The Agony & The Wednesday
In a sense, the plot of Sheffield Wednesday’s season reads like the plot of a bad 1990s BBC sitcom about a failing football club. They went into the season with a six point deduction received for selling their ground to their owner as a swerve over their massive loss-making – and even this loss had been halved on appeal from their original sanction. At the start of October, it was confirmed that the owner had been borrowing money secured against the ground. The manager was sacked in the second week in November, and replaced with a gnarled old pro with a reputation for putting out fires with dour football. He, in turn, was sacked after ten matches. The players, meanwhile, weren’t paid in full at the start of December or January.
Another caretaker took over, but was replaced at the start of March by a near-universally popular manager who, after a slow start, was starting to pull the team to some sort of life before… he was struck down by the pandemic and ended up with blood clots on his lungs. Another caretaker takes over the running of the team. The company accounts, which had become a standing joke, were finally published at the end of March, for the year to end of June 2019. These showed that Wednesday lost just over £17m that year, against a turnover of £22.76m, and they also show the £38m from the sale of the stadium. This was, of course money that had already been wasted. It was also reported that they didn’t pay the players in full again at the end of April.
And then, on the last day of the season, the manager returns, his first game back after this serious illness. They’re away to the team immediately above them in the table, and they have to win if they’re to avoid relegation. Coincidentally, this other team also sold their ground to their owner, but they didn’t receive a points deduction and are in the relegation mire entirely on merit. They’re managed by England’s record goalscorer, though the jury remains out on whether he’s a good manager, but the team’s league position – when they started the season with ambitions of returning to the Premier League – would seem to indicate that he might not be.
It’s a topsy-turvy game, including a penalty kick and a player smacking himself so hard against the goalpost that he looked as though he might not be able to continue getting up and scoring twice. It ends in a 3-3 draw, and it’s not enough to save them. Only twice throughout the whole of the season – on New Year’s Day and again on the 9th January – were Sheffield Wednesday outside the division’s relegation places, both times in 21st place in the table. In the end, the combination of the points deduction, the fact that the team had five managers throughout the season and, well, everything else proved to be insurmountable. And they came damn close to pulling it off. That’s how bad Derby County were this season, by the way.
Such a script would likely be rejected as being a little too much to believe, but this is the reality of Sheffield Wednesday during the 2020/21 season.
The Tony Pulis episode demonstrated the inner workings of a football club whose senior management understand the game in the same way that a dog understands a book. Garry Monk’s sacking was no great surprise. His team had won just three matches in the league all season, and two of those had come in their first five. His replacement was a sensible one on paper, too. Even if his style of football is unlikely to win many plaudits for its aesthetic appeal, Tony Pulis has a reputation for getting teams to play above themselves, and he’s a former Premier League Manager of the Year. The problem, however, is that this was award was presented to him seven years ago, and that his previous managerial positions, at West Bromwich Albion and Middlesbrough, had not been particularly particularly successful.
Pulis has had the air of a man whose star has been on the wane for a couple of years, now, and it’s surprising that Wednesday didn’t seem to take this into consideration when they appointed him. In total, Pulis lasted 46 days in charge of Sheffield Wednesday, and won one of his ten matches in charge.That first win came nine games in, at home against Coventry City, six days before Christmas. Having drawn against Blackburn Rovers on Boxing Day, Pulis was sacked on the 28th December, with coach Neil Thompson taking over for the first two months of this year.
Both Pulis and owner Dejphon Chansiri have had their say on what happened since. Chansiri could barely wait to exonerate himself. Within a couple of days of the sacking, he’d told the press that Pulis was a mistake, and that he was the worst manager he’d ever appointed. He claimed that that communication with Pulis was not as it should have been, but blamed Pulis for this, claiming he had been transparent in the job interview about what was required.
Pulis, he said, had said he could work with the squad playing the way Chansiri wanted, only to decide it was not fit for this purpose shortly afterwards. He also criticised Pulis for not speaking to him directly, preferring text and email to picking up the phone. Much of this seemed a little thin, as far as criticism goes, and Pulis kept his counsel until interviewed by the Back of the Net podcast at the end of March. He was somewhat more circumspect when he did speak, saying that, “It was difficult from the start, to be honest”, and that Sheffield Wednesday is a big club, but that, “it has to be the right time and the right person in charge.”
Darren Moore’s appointment as the Wednesday manager wasn’t without its controversy, either. He was poached from Doncaster Rovers at the start of March, and their first match with him in charge came a couple of days later, at home against Rotherham United. Rotherham won 2-1, thanks to a Freddie Ladapo goal seven minutes into stoppage-time. His team’s progress was a little stop-start, but it was academic really, anyway. On the 2nd April, the club confirmed that Moore had tested positive for coronavirus. Three days later, Wednesday beat Cardiff City 5-0, as if to prove that he could be leading the team in the right direction.
With Moore incapacitated, his assistant Jamie Smith took over as their second caretaker-manager of the season (and fifth in total), but Smith couldn’t find enough from this squad to pull them out of trouble. They won just one more game all season, and went into the Derby game not only needing to win, but also relying on results from elsewhere going their way, if they were going to stay up. Cardiff City kept their end up elsewhere admirably, with a late equalising goal against Rotherham United, but elsewhere hasn’t really been the problem for Sheffield Wednesday, this season.
And just what is the prognosis for Sheffield Wednesday from here? If the common assent is that everybody and everything was to blame for this collapse, then where do you start with clearing it all up. The players may well not be good enough, or not bonding properly, but any summer clearout is oing to depend on being able to shift some malfunctioning parts off their staff list and replacing them, most likely on the cheap. This, of course, is because of the club’s pretty dreadful financial position, and there’ll certainly be fewer clubs more relieved to see the return of crowds to grounds as Sheffield Wednesday.
But we don’t know what the effect on attendances will be for Sheffield Wednesday, once crowds are allowed back in. There might be a boom, and that boom may be temporary or permanent. But there is a chance that the return of crowds to matches could be sluggish, and that sunlit financial uplands are far from guaranteed. And on top of that, they’ll be returning a division lower than where they’ve been, this last nine years. Wednesday will receive a smaller cut of already fairly meagre television money with relegation, and their commercial value will drop. There are reasons why relegations can become tail-spins.
Change at Sheffield Wednesday has to start at the very top. Dejphon Chansiri appeared to show some contrition in a club statement issued last night, but apologising a couple of hours after the last game of the season, when relegation has been confirmed, is locking the stable door after the horse has bolted. Five managers in one season, even if ‘only’ two of them were caretakers, is unacceptable. When we add in the fact that the players were not paid in full and on time twice in three months and that they were deducted six points for reasons that were totally beyond their control, we might even consider that the players did reasonably well to keep the possibility of staying up alive until the last kick of the season. Had it not been for that points deduction, they would have stayed up and Derby would have dropped instead.
With United falling off the bottom of the Premier League at the same time, this has been a bad season for football in Sheffield. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the city has been struggling increasingly over the last few years, but while it’s easy to look forsome degree of causation, it seems more likely than these two declines just happen to be happening at the same time. After all, when the outbreak started, both clubs were in sixth place in their respective divisions, and that was only fourteen months ago, even if the pre-pandemic world does already feel like a long-distant place.
No, these two clubs have their own specific reasons for finding themselves in the position in which they did. The substantial money from being in the Premier League and the prospect of parachute payments should cushion United’s fall somewhat, though no-one is expecting their next set of company accounts to be sparkling, the same as every other football club. Wednesday, on the other hand, have no such safety net, and we don’t even really know their current condition, as the accounts published in March were for the pre-pandemic world. It’s difficult to believe that the accounts to June 2020 will be any better, and the prognosis for the year to June 2021 is such that anything better than utterly catastrophic would be considered something of a win.
The problems at Sheffield Wednesday are institutional, of that there is little doubt. The changes needed within the club won’t start to occur unless Dejphon Chansiri is nowhere near it, but the problem there is that he owns the ground now. They’re tied to him, whether they like it or not. It’s an absolute shambles of a situation from which few very few emerge with a great deal of credit, and digging the club out if it is going to require considerable care and attention. Sheffield Wednesday fans already know what they think of Dejphon Chansiri’s merits in this regard. That’s kind of why they’re so angry at the moment.