsborough in which striker Stevie May fluffed enough chances to have scored a hat-trick.
A freak 4-0 defeat to Fulham also showed what can happen when the defence have a bad day, with Wednesday’s attacking play not good enough to relieve the pressure. The hard-working but often drab style is also hardly a crowd-pleaser, with the mood at Hillsborough regularly subdued as the team try to grind out results. It also means an abundance of 0-0 draws – six so far.
And so back to the Etihad, where for 45 minutes in September a much-changed Wednesday team matched Manchester City but were then blown away in the second half. The Owls aren’t the first and won’t be the last team to be hammered by the champions but hopes of an upset are more muted this time around, especially with the uncertainty about whether the manager will make as many changes to the first team as last time. Gray is doing a good job with limited resources and there is no reason to panic if it all goes wrong again, though keeping the aggregate score below double figures would be nice. Tom Hocking