Thursday 25 September 2014

Sheffield Wednesday's thrashing by Manchester City lays bare the task in hand

The last time the Owls took on Manchester City at home, I had a splitting earache. This time round, it was more of a headache as I sat in the pub as the goals racked up. 

The pain of watching underwhelming former England forward Darius Vassell score the winner in that particular 2007 FA Cup tie was only outmuscled by the vice-twisting pain in my right ear watching the match in my uncle Len's living room. 

A quick glance back at the highlights does little to make the memories happier. A relatively strong Owls side who have not been surpassed in terms of league position by following squads in the intervening seven years attempted valiantly to stave off Stuart Pearce's Manchester City with a team consisting of Joey Barton and Steven Ireland alongside the hapless Vassell. 

But if the years between the two ties have been defined by success (City's clutch of trophies, star players and two league titles) and lack of it (the Owls endured another stint in League One since), then tonight's match can be seen as immaterial.

The Blue and White Wizards entered the game in fine form, with defensive fortitude ironically proving the bedrock of a side who have calmly and rightfully taken up sixth position in the league unexpectedly this season. 

Whilst few of the #WAWAW ('We're all Wednesday aren't we?') chanting faithful harbour serious confidence a promotion push is possible despite the Owls' lofty position, there's still plenty of the emotion carried in the name of Everton loanee Hallam Hope. Even a failed takeover by Azerbaijani businessman Hafiz Mammadov, which collapsed after a long summer earlier this month, has failed to dampen spirits around S6.

But tonight's game proved that dreams of promotion need to be tempered. The realities of the modern game mean that, without investment, the Owls cannot expect to compete with a team that were so long their counterparts in near-achievement. Not least as boss Stuart Gray fielded a weakened team against their big money opponents.

Wednesday proved resolute and confident at times in the first half against the holders. A defensive line up led by lone striker Gary Madine valiantly fought off a Sky Blues team featuring several players who appeared in this summer's World Cup including Edin Dzeko and Frank Lampard. 

And it was Lampard, fresh from bashfully sticking a knife into Chelsea hearts at the weekend, who clipped the Owls' wings, slotting home from James Milner's cross just after half time.

There was, predictably, only one winner after the Romford boy's finish as Man City showed their class. Kamil Zayatte's sending off aided the inevitable and Lampard's rounding off of the victory summed up a night which said a lot about the last 15 years for Wednesday.

The margin of the eventual victory may have punctured the Hillsborough team, who have undoubtedly been looking forward to this glamour tie, but it's irrelevance must be noted. Wednesday's league position both now and at the end if the season will dictate whether a buyer - and thus a future - can be carved out for the much-patronised 'sleeping giant'. 

A flashy win against globally recognised opponents fielding a strong side would have been nice, but not essential in attracting the kind of overseas investors we need. Chairman Milan Mandarić this week claimed he turned down a multi-million offer for an Owls player in the transfer window, but he needs to stick or twist in deciding whether to invest in the Owls or ship out quickly. Could this be the decisive season in Wednesday's rudderless recent past? 

Sunday 7 September 2014

Sheffield Wednesday: Where next from here after failed takeover?

As Sheffield Wednesday's proposed takeover by Azerbaijan-born magnate Hafiz Mammadov crumbled to nothing this week, questions again resurfaced over the club's future. 

Fateful photo: Hafiz Mammadov and Milan Mandaric
The fate of the £40m takeover, first announced as a done deal with just Football League ratification needed by current owner Milan Mandaric in June, had felt inevitable since the first reports Mammadov was in financial difficulties began to surface. 

Despite denying the reports, the silence from Mammadov over the deal, and Mandaric's increasingly desperate comments meant fans' hopes of a deal had pretty much gone when first the start of the season, and then the transfer window, came and went. 

For Mandaric it has proved an embarrassing disaster. Updating fans of his every dinner meeting and allowing the Owls to carry the dubious Land of Fire logo on their shirts before the deal was done have further led to the continuing feeling of farse that surrounds the club. He has admitted his desire to please the fans clouded his judgement, hardly the actions of a canny businessman.

Mandaric's open desire to sell the club he purchased in 2010 and aided the promotion in 2011-12 has proved a saga typical of modern football. A number of figures have appeared in the executive box, chequebook remaining firmly in the pocket during his tenure and the Mammadov 'deal' was met positively by the fans. With the squad, and ground, in need of investment a takeover by an owner with deeper pockets has felt like an inevitability. 

On a personal note, while I understand the realities of competing in the modern game means a big bucks owner is almost a pre-requisite for any club with hopes of reaching the glitzy Premier League, I was uneasy when the deal was announced. Here is a club with rich heritage, strong links to a football mad city and with a large and loyal fan base. The idea of selling out to an oil and energy tycoon with links an Azeri regime with a poor human rights record, albeit one of owns RC Lens and FC Baku already, does not sit well with the ethos of the club.

It has pained me to see how Nottingham Forest, a club I worked for for five years, have seemingly turned around their ailing financial situation so easily. Forest-mad Kuwaiti owner Fawaz Al Hasawi took over in 2012 and, despite being unafraid to flex his muscle in hiring and firing managers, has invested in a squad that are looking strong and sitting pretty at the top of the table. Is there no equivalent for Wednesday, a club of similar stature?

Of course, the pain over the protracted takeover has been overshadowed by an unexpectedly bright start to the season. On a shoestring budget, manager Stuart Gray has assembled a squad lacking depth but with a defensive solidity rarely associated with Wednesday. If Mandaric is to find a new buyer for the club, and he insists (rather unconvincingly) the offers remain out there, then it's vital the team are performing and at least hinting that promotion is a possibility in the near future. 

If a new owner is not found then it appears unlikely Mandaric himself is likely to step up his spending on the squad. I was proved wrong in my unease when the controversial Serbian took over, with his reputation at Leicester and Portsmouth distinctly tarnished, but he has backed the club so far. 

But in the here and now, significant investment is needed to keep a club whose fans deserve good times to return to Hillsborough but have far from earned the right to compete at the highest level on the pitch during their 15 years out of the top flight. Without investment, middle table mediocrity appears most likely, and relegation remains a realistic fear.

Troubled times as ever in S6 then, but a resolution of sorts could prompt some imminent decisive action.