15 December 2009 ~ In the wake of the latest managerial exit from Hillsborough, Sheffield Wednesday fans could be forgiven for wondering if they will ever again enjoy a battle at the top end of the table. Melodramatic, maybe, but there can have been few clubs more dispiriting to follow in the past decade than the Owls. This season is the tenth since relegation from the Premier League – of those, six have been relegation battles and another a turgid bottom-half finish in League One (the lowest level at which the club has ever played).
Throughout that time there have been seven, now to be eight, managers, rifts between the board and supporters (culminating in a fan being sued for comments on a message board and, in the past three or four years, seemingly endless takeover speculation. Any brief rays of hope have been swiftly and crushingly extinguished. Promotion from League One via the play-offs was followed by a relegation battle. A ninth-place finish in the Championship was followed by a relegation battle and the sale of the club's best players. All takeover talk has come to nothing, with one particularly farcical episode involving retail entrepreneur Geoff Sheard who turned out to have minimal funds and no credible backers.
For the first time in those ten years, fans entered this season with cause for cautious optimism and perhaps expectations of a moderate improvement on last year's 12th place finish. The wage bill was increased from about £4.5 million to £6m, player sales were avoided, season ticket sales went up and there was a new chairman, Lee Strafford, with ambitions to pull the club out of its malaise.
Yet at the merest hint of progress, the team has once again slumped back into the relegation quagmire. Laws, a popular figure who had done a good job in his three seasons at Hillsborough, made poor choices with his increased budget. Darren Purse has been more liability than leader and Marcus Tudgay, given a big raise to keep him from joining Burnley, has done nothing to justify it. Defensive frailties, apparent from the first game when a two-goal lead was surrendered, have remained unaddressed, undermining attempts to play the "attractive football" that Laws often declared to be his aim. A lack of toughness does not bode well for the coming battle.
But whoever comes next will still be faced with the same entrenched problems. The club, although now relatively stable, has been turned into a basket case by inept boardroom management in the Premier League death throes, leaving it utterly hamstrung by £25m debts. Numerous changes of manager have left the team in no better a League position than when it all started.
As such, it seems likely that the new manager, whoever he is, will find it difficult to supply anything more than a temporary shot in the arm. That may be enough to see Wednesday to safety this year, but while the debt remains it is difficult to see how any success beyond that can be achieved.
The club have consistently, and admirably in the view of most supporters, rejected the possibility of going into administration or taking the potentially suicidal risk of spending money they don't have to try and reach the Premier League. Yet without outside investment, which seems as elusive as ever despite reassurances from the board, the chances are that supporters will continue to suffer and managers to fall by the wayside. John Birch