Sheffield Wednesday’s League Cup win over Arsenal has their fans believing again
30 October ~ As they watched their team calmly play out the final few minutes of a 3-0 victory over Arsenal on Tuesday night, all three of Hillsborough’s home stands chanted in unison: “We’re Sheffield Wednesday, we’re on our way back.”
There are plenty of reasons to dismiss the song as heat-of-the-moment giddiness from success-starved Owls supporters. It was the League Cup fourth round, after all, and Arsenal were weakened not just in their starting line-up but also by early injuries to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott. But Wednesday still made an Arsenal team whose line-up included a German World Cup-winner and a total of 415 international caps between them look like a bunch of kids. Wednesday’s starting XI actually had a lower average age than Arsenal’s.
The comprehensive result was a nice reminder of the days when a packed Hillsborough was a difficult place to visit annually for the likes of Arsenal and Manchester United, yet the truly exciting thing for Wednesday’s fans was the nature of the performance: hard-working and disciplined but not lacking in skill. They were solid in defence, quick on the counter-attack and ruthless in front of goal – it was exhilarating to watch.
During their 15 years outside the top flight there have been countless “false dawns” at Sheffield Wednesday; highs that have petered out into even more crushing lows. The job of manager Carlos Carvalhal is to ensure that this time the momentum is continued. The Portuguese – a joy to listen to during interviews, as he willingly gives tactical insights into how his team, and the game in general, work – has repeatedly stated that his squad aren’t ready for promotion, but they are improving.
Barry Bannan and Keiran Lee provide energy and creativity in midfield, experienced winger Ross Wallace makes any set-piece dangerous and up front the dynamic 22-year-old Lucas João is quickly adapting to the English game. Fernando Forestieri, cup-tied for the Arsenal match, is the spark that can ignite Wednesday’s attack.
Meanwhile Tom Lees remains the rock in central defence, masked by the wild, tireless, guaranteed-yellow-card that is Sam Hutchinson in defensive midfield. Most pleasingly, 19-year-old Joe Wildsmith has proved himself a more-than-able deputy for arguably the best keeper in the division, Keiren Westwood. The squad has surprising depth and is still being strengthened – this week striker Gary Hooper was signed on loan from Norwich.
Off the pitch, new owner Dejphon Chansiri and his advisers also seem, slowly, to be learning. The furore around Wednesday’s ticket prices (WSC 344) was a PR shambles and it will take a long time to recover from the perception of being unaffordable. But signs are that the club have taken notice, with the increasing use of lower price categories meaning tickets for this weekend’s match against Nottingham Forest start at £30 (£25 for members) – still too much, but more in line with other Championship clubs. Tuesday’s visit of league-leaders Brighton will be £20 anywhere in the ground.
Wednesday have also launched a new steering group of supporters, who will meet regularly with club officials to highlight problem areas and potential improvements. It remains to be seen whether this is an empty gesture or a genuine chance for fans to have their say on the running of the club, but any increased dialogue should be welcomed.
The commercial side is also being brought up to speed after years of under-performance, a necessity to fund the presumably ever-increasing wage bill. Though it makes a thoroughly depressing sight for traditionalists, the Kop is now covered in branding for a personal injury claims company.
So the Owls go into this weekend’s fixture against Nottingham Forest full of confidence, ninth in the table and unbeaten in nine games in all competitions. Their opponents have been a bogey team at Hillsborough recently, winning 1-0 on their last three visits. Their position in the Championship’s mid-table also offers Wednesday a glimpse of how easy it is to stagnate if momentum is not maintained and the wrong managers are chosen, even after large investment in the squad.
It must not be forgotten that fortunes can change quickly in football. In mid-September Wednesday were 19th and many were questioning Carvalhal’s suitability for the job – now he is toast of the town. Nothing has been achieved yet and a lot could still go wrong, but at least for now Wednesday fans can enjoy genuinely believing the words they sing. Tom Hocking
Photo by Tony Davis ~ see more WSC Photos