Season review 2013/14 – Sheffield Wednesday
While most neutrals will have seen the cup exploits of their Steel City neighbours this season, events at Hillsborough have largely gone under the radar other than Dave Jones’s removal. Wednesdayite Neil Piper gives his take on what exactly has happened to Sheffield Wednesday this season.
Pleasure to watch or utter disaster?
‘Poor, good, average.’ Those were the words Head Coach (not Manager) Stuart Gray used when asked to describe the season in three words at a recent Hillsborough fan event. It is hard to disagree with this honest assessment. The start of the season was perhaps a little more than poor, given that it took until 2nd November for Wednesday to register their first win. To put this stat in even starker terms, the game was the Owls’ fourteenth of the season in all competitions. Most Wednesday fans hoped that a similar pattern to last season would follow; that the 5-2 thrashing of playoff contenders Reading, delivering the first victory, would be a springboard to greater things. However the result was merely a ray of sunshine in a rainy autumn as three consecutive defeats followed – a run that resulted in the removal of Dave Jones on 1st December.
Under Gray, the Owls secured safety with three games to spare, which considering they were six points adrift and bereft of confidence on his appointment is quite an achievement. In terms of the quality of football on display, Gray’s three words above are perhaps the best assessment I can give. There have been some excellent performances, such as the 4-1 home defeat of Birmingham and the 3-0 win over ‘Arry’s QPR. These have been interspersed with some shockers – the 2-1 home defeat to Charlton in the FA Cup with a quarter final date against Sheffield United beckoning, was particularly tough to take. Overall, we finished two places higher than last season but with less points gleaned. Average seems about right then.
Who’s been this season’s hero?
It would be difficult to lay this accolade at one player’s door, so I’m going to go with Stuart Gray. At the time of his appointment he was considered a placeholder for a bigger name and I believe he has done as well as, if not better, than any of the names (Ian Holloway, Steve Evans, even Neil Warnock) bandied around at the time would have done.
And the villain?
It’s probably too easy to give this one to Dave Jones, although I’m sure a large number of Wednesday fans would. In recent games, the error-prone ‘defending’ of Miguel Llera has been reason for a number of goals conceded so sadly, as great a servant and fan favourite as he has been, I’m going to have to give it to the departing Spaniard.
After a difficult start to the season, it was always going to be an uphill battle for Dave Jones. Jones is very much a manager in the true sense of the word, leaving the majority of the training ground work to his coaches and seeing himself as a ‘wheeler-dealer’ in the transfer market. Results on the pitch were awful and other than a couple of exceptions, the performances even worse. It does make you wonder exactly what he spent his time doing considering the turnaround his successor achieved in such a short space of time. Where Jones can be given some credit is in the development of the football side of the club off the field. The introduction of the development squad and the expansion of our previously threadbare scouting staff were areas of progress that the Liverpudlian played a hand in. It’s just a shame that he didn’t spend more time focusing on the primary objective of any football team – winning first-team football matches.
As above, I think Stuart Gray has done an excellent job with limited resources. He has played our most intelligent footballers and brought in some useful loan players. After announcing the release of eight players earlier this week, it will be interesting to see how the career-assistant /interim manager will handle building his own squad.
There were a number of players who joined on loan or short-term deals that contributed to the Wednesday cause over the season: Connor Wickham, Matty Fryatt, Leon Best, Glenn Loovens to name a few. But I’m actually going to cheat a little here and say our best signing was Chris Maguire. Although signed under Dave Jones in the summer of 2012, Maguire saw little to no playing time in his first season at Hillsborough and under Gray he has been arguably like a new player and our best performer, chipping in with vital goals and finishing top of the scoring charts with ten goals from an unfamiliar midfield position. If he continues to develop next season, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him earn a place in the Scotland squad.
If you’d have polled Wednesday fans on this question at the turn of the year, it would have been Atdhe Nuhiu. The 6ft 6inch striker struggled to adapt in the early stages of the season but he has gradually won fans over and at the age of twenty-four, he could play a big role next season. So, perhaps by default, I will have to go with Kamil Zayatte. The ex-Hull defender showed promise in pre-season to earn a two year deal but was at the heart of a leaky defence in the early stages of the season before spending the final few months injured.
Liam Palmer won the Owls Player of the Year award and his versatility and maturity beyond his years, should be valuable assets for years to come. But I’m going to go with Caolan Lavery. An early-season loan to Plymouth gave the young striker the opportunity to play league football and his goal-scoring and general play were highly praised. He returned to Hillsborough, scored twice in the 6-0 drubbing of Leeds and hasn’t looked back.
Highlight of the season
I hate to mention that win over Leeds again and whilst that was particularly enjoyable, it wasn’t my personal highlight. Chris Maguire’s 97th minute winner over local rivals Barnsley brings back great memories not least for the celebrations that followed. The sight of the afore-mentioned Nuhiu sprinting from the substitutes bench (he had been taken off earlier having missed numerous chances) down the Hillsborough side line to slide in celebration in front of the Kop was both fantastic and hilarious to watch.
Low point of the season
The one nil defeat to Doncaster Rovers at home in late September. We had dominated the game and a quick break away led to the only goal of the match. After that result, it was hard to see where our first win of the season was going to come from, or if it ever would.
I’ll remember this season for…
…being eerily similar to last season, with a little more breathing room at the end. There are some encouraging signs at Hillsborough. Milan Mandaric’s investment at academy level is starting to prove beneficial and the cull of out-of-contract players raises optimism that one year stop-gap solutions won’t be sought as readily as they were last season. With three or four quality-over-quantity signings, we could be challenging for a top half finish, but it wouldn’t surprise me if history repeated itself for a third season in a row.