By Matt Rowson
Just when it was all going so nicely.
Cruising along with the wind in our hair at the right end of the division, scarcely a care in the world. (Pie City excluded...). Goals are easy enough at one end, however indifferent our build-up play; at the other, the prolonged absence of our first-choice keeper hasn't prevented us racking up nine clean sheets already. And then what?
Manchester United and Sheffield Wednesday in the space of a week, and the barren wastes of last season snap sharply back into focus. The cold gloom of Tuesday night in the Rookery was all too familiar - except the Tuesday night bit - a harsh reminder of what being comprehensively outclassed felt like. Except no defiance this time, no bold stick-yer-chest-out-and-holler bellowing. Hence it was possible to discern two individual voices from the hollows of the back of the stand.
The first, of course, was the forlorn flower-of-Scotland wailing for Charlie Miller, now as much a feature of a Tuesday night home fixture as Gladys Protheroe's 80th birthday is of away trips. Rumours that Charlie himself is responsible for these random overtures are disturbingly believable.
The second voice was more sinister, sinister because the owner has always seemed to crop up during those rare troughs in Graham Taylor's reign. A harsh, cigarette-stained, unforgiving snarl that whiplashed from the very back of the stand.
"TAYLA! SORT IT AHHHHHHHHT.... !"
If any evidence were needed that Tayla has this managing-a-football-club lark well and truly sorted aht, it is by comparing the state of the Hornets with that of Sheffield Wednesday. Last season's prudence was not "tight", or senseless. It wasn't evidence of indecision and it certainly wasn't a wasted opportunity, a betrayal of Division One as intimated by a hilariously disgusted Portsmouth fan who contacted BSaD last season. It was responsible, brave and intelligent, and we're reaping the rewards now.
Wednesday, on the other hand, are facing payback time for years of mismanagement and gambling on continued Premiership survival. It was never a safe gamble...Wednesday are a "big" club (like Wolves, ha ha) and last season's squad probably wasn't one of the three weakest in the Premiership. But it's not all about ability, luck enters the equation as well, and when a crippling injury list combined with an indolent attitude sent Wednesday down, cries of "well, that wasn't very fair" failed to appease the bank manager.
Wednesday are a reported £18m in debt. "Shafted" is, I believe, the term used in financial circles. Combine this with a squad of overpaid players who nobody else seems to want much and you don't have a recipe for prosperity. Derby County, quite famously, had to clear the decks of similar deadwood before Jim Smith finally won them promotion four years ago. All things considered, Paul Jewell pulling the Owls out of an eight-match losing streak on the back of a team of youngsters peppered with the odd seasoned pro looks like something of a minor miracle.
In goal for Wednesday will be Kevin Pressman. An upturn in his recent performances has mirrored that of Wednesday generally, although any shot down low either side still has a decent chance of finding its way over the line, such are the portly stopper's physical limitations. Deputy is Chris Stringer, who made a series of impressive showings following Pressman's dramatic sending off at the start of the season.
Right-back is likely to be Ian Hendon, a solid lower division stopper stolen from Northampton from under the noses of Luton Town. On the left, the thuggish Steve Harkness should go some way to ensuring that Jewell realises his ambition of moving Wednesday off the top of the fair play league, an unacceptable position for a relegated team. In the centre, Des Walker is still generally reliable. At thirty-four and starting his eighth season at Hillsborough, Walker is not forceful enough to be a strong captain but is still a valuable asset in the centre. Ashley Westwood, who followed Jewell from Valley Parade, has partnered Walker but went off with a knock in the Sheffield derby during the week.
Other options at the back include the versatile Steve Haslam and young right-back Dennis Geary. Ritchie Humphreys has been employed at left-back with generally embarrassing results: he was last any good at the start of the 1996-97 season. Andy Hinchcliffe, meanwhile, is out with an achilles injury and one of the several big-name players apparently reluctant to slum it with the Stockports of this world.
In midfield, the talented Wim Jonk is another injury-victim, as are Scottish trio Simon Donnelly, Phil O'Donnell and Phillip Scott, who have barely played a dozen games between them since their arrival last summer, whilst winger Mark McKeever is also out with a long-term problem. Loanee Terry Cooke has generally impressed on the right, as he did at Manchester City before his game went off the boil somewhat. Owen Morrison, another youngster, has scored and created several goals from the other flank. In the centre, combative Irish midfielder Alan Quinn is one genuine cause for optimism, although he could do with easing up on the bookings which are about to earn him a second suspension for the season, whilst Aaron Lescott was recruited from Aston Villa in the summer. Tony Crane and Matt Hamshaw provide further young options.
Up front, Efan Ekoku looks like a priceless signing, on loan from Grasshoppers of Zurich following a family problem in England and is already a hero at Hillsborough with the two goals in the recent derby, the first in Sheffield for seven years. Gerald Sibon is the source of much more debate - the centre of the crowd's attention for his apparently disinterested approach, he has turned in some more committed displays recently. Tall and lanky, if he hits shots properly they stay hit.
Gilles de Bilde, another of the sulking deadweights, is keeping the bench warm on loan at Villa Park, whilst the very broken Andy Booth is out injured. Backup options include the energetically directionless Michelle di Piedi, reputed to be 6' 7" on Wednesday's official site, and another youngster Adam Muller.
Wednesday are rallying admirably. The support, often boisterous and colourful in any case, is now uniting around increasingly gutsy team performances. But whereas three years ago, we were the underdogs when we played the Owls in the cup, GT's prudence has gone some way to raising us above our level. We are the favourites now. Tayla has sorted us aht.