Monday 30 May 2016

Fan's eye view: Sheffield Wednesday v Hull City play-off final

Wednesday's might've lost on the pitch at Wembley but it still felt like a release for the fans to have a huge day like that. There's little point adding more analysis of the match as the Owls didn't really turn up, simple as, so here's some pictures of the day including a few from the nosebleed seats. It may be expensive but there isn't a bad view inside the national stadium.

Friday 27 May 2016

Fan's eye view: What to expect from Sheffield Wednesday v Hull City play-off final

We're nearly, nearly there. As the day of the play-off final against Hull City is almost upon us, here's a few things we can expect.

On the way
Perhaps it says everything about our recent history that, since we last visited Wembley, they've knocked the whole thing down and the famous twin towers are no more. Getting to Wembley will be a laborious mission for most of those descending from Yorkshire, not least when both set of fans converge around King's Cross. The police have already said the trains won't be selling alcohol, too. The walk up Wembley Way will be a special one though and there will be mini-fan parks for each set of fans with bars and "street food" (sounds expensive but is posh pie and a pint no doubt).

In the stands
There's no doubt that we have some of the best fans in the country in terms of commitment to the cause, humour and ability to have a good time regardless of what's happening on the pitch. Anyone who, like me, was among the 40,000 fans who descended on Cardiff for our League One playoff win in 2005 will attest that, when the big days come, we're ready for it. 

It's been pretty grim reading the panicked social media posts and the, sometimes vicious, responses as fans tried to get tickets and, in some cases, were attacked over a lack of commitment. In truth I think everyone understands that most fans would love to see our beloved Owls every week were it not for family commitments, money and life getting in the way of supporting our team in the stands. Ironically social media has made it so much more fun to support Wednesday in recent years, providing easy access to the huge community of Owls fans. Thankfully in recent days the ticket vitriol  has switched to thoughts of the actual game and, judging by the excited social media posts, it's going to be a sea of blue and white. WAWAW. 

On the pitch 
Oh yeah, there's actual going to be a game. There's little doubt Hull have the quality - with players like Robert Snodgrass and Abel Hernandez - to do Wednesday damage and even their recent trips to Wembley (most recently in losing to Arsenal in the cup final in 2014) may even give them extra steel. But the Owls are riding a crest of a wave. The players and fans seem well aware that we've not been the third best team and we're ready to snatch our opportunity with cheek. 

Expect tight defences to play a big part, especially early on - the jitters seen in both teams' second legs will have left them in no doubt that more tough tackling in the midfield is needed. Further forward, these are often days for unlikely heroes. Who would've expected Drew Talbot to have gone down in S6 folklore a decade back? Perhaps this is the day for a sneaky goal from Keiran Lee or Daniel Pudil to decide things? 

On the touchline
Two very different managers will be stalking the Wembley technical areas. Often-animated Carlos Carvalhal has plenty of ego to him and, hopefully, will relish the big occasion. He's been in a final before, with Portugal's Leixoes, and also got them promoted. For his opposite number Steve Bruce, he's already been promoted as a manager via the play-offs, and his experience as a players with Manchester United puts points in the plus column. 

The prize

The figure being slapped on this 'richest game in the world' this year appears to be £200m. Psychologically it's worth much more to Wednesday. There's been a sense, more from others than Owls fans themselves, over the last 16 years that we belong in the top division. Whether or not that can really be true, let's hope they can prove that to be the case. 

Tuesday 3 May 2016

What next season could hold for Sheffield Wednesday, promoted or not

Saturday's win over Cardiff, securing our play-off place, felt like a real landmark in Wednesday's recent history. Attempting to predict the outcome of the play-offs, incessantly dubbed 'a lottery', is basically pointless, save to say a couple of excellent performances over Derby and Cardiff have put us in a strong position. So what can we expect next season, whether it's off the back of a Wembley victory or not?

The Premier League
If the dream comes true and we make it back after a 16-year absence, you can be sure that the pain of the near two decade absence will be enough to spur on a fight to stay up. I've lost count of the number of times well-meaning neutrals have told me the Owls 'should' be in the top tier or are a 'sleeping giant' since the Millennium. Owner and tuna king Dejphon Chansiri and manager Carlos Carvalhal have talked a great game - i.e. promotion this season would be a bonus, the target was always next year. But, Leicester City excepted, long-term goals from football club owners ("we'll be in Europe in four years!") are rarely worth anything. Not least as managers aren't given more than 12 games if results start to turn sour. 

So expect instant spending on deepening the squad, improvements to the ground (how long does it feel since the Great Scoreboard Investment debate?), in a year in which the Hillsborough disaster is again under the microscope, and more commercial deals. Will Chansiri attempt to further boost Wednesday's profile in Asia using his own business links? Moreover, after the bad blood at the start of the season over ticket prices, can we expect matchday admission prices to shoot up? The chance to offer top dollar for the visits of the Manchester clubs, Arsenal and even the Foxes will surely be too much to resist. 
Unlike Southampton and Coventry, we hadn't spent years beating the drop by the skin of our teeth. Just two years prior to relegation, a Carbone and Di Canio inspired side ended 7th in the league. If the Owls return to the big time, it will not be with the Big Gun status with which we left it. That said, a team containing Bannan, Lee and Forestieri are unlikely to start hoofing it and could play some attractive top-flight football. Emulating Bournemouth, Swansea and Watford is the goal. 

The Championship 
And so to the less appealing. Conventional wisdom would assume that, with Carlos' new contract signed and talk of promotion really being the target next season, we will build on this season, and potentially target automatic promotion. The top six finish and the feel good factor around the club should be enough to hang on to our most talented assets - Forestieri, Hooper, Westwood, Bannan - even if a lower-end Premier League team came calling, you'd hope. In recent years a cluster of sides including Watford, Derby and Middlesborough have bounced back from playoffs defeats to put in strong follow-up seasons. 

In the unlikely event of an implosion, or even a distinctly average season, Chansiri's next move will be fascinating. New to football ownership, how important is it that the memorabilia-wearing businessman's South Yorkshire asset shows instant progress? On the plus side, potential matches with Aston Villa, Sunderland and Newcastle United (and perhaps even locals Bradford or Barnsley) could provide some blockbuster crowds in S6 while the Blades continue to languish, failing to provide Steel City derbies. 

The squad 
The implications for every squad member of the next, potentially, three matches of their career are too multitudinous to go into. But there are some intriguing prospects. Given a full season, especially if we remain in the Championship, Marco Matias' latent attacking talent, especially combining with a maturing Lucas Joao, would be great to see. Meanwhile, a run in a Premier League team for the injury-prone and oft-suspended Sam Hutchinson would be great to see. His classy passing and assured style could be a real benefit if we're to do more than just scrap it out. 

The club 
For the club and community as a whole, promotion would be massive. The spiralling debts and ill feeling of the post relegation years were symptomatic of a team which didn't expect demotion. 

Unlike Southampton and Coventry, we hadn't spent years beating the drop by the skin of our teeth. Just two years prior to relegation, a Carbone and Di Canio inspired side ended 7th in the league. If the Owls return to the big time, it will not be with the Big Gun status with which we left it. That said, a team containing Bannan, Lee and Forestieri are unlikely to start hoofing it and could play some attractive top-flight football. Emulating Bournemouth, Swansea and Watford is the goal. 

Sunday 24 January 2016

Wednesday's Class of 93 v the Class of 2016

In dark January days there are few better things to do than make lists. Especially when it comes to nerdily analysing footy. As such, for a bit of fun, I thought I'd measure up Sheffield Wednesday's current first team with the 11 who took the field in the initial 1993 FA Cup final. Here’s who I’d put in the team, do you agree? Comment below.
Goalkeeper: Keiren Westwood - In comparing the Irish keeper – signed by us in July 2014 – with Chris Woods you realise how much the game has changed for the number 1. Both men are 6ft2in but Woods appeared a towering player commanding his area, holding on to the ball and thumping out goalkicks. Westwood, by contrast, is more agile, always scrambling up after plucking the ball from a crowd of legs and swiftly distributing it, even sweeping when he has to. In the final, Woods, a fine keeper, lost out to his England rival David Seaman and he would likely be beaten to the jersey by Ireland’s shotstopper in the modern game.
Right-back: And number one, was Roland Nilsson, and number two, was Roland Nilsson…
Centre-back: Viv Anderson CBE - captained the side (Carlton Palmer took on those duties in the replay) and a redoubtable presence at the back.
Centre-back: Glenn Loovens - The fact the Owls snapped up the cultured Dutchman, once valued at £2.5m by Celtic, on a free after plying his trade in Zaragoza is remarkable. He’s been rock solid over the last two seasons playing a big part in last season’s string of shut outs and helping command a defence which has had several keepers behind it in recent weeks. He outmuscles one of the Blue and White Wizards' most remarkable players – defender turned attacker Paul Warhurst – for a spot in the dream team.
Left-back: Nigel Worthington - The Northern Irishman (who was joined by countryman Danny Wilson in the replay) was a gangly force of nature down the wing. His modern-day peers: the talented Daniel Pudil and Joe Bennett should dig out the tapes.
Right-wing: Chris Waddle - That. Free. Kick.
Midfield: Fernando Forestieri - "Oh, Forestieeeeeri!" The little playmaker (born in Rosario, Argentina to Italian parents) is one of the most naturally talented players to have graced the Hillsborough turf in the 23 years since that hazy May final. His 11 goals in 21 appearances have provided impetus to an attack which, while prolific, has few reliable goalscorers. His deft touches, work rate and clinical passing make him the player most likely to have slotted into Trevor Francis’ flowing football. He outmuscles the USA’s finest, John Harkes, for the spot.
Midfield: Barry Bannan - A close call with both Carlton Palmer, who he replaces, and the smooth style of Keiran Lee, Bannan’s ability to tackle effectively and pick out a pass mean he’s got to be in. A Premier League quality player whose new contract is the best piece of business the Owls have done in the January window so far.
Left-wing: John Sheridan - He’d already proved himself at Wembley before that FA match, and remains a much-talked about Owls legend.
Striker: Mark Bright - Impossible not to like with that beaming smile and lethal boot. Although he was outjumped by Andy Linighan in the replay for the goal (despite doing his best to take him out with a sharp elbow) his header to get us there and consistent goalscoring between 1992 and 1996 make him hard to beat. Still has a soft spot for the Owls, as well as his beloved Palace. His reliability in front of goal puts the current crop – including João, Hooper and Nuhiu – deep in the shade.
Striker: David Hirst - His partnership with Bright was one to behold but the left foot of Hirsty couldn’t be overlooked. Arguably the best forward to ever pull on the blue and white it’s hard to see another striker ever reaching the level of adoration this Barnsley boy still commands in S6.
Manager: Carlos Carvalhal - For all Trevor Francis’ flair as a player and player-coach, Carlos Augusto Soares da Costa Faria Carvalhal feels a better manager. He’s had a chequered history with his staggering 14 previous clubs and was an unremarkable defender but has surprised in the way he’s quickly established a philosophy, rapport with the fans, a dominant persona on the touchline and handled setting a marker for a new era under new ownership with ease.
Full line-ups:
1993 - Chris Woods, Roland Nilsson, Viv Anderson, Paul Warhurst, Nigel Worthington, Chris Waddle, Carlton Palmer, John Sheridan, John Harkes, David Hirst, Mark Bright
2016 - Keiren Westwood, Vincent Sasso, Glenn Loovens, Jack Hunt, Daniel Pudil, Sam Hutchinson, Fernando Forestieri, Barry Bannan, Keiran Lee, Ross Wallace, Gary Hooper

Sunday 11 October 2015

Memorable Sheffield Wednesday and Arsenal meetings

My beloved Sheffield Wednesday are preparing to face Arsenal in the fourth round of the Capital One Cup at Hillsborough at the end of the month. The match provides a great excuse to look at some memorable meetings between the Owls and the Gunners. Here's a few of the best:

Wednesday 1 - 1 Arsenal, 6 January 1979  
The first of five games between the sides in this thriller of a third round FA Cup tie - four replays were needed for Arsenal to get through, eventually winning one of the all time great finals 3-2 against Manchester United. The match nearly didn't go ahead as an Arsenal team featuring David O'Leary and Pat Rice looked dubiously at the frozen pitch and flying snowballs. But when South Yorkshireman and cup final hero Alan Sunderland headed in past Chris Turner after nine minutes that must've dissipated. Jeff Johnson hit back with a second half header of its own and the Owls had chances to win it. The tie would eventually be settled (after another 1-1, a 2-2 and a 3-3) but while Arsenal won the trophy, Wednesday ended the year with the glorious Boxing Day Massacre against Sheffield United.  

Wednesday 1 - 1 Arsenal, 5 May 1993 
The 112th FA Cup final was one of three Wembley meetings between the sides that year and the only one Wednesday didn't lose. A Wednesday side crammed full of stars (Chris Waddle, David Hirst, Mark Bright) came back from behind to level and dominated the second half. With manager Trevor Francis looking on in dodgy sunglasses, the Owls held their own and Hirst's poke in from John Harkes' nod back was deserved. Sadly it wasn't to be when the sides met the following Thursday but this was a great day for the blue half of Sheffield after the glorious victory over the Blades in the semi final. 

Wednesday 6 - 0, 31 December 1907
I won't claim to have been alive at the time but Wednesday, then still known as The Wednesday Football Club notched up their best ever victory against Woolwich Arsenal on New Year's Eve at the start of the last century. Some 9,000 Yorkshiremen turned up to see the First Division rout against an experienced Arsenal side featuring prolific goalscorer Bert Freeman, who was kept at bay. 

Arsenal 3 - 3 Wednesday, May 9 2000
Although Wednesday were relegated from the top flight (so far, yet to return) after a dismal season, the team's fate was sealed with a thriller at Highbury. Goals from Gerald Sibon and Giles De Bilde put the Owls 3-1 up and dreaming of staying up before, cruelly, late goals from Silvio Silvinho and Thierry Henry, which typical finesse, sealed Peter Shreeves' Owls' fate. It was a far cry from just four years earlier when Wednesday legend David Hirst literally rattled Arsenal with the fastest shot in history - 114mph - which thumped against the crossbar. 

Wednesday 1 - 0 Arsenal, 26 September 1998

To flip the common memory of this game - i.e. Paulo Di Canio's hotheaded push of referee Paul Alcock after he received a red card, and subsequently an 11 game ban - let's look at the result. A fantastic game saw chances at both ends with Dennis Bergkamp and Nicolas Anelka coming close and big Brazilian defender Emerson Thome thwarted by Gunners keeper Alex Manninger. Midfielder Lee Briscoe had missed a far easier chance before his last minute lobbed winner over the Austrian deputy keeper (to England shot stopper David Seaman). One of the most memorable days at Hillsborough of the 1990s for various reasons with victory over the champions secured. (I do remember BBC Radio 5live crossing to this game and shouting "and Paulo Di Canio!" - 'yesss!" I shouted thinking it a goal - "…has pushed over the referee!". Oh.) 

What have I missed? Pop comments below.

Sunday 26 July 2015

How can Sheffield Wednesday fans effectively protest against the ticket price hike?

No one wants to pay more for something than they have to, but a sense of value for money is paramount. It is a lack of this sense that enabled new Sheffield Wednesday owner Dejphon Chansiri to hike home matchday ticket prices - using a plethora of inexplicable categories for games - to as much as £52.

The anger at the sudden decision has enraged Owls fans and supporters organisations. The general feeling has been that this is an obscene amount to pay to watch second division football at Hillsborough which, last season in particular, has not exactly been home to spectacular top dollar football of late. It is unreasonable to expect a family to pay this (not least as the old ground hasn't exactly got great family facilities) when people are still struggling to find work in South Yorkshire and the next generation of kids who want to go may be deprived of the experience. What's more, the timing of the decision, after all the cheap early bird season tickets have finished sale, meant those on those on the fence about renewing or buying a season ticket who didn't have been heavily stung if they want to visit Hillsborough a bunch of times this season.

As an ardent fan proud that we were amongst the cheapest teams to go and see in the league it has been a painful turn of events.

To put the decision into context, Chansiri bought the club in January, taking over from Milan Mandaric - widely seen to have saved the club and who was even granted a 'Thank you Milan Day', unusual among chairmen. But, as Mandaric agreed to stay on to advise, we must assume he had some say in the ticket pricing decision. Chansiri, who has been popular with Owls fans, keen to see the seafood magnate spend big to achieve his much stated goal of reaching the Premier League. 

"Chansiri has approached his reign like a Prime Minister's - charm on arrival before dropping bombshells"

In a delayed letter explaining the ticket price hike, he used funding transfers (the only language that gets fans on side, we hardly want to hear the ticket cash is being spent on plush back room facilities) as a justification. It's pathetically transparent behaviour: bang on about attacking football, which of course everyone wants to see (but can be difficult in a tight division led by a new manager inexperienced in English football) and then demand the fans pay for it.

But is this really fair? In the Premier League, ticket income vastly lags TV rights and advertising revenues to fund multi-million pound transfers. With reduced access to that in the Championship, Chansiri has clearly decided the fans, rather than canny deals brokered by his business, will fund his ambitions. It appears he has approached his reign like a Prime Minister's parliamentary term - charm on arrival and shortly afterwards before dropping the bombshells, knowing you've bought yourself some time before the masses can really turn on you.

In response to the price hike - to £39, Bristol City fans have understandably decided to boycott the season opener at Hillsborough on August 8. We've seen a propensity, particularly at Premier League level, for teams to raise away prices against those who overcharge their fans and the temptation with a well supported club like Wednesday will doubtless be they will see the blue and white pound and do just that.

But I think this may be what it takes. As an exiled Owl in London, I go to plenty of games in the south and am always proud to stand amongst a heaving WAWAW faithful. If this number starts thinning out, the supporter numbers are held up against previous years and - after a few seasons of inflated revenge pricing - we become a less lucrative club to host, then Chansiri may be shamed into cutting prices. Empty seats at Hillsborough is one thing, but a true protest needs to reverberate far wider.

Although his background is very much not a footballing one, the more the new Owls owner becomes embedded in the flash, trophy asset world of football club ownership, the more his reputation will play a part. If this is as someone charging Premier League prices to see sub-par football, this may just force his hand.

Monday 4 May 2015

Sheffield Wednesday: 2014-15 season in review

On the pitch 

There's been few seasons which have not ended in shredded nerves over the last decade, but this was one such. In fact, not since the 2007-08 Championship campaign have the Owls truly not challenged for promotion or fought to stave off relegation in the closing weeks. However, head coach Stuart Gray will be pleased to have seemingly consolidated the Owls' position in the second tier and shown signs they can challenge wealthier rivals, albeit falling away after early promise amongst the play-off contenders. This season's iteration of the Blue and White Wizards have been far more defensively resolute than previous incarnations, thanks largely to super-keeper Keiren Westwood and it will be intriguing to see if Gray continues to focus on a mean defence (the Owls finished 13th with -6 goal difference, above Forest who had +2). 

The owner
Sheffield expects. When Dejphon Chansiri bought the club in January, the expectation that the Thai seafood tycoon, inspired to take an interest in football by his son, would splash the cash was clear. With the first full transfer window under his stewardship opening in July, the trio at the top of the club - Gray and new recruits and Glenn Roeder and Adam Pearson - will be looking to strengthen. A relatively light-weight midfield and an inconsistent attack will doubtless be at the top of their list of problems. For Chansiri, this will be the first test of how willing he is to put money where his mouth is to achieve his bold target of bringing Premier League football back to S6 by 2017.

The manager
A mid-season fan campaign to force Stuart Gray out of a job after a cluster of lacklustre performances, not least at home, could easily have succeeded. With a new owner in, the man in the blue sportswear looked fairly likely to be shown the door. However, with Roeder and Pearson alongside him, there appears to be a recognition that Gray is a good man manager and a move to a more collegiate recruitment approach - with Chansiri's cash behind them - could well prove a canny move. I have my doubts about Roeder, given his patchy management record, but contacts in the upper echelons of the game are vital for Championship teams to nab nifty loan deals.

The players
Gray would have hoped to have named a more settled team through the season than he was able to. A combination of injury and form meant chopping and changing was the order of the season. A strong defence has been undermined by a midfield - with the exception of fan favourite Keiran Lee - that has lacked resolved, whether from the inconsistent Lewis McGugan or Jacques Maghoma, who needs to rediscover his finishing after bagging 26 goals in his four-year stint at Burton Albion. Up top, Stevie May has failed to delight. His record in Scotland made him an attractive signing, and his industry is an asset, but what looked at first like bad luck has spiralled into a host of missed chances. The £800,000 signing needs to be replaced with proven Championship quality. Alongside him Atdhe Nuhiu has probably done enough - not least through his dramatic party-pooping equaliser at Watford - to retain a starting position, although his lack of pace is a continual frustration and leaves Wednesday lacking when compared to the strike forces of Blackburn, Ipswich and Brentford this season. 

Player of the season
No contest. Westwood's form - which landed him in the Championship Team of the Year - will doubtless have caught the eye of bigger fish. If the Owls can hang on to the Irishman, and keep Chris Kirkland happy as understudy, then the defensive solidity his wonder stops have provided will prove the bedrock for development. The magnitude of those saves - worth around 15 points no doubt - cannot be underestimated. 

Moment of the season 
The turnaround at Rotherham, in which Wednesday turned a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 win with the help of Lee, ranks among the great last gasp wins thanks to an enormous seven minutes injury time. Nuhiu's sharp finish at the Etihad in the FA Cup defeat to Manchester City comes a close second. 

New teams in prospect

With a new season, will come some interesting away games. Sunderland or Aston Villa could potentially fall out of the Premier League, so a trip to the Stadium of Light or Villa Park could provide tasty fixtures, as well as QPR and Burnley who could make swift returns to the division. At the other end, a return to Bristol City's Ashton Gate will provide Owls fans with happy memories of numerous victories although MK Dons' soulless Stadium MK is a less appealing prospect. Naturally, the Blades play-off challenge will be watched keenly by their neighbours and a Steel City derby for the first time since 2011-12 could be on the cards.