With just two wins in their last fifteen matches, this season has turned sour on the pitch for Sheffield Wednesday. Earlier on this season, the team seemed to be defying the clubs financial position and looked as if they may have a reasonable chance of a play-off place or better at the end of this season. Coinciding almost exactly with Milan Mandaric’s purchase of the club for £1, however, their form has collapsed. Their last win at Hillsborough was on the eleventh of December, a 6-2 win against another club at the start of a dramatic slump in form, Bristol Rovers. Since this, their results have taken a look to them that has occasionally looked bizarre. They’ve had to endure a 5-1 defeat at Exeter City, a 4-0 defeat at Leyton Orient as well as conceding four goals at home to both Peterborough United and Plymouth Argyle. This wasn’t supposed to be the outcome of Mandaric’s take-over at Hillsborough.
Against this background, it is hardly surprising that Wednesday are one of the many clubs this season to have parted company with their manager. Alan Irvine was relieved of his duties at the start of February but Wednesday’s form hasn’t improved a great deal under the tutelage of his replacement, Gary Megson. There has to come a point at which this must be arrested. Wednesday are, at the start of play, in sixteenth place in the table and just four points above the relegation places. In a division in which everybody seems to be taking points from everybody else, Megson can’t rely on the teams below him continuing to stutter and fail. If a season that has already been stressful enough on the nerves of most Sheffield Wednesday supporters isn’t going to end with the sort of scenes that greeted last year’s relegation, Wednesday need to start picking up points again, and quickly.
Perhaps, from a Southampton perspective, there is a benefit to playing in the Saturday evening kick-off spot and the news from elsewhere this afternoon has been reasonably positive. Franchise and Peterborough United don’t play until Monday night and Brighton & Hove Albion won yet again, but Huddersfield Town could only draw at home against Swindon Town and Bournemouth’s long trip to Carlisle saw them return without anything after a 1-0 defeat. A win this evening won’t improve their league position immediately, but it will put them in a very strong position with games in hand on the teams immediately above them. This season could well end with a south coast promotion double in League One.
It would be understandable if both teams were nervous, considering that there is much at stake for both of them this evening, but whether this excuses such a poor first half is very much open to question. Sheffield Wednesday look psychologically shot to pieces. They make unforced errors, have no real conviction when attacking and allow Southampton so much space that the Southampton players often seem caught in three minds over what option to take when playing the ball forward. None of this really excuses Southampton, who seldom fully stretch the Wednesday defence in the first half without ever seeming likely to score. Half-time, and the idle hope of a better second half to follow, arrives without much incident.
The second half starts with Southampton starting to turn the screw on Wednesday a little more and, five minutes in, Dean Hammond’s shot is well saved by Richard O’Donnell. The goal, however, feels as if it is coming and, just before the hour, it does. It’s a goal so simple that the Southampton players might be forgiven for wondering why they didn’t think of doing it earlier. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain swings a corner over from the left and Jose Fonte, four yards out, thumps a header into the bottom corner of the net. Six minutes later, it’s 2-0 when Richard Lambert scores from close range. In the space of six minutes, Southampton have done enough – no more, no less – to wrap the points up.
With the second goal Sheffield Wednesday finally wake up a little and have their best spell of the match, which culminates in the ball flashing across the Southampton six yard area with bodies straining fruitlessly towards the ball. The moment, however, passes and Southampton are soon back in control of the game. They are stronger, better organised and more confident. With a comfortable lead, they don’t need to do any more to secure the points and Sheffield Wednesday are too enfeebled to offer them any serious challenge. Every ball into the penalty area ends up either cleared or comfortably in the hands of goalkeeper Kelvin Davis, who has had one of the quietest days that he will enjoy all season.
Where, though, does Gary Megson go from here with this Sheffield Wednesday team? Their form hasn’t improved since he wook over, and they looked so bereft this evening that the ultimate fear of their supporters – a second successive relegation cannot – be completely ruled out at present. Wednesday stay four points above the relegation places and have played no fewer games than those immediately below them in the table. The actual bottom four have played more games, but it could be argued that Plymouth’s position is exaggerated by their ten point deduction and there remains a tendency for anyone to be able to beat anyone in League One this season. Their season isn’t over yet and that is not, in all honesty, what their supporters are likely to want to hear at present. There seems little cause for optimism to be cast on the subject of this Sheffield Wednesday team.
Southampton, meanwhile, continue to grind out workmanlike results. Less impressive than they were at Bournemouth last week yet equally pragmatic, they are starting to assume the gait of a promotion team at the best possible time, and their supporters – who have similar recollections of the sort of financial misery that Sheffield Wednesday were going through earlier this season – have plenty of cause to believe that this will be the season that they bust out of their League One straitjacket. At this stage of the season, grinding out results becomes the most important thing that a team can do and Southampton are looking like they can win any match at present, even when they’re not playing particularly well. What Sheffield Wednesday supporters would give for such luxury right now.
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