It could have been worse, believe it or not. Four goals down with five minutes left to play of the first half, five down mid-way through the second. Eventually, though, Sheffield Wednesday managed a consolation goal and pegged their opposition down to a five to one score-line, but this doesn’t mask the fact that Gary Megson is now skating on thin ice as the manager of a club which continues to loll around in League One and, on the basis of this evening’s performance, seems unlikely to improve upon this at any point in the immediate future unless the manager can turn around a dismal early season run of form.
Perhaps the bitterest irony of this evening was, for the supporters of Sheffield Wednesday, the opposition that tore them to shreds so effectively. It already seems difficult to believe that, a little more than two years ago, Stevenage FC were called Stevenage Borough FC and were a non-league club. Unlovable though their manager, Graham Westley is, there can be little doubting the enormous progress that the club has made in the time since then, but it can take a while for most of our mental crib sheets to catch up with such information and perhaps this evening, for the supporters of Sheffield Wednesday, was a reminder – some might even argue yet another reminder – of how far the club has fallen from its pomp of the early 1990s.
This time last year, of course, the club had matters of a far more serious nature to contend with. Its very existence was under threat after years of mismanagement, and it was only at the last minute that Milan Mandaric finally secured the club’s future. It may have been these unsettling behind the scenes activities which caused the team to take its eye off the ball on the pitch and, although their final league position of fifteenth place in the table meant that they were seldom in danger of relegation into League Two, Sheffield Wednesday carries a burden of history and expectation which was always likely to mean that patience amongst the club’s support may always be in short supply in this division.
If there was any one thing that should have focussed the players of the club to an even greater extent, the relegation of Sheffield United from the Championship might have been expected to provide it. The club’s bitterest rivals had come to resemble a drowning man in the Championship last season, drifting a little too far from safety and then disappearing from view with an unsettling quiet. If such a fierce rivalry needed an extra jab in the ribs, then that came during the summer with the appointment of Danny Wilson – who had both played for and managed Wednesday – as United’s manager. With the two clubs peering at each other across the barricades of their rivalry, the two clubs being back in the same division would add an extra frisson for both.
So far, it is Sheffield United that had had the better start of the two clubs this season, but their supporters had little cause to get over-excited at their opponents’ woes this evening. As Wednesday were crumbling in Hertfordshire, United were caving in at Bramall Lane against Huddersfield Town. They were three goals down by half-time, and this was how it finished, a margin of defeat that was sufficient to knock the team off the top of the table. This margin of defeat was enough to put Charlton Athletic above them on goal difference without Charlton kicking a ball in the league this evening – Charlton were in the process of getting knocked out of the League Cup at home by Preston North End – but the feeling still remains that this evening’s result was a surprise for United against a Huddersfield Town side which is more than capable of launching a bid for promotion itself, and which moved them up to third place in tonight’s League One table.
Wednesday, meanwhile, have had an inconsistent start to the season. They have won all four of their home matches in the league so far, and their win against the previous leaders of their division was a fine and fluid performance. Away form home, however, has been a different story, with only one point taken from their four trips away from Hillsborough so far, although that solitary point did come against the team that tonight sits at the top of the table, Charlton Athletic. As such, it is possible to contend that no matter how embarrassing this evening might have been for Wednesday this evening, the club’s current position is far from critical. They slipped to tenth place in the table tonight and their goal difference suffered as well, thanks to the margin of defeat, but they remain just four points from the top of what may yet be a tight division this evening. Things could be worse.
The reaction of Sheffield Wednesday supporters this evening is, perhaps, an indicator in itself of the weight of the burden of expectation that a club of their size which has been on the slide in recent years faces. If Milan Mandaric was going to look at replacing Gary Megson, though, where would he start to look at this stage of the season? Megson may well have lost the trust of at least an element of the support of the club, but finding a replacement isn’t going to be easy, particularly finding one that doesn’t come from the pack of cards that so many middle-ranking Football League clubs seem to instinctively turn to in times of worry. As time goes on, it starts to feel that the managerial merry-go-round is a random generator, with only the possibility that one of these clones will, in the fullness of time, stumble upon a winning team and drag it into a promotion place.
In League One, then, Stevenage continue their upward trajectory and Sheffield Wednesday seem likely to continue to cough and splutter unless they can fix their inconsistency. Tonight may well have been a train wreck, and it raises questions over the extent of Megson’s dealings in the transfer market over the course of the summer. Milan Mandaric may have cause to ponder his manager’s start to the season, but whether a knee-jerk reaction to this result would be wise is a different matter altogether. This year’s League One looks as if it is going to be highly competitive and Sheffield Wednesday still have the time to compete near the top. Fortunately, the forty-six match season allows for the occasional aberration. The feeling remains, however, that Gary Megson will be skating on thin ice with too many more performances like tonight’s.
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