THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Underdogs Sheffield Wednesday have earned their shot in the play-off final

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27 May ~ When Thierry Henry made it 3-3 at Highbury on May 9, 2000, completing Arsenal’s comeback from 3-1 down and relegating Sheffield Wednesday in the process, only the most pessimistic of Owls fan would have suggested that 16 years later they would still not have returned to the top flight.

Jump to August 2015 and only the most optimistic were saying that this was the season the long wait could end. Yet on Saturday the Owls make their first trip to Wembley since 1993, where they take on Hull City in the Championship play-off final.

During the Owls’ longest-ever period outside the top-flight they have been a model in how not to run a club – furious boardroom politics, protests, terrible transfer business and a huge turnover in managers. At the start of the season it seemed like history was repeating. 

Wednesday’s new owner, the Thai tuna magnate Dejphon Chansiri, replaced the steady Stuart Gray with Carlos Carvalhal, an unknown Portuguese journeyman manager. Meanwhile sky-high ticket prices and a bizarre “football committee”, the members of which seemed to change weekly, did not inspire confidence. Yet the whole club have confounded expectations this season, coming together to embrace their position as the Championship’s “dark horses”.

Much like Chansiri is building on the foundations laid by his predecessor Milan Mandaric off the pitch, so Carvalhal is assembling a team around the spine put together by Gray, who himself developed what Gary Megson and Dave Jones achieved in League One under Mandaric. This season is the first real sign of successful continuity at Hillsborough for decades – in the past every incoming manager has had to rip apart the squad and start again.

Carvalhal’s team may not have beaten any club who made the play-offs in the regular season but they haven’t lost to them either and the play-off semi-final showed they are a match for anyone. The focus from that tie has been on Brighton’s injuries in the first leg and their magnificent attacking play in the first half of the second leg. But Wednesday withstood the latter, were comfortable in the second half and dominated the entire first leg amid a cauldron atmosphere under the lights at Hillsborough.

Often appearing ponderous in possession, Wednesday tend to burst into life and catch their opponents off guard, particularly in the second half. Their play can be exhilarating, driven by the explosive forward Fernando Forestieri, whose direct running and eagerness to win back the ball makes him a nightmare for defenders.

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Yet Wednesday’s defence has been as crucial to their success as the attack – as that second leg in Brighton showed – and they have quietly equalled the club’s clean sheets record of 17 for the second successive season. In Keiren Westwood the Owls already had one of the division’s best goalkeepers, while centre-back Tom Lees, ludicrously allowed to leave Leeds on a free two years ago, and his partner Glenn Loovens are commanding and well organised in front of the keeper. Czech international full-back Daniel Pudil has been more solid defensively than his counterpart on the right, Jack Hunt, but both signings have added attacking threat on the overlap.

Kieran Lee has developed in to the beating heart of Wednesday’s midfield since Jones signed him from Oldham in 2012, initially as a right-back. He offers energy in both attack and defence and is the perfect partner for the inspired Barry Bannan, whose workrate and passing range earned him a spot it the Championship team of the season.

Wednesday are not infallible – they finished sixth for a reason and are a work in progress – so Carvalhal has repeatedly stressed they are underdogs, which is true. Hull have the Premier League parachute payments, a manager with plenty of experience at this level in Steve Bruce and finished nine points ahead of the Owls.

Yet Hull were expected to get automatic promotion and their failure to do so, coupled with unrest between fans and owner Assem Allam, means their attitude towards the play-offs feels different to Wednesday’s. The disquiet and occasional apathy coming out of east Yorkshire ahead of the match could not be more different to the one displayed in Sheffield. The Owls feel together, excited and ready.

If Hull perform to their best, it’s unlikely Wednesday will have enough to beat them. But if the Tigers are even slightly off form Carvalhal’s team will be there, as they have been all season, to grasp their chance. No matter what happens at Wembley the Owls have had a campaign to be proud of and, with the current progress being made at the club, only the most hardened of pessimists would suggest Wednesday will have to wait 16 more years for another opportunity to return to the Premier League. Tom Hocking

Top photo by Simon Gill/WSC Photography: Outside the Kop at Hillsborough, home to Sheffield Wednesday
Second photo by Paul Thompson/WSC Photography: Sheffield Wednesday fans celebrate victory over Rotherham earlier this season

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