Owls on the rise under Gray
Nick Miller takes a look at Sheffield Wednesday's revival in the latest edition of his Sky Bet Football League column.
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On December 1, Sheffield Wednesday were second-bottom of the Championship, six points from safety having won just one game all season.
"This club has had 12 or 13 managers in recent years but sacking managers isn't the way forward," said manager Dave Jones after the defeat to Blackpool at the end of November.
Unfortunately for him, the Wednesday board disagreed and decided that sacking him was exactly the way forward, temporarily replacing Jones with first-team coach Stuart Gray.
These were troubling times for Owls fans - quite apart from their precarious position in the table, the early favourites to permanently replace Jones were Benito Carbone, the inexplicably consistently-employed Michael Appleton and, the ultimate jump from frying pan to fire, Paolo Di Canio.
"Results have not been good enough, performances have not been up to scratch, and that's not down to the manager," said Connor Wickham, then on-loan from Sunderland, just after Jones was shown the door.
Results under Gray since have either proven Wickham wrong, or shown that the players have pulled their finger out in a massive way - and if so, Jones will presumably be banging his head against a wall somewhere, frustrated to say the least that this collection of players couldn't perform to any basic level of competence while he was there.
Before Tuesday night's game with Derby, Wednesday collected 22 points from an available 39, a run which included eight games unbeaten and wins against the best team in the division in Leicester, and an extraordinary 6-0 pummelling of Leeds that Brian McDermott described as a 'public humiliation'.
They have moved from no-hopers, cut adrift and heading rapidly back to League One to a side nine points clear of the bottom three with two games in hand on most of their immediate rivals. It's been quite a turnaround, to say the least, and Gray was rewarded with a permanent post at the end of January.
So what has Gray changed? The form of Wickham (since recalled by Sunderland) and the return to fitness of Kieran Lee in midfield have been key factors, but at the most basic level Gray appears to have given the players more confidence and freedom to attack, and placed a little more faith in creative players, not least Chris Maguire, who has flourished in the past couple of months.
"At the moment I'm enjoying my game and I'm loving it. A lot of it is down to Stuart Gray. He's got the job and he's given me the chance, obviously I worked with him at Portsmouth so he knows what I can do and I'm just grateful for giving me that opportunity."
Maguire's pre-Gray Wednesday career was a curious one. Purchased by Jones for £250,000 (a not inconsiderable sum for a club of Wednesday's means, these days) in the summer of 2012, Maguire made just one league start in the whole of last season, coming off the bench nine times, and was eventually sent to Coventry (on loan) shortly before Jones was handed his cards this season.
Gray recalled him just before Christmas, and has been rewarded with some excellent performances in which Maguire has scored five goals in eight league games, including a 97th minute winner in an extraordinary game against Barnsley.
"I don't know what his reasons were," said Maguire recently, when asked about his exile from the team under Jones. "I just kept working hard in training and people told me I'd get my opportunity and I feel I've got the last laugh...
"I think he took a dislike to me for some reason and that's up to him. At the moment I'm enjoying my game and I'm loving it."
"A lot of it is down to Stuart Gray," Maguire continued. "He's got the job and he's given me the chance, obviously I worked with him at Portsmouth so he knows what I can do and I'm just grateful for giving me that opportunity."
It's possible that Wednesday are simply enjoying a new manager bounce, and the novelty of Gray simply not being Dave Jones might wear off soon, but for now he and Maguire are working their magic, and unless something calamitous happens, they should secure survival, something that looked very unlikely just a few months ago.
Also at the ugly end of the Championship are Charlton, currently in the relegation zone thanks to the obvious poor results, but also not helped by their Thames-adjacent pitch that has caused a number of games to be postponed in the recent adverse weather.
They are taking a rather different route to survival. Rather than changing manager, it seems they are trying to change most of the playing staff.
The transfer window saw the departure of top scorer Yann Kermorgant, highly-rated young midfielder Dale Stephens and goalkeeper Ben Alnwick (himself only signed at the start of the season), replaced by a number of players on loans and permanent deals from around Europe, but largely from Standard Liege.
"Sharing ideas sounds lovely, but it is quite a risk to stuff the Charlton side with players who have little or no knowledge of English football (only Ajdarevic has some relatively perfunctory experience in this country, with Leicester and Hereford) and hope they will do the trick in a survival battle."
The Standard connection comes, of course, from Charlton's new owner, Roland Duchâtelet, who was rather quaintly billed as the 18th richest man in Belgium after he took control at the Valley in early January. Duchâtelet owns Standard, as well as either owning or having family interests in FC Carl Zeiss Jena in Germany, Alcorcón in Spain, Ujpest FC in Hungary and Sint-Truidense in Belgium.
Duchatelet appears to be repeating a policy established at Standard, namely selling off established names and building a team of youngsters, which seems to be working there - they're currently ten points clear at the top of the Juliper League.
However, it's quite a gamble. Replacing Stephens, Kermorgant and Alnwick were Astrit Ajdarević, Yohann Thuram-Ulien (cousin of Lilian) and Anil Koç on loan from Standard, as well as Reza Ghoochannejhad (also from Standard), Loic Nego from Ujpest and breaking the mould, forward Piotr Parzyszek from the non-Duchâtelet owned De Graafschap, all on permanent deals.
"Why not use the network of clubs and players that are available?" manager Chris Powell told The Guardian recently. "I'd be silly not to look at players at Standard. That may be something we look at in the future. I'll be going over to those clubs and speaking to the managers. Why not use it if it's there? In any business you take opportunities to share ideas."
Sharing ideas sounds lovely, but it is quite a risk to stuff the Charlton side with players who have little or no knowledge of English football (only Ajdarevic has some relatively perfunctory experience in this country, with Leicester and Hereford) and hope they will do the trick in a survival battle.
The Addicks have just one win in their last 12 and have lost their last four, and with the fixture pile-up that will ensue once their assorted rearranged fixtures come around (plus they're still in the FA Cup, although their fifth round game was, of course, postponed due to a waterlogged pitch), means it could be a rough last few months of the season for Powell's men.