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. 

Monday 5 January 2015

How Sheffield Wednesday's performance can prevent a repeat post-Manchester City slump

Frank Lampard attempts to breach the Owls' back line
It was heartbreak of a different kind this time out as the Owls lost 2-1 at City despite a resolute defensive display. The blue and white half of Sheffield had a Wednesday to forget in September, humbled 7-0 by rampant champions Manchester City mid-week in the Capital One cup. A promising start to the season typified by excellent away form and a mean defence had inflated the tyres as the Owls navigated the ever bumpy road of Championship football.

But the Man City mauling proved to be a decisive moment in the season. Despite the fact few expected Wednesday to win the tie, not least as manager Stuart Gray fielded a weakened team, its significance as a turning point in the season cannot be underestimated. 

After the game, Wednesday failed to win any of their subsequent 10 games with four nil-nil draws summing up an alarming lack of guile, luck and bite up front this term. However, the stodgy run (and a pre-Christmas 4-0 humiliation at the hands of Fulham) was put behind them with back-to-back league wins over the festive period. The S6 team now sit in 10th, our highest league position at this stage since 2000.

This time out it was a remarkably positive performance at the Etihad in front of 44,300 fans. Against a Man City side of good strength and with a stronger line-up ourselves, the men in yellow acquitted themselves well with strike partners Stevie May and Atdhe Nuhiu holding the ball up and the likes of Semedo, Palmer and Loovens working hard to keep their big money opponents quiet for the first 60 minutes. 

The performance will lift the profile of a number of our players and, despite the sucker—punch of James Milner's brace, give heart to an Owls side who ultimately aspire to become City's Premier League peers.

So can Wednesday avoid a re-run of the grim form which followed their last trip to Eastlands as they enter the second half of the season? The first priority, which Gray will surely look to attend to in the transfer window, is a lack of goals. Wednesday have scored three times in the league on just one occasion this season - the 3-2 win at Middlesborough in August - and their strike force of Stevie May and Atdhe Nuhiu have mustered just nine league goals between them. May has won fans' hearts with his work ethic since arriving from St Johnstone, often appearing unlucky, however a lack of composure often appears the problem. 

The giant Nuhiu offers little pace and an excuse for midfielders to simply lump the ball at him but an unusually outstanding performance today and the winner at Wigan will doubtless encourage Gray to stick with him. A glance at their peers - Daryl Murphy at Ipswich, Chris Martin at Derby and even former Owl Michail Antonio at Forest reveal calm finishing in frenetic games is the key to bagging goals in the Championship.

Meanwhile, Gary Taylor-Fletcher's baffling month-long loan failed to yield any goals and Gary Madine's loan spell at Coventry has been extended, with his chequered career at Wednesday looking doomed. Maguire and Lavery, both introduced as subs today, also need to show more determination in front of goal.

So what can Gray do on a tight budget with 20-goal strikers hard to come by as he aims to retain the fine balance the Owls have found at the back? A more sophisticated look to the midfield would certainly help. The likely retention of Watford midfielder Lewis McGugan on loan could well prove a smart move, he has looked bright in his seven appearances so far and adds pace in the middle of the pitch not offered by the likes of Kieran Lee. 

What's more the return of Chelsea loanee and defender/midfielder Sam Hutchinson could further boost Wednesday's abilities. He has looked assured on the ball and able to find space with deft passes in his four outings this season. Behind him, keeping goalkeeper Keiren Westwood - who has been astonishingly good this campaign - will be Gray's priority and the Irishman has already snubbed a move to Liverpool in favour of first team football at Hillsborough. However, the fact he didn't play today suggests Gray was mindful of him being cup tied and detracting a potential suitor.

So I expect hanging on to the solid back line he has assembled and looking to add finesse further forward to be top of Gray's agenda this January. Whether he can do that will decide whether today's match at Eastlands will be viewed as a valiant performance or the start of another puncture to the team's confidence.