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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 29/03/03, 3.00pm
Sheffield Wednesday
Turning around an oil tanker
By Matt Rowson

"The Inevitability of Gradualness cannot fail to be appreciated"

Lord Passfield, 1923

And by Chris Turner in particular, one suspects.

Sheffield Wednesday are going to be relegated this season, dropping to the third tier of English football for the first time in twenty-three years and only the second time in history. Signs of life were detected at the beginning of the month, with a very respectable draw at Leicester and a quite bizarre 5-1 demolition of Coventry. The latter remains their only victory in eleven games, however, and whilst the Owls' relegation rivals have made convincing fists of scrapping for survival in recent weeks, Wednesday have slipped again and are now six points adrift. Saturday's defeat at Millwall suggested very little fight left in the side, with manager Turner questioning the attitude of certain of his players.

As regards "inevitability"...well, Wednesday have generally been amongst the ugliest and most desperate sides in Division One for the past two seasons (in which they have finished seventeenth and twentieth respectively, escaping the drop by a point last year). Turner, a sound-enough looking appointment given a decent track record with Hartlepool and strong Wednesday connections, has achieved a few minor successes since his arrival... a bit more fight, return to form of a couple of key players and some relatively impressive signings amongst them. Oil tankers take a bit of turning around once they're heading in a certain direction, however, and Wednesday's hand has been further weakened by an absolutely disastrous injury list that has decimated an already patchy squad this season.

Wednesday have suffered from poor management and some very poor players in recent years, but in all honesty these are occupational hazards of the life of most football clubs, and few other clubs find themselves in quite as pitiful a state as Wednesday as a consequence. In reality, the Owls are a high profile victim of the Premiership set-up. Still hailed as the panacea of domestic football (and as Year 0 by Sky), the downside of upping the stakes, driving a financial wedge between the top flight and the rest and increasing barriers to entry by upping salaries and transfer fees to an incontestable level would always be that as soon as a medium-sized Prem club, like Wednesday, had a bad season they could be dragged under without trace. Premiership contracts tend to demand Premiership football (as we know all too well)... and bear in mind that in the seven years prior to their relegation with us in 2000, Wednesday had had seven pretty solid seasons in the top flight. Having been there during the Premiership's boom years, they were always going to feel the pinch.

Since their relegation, Wednesday's side has been characterised by a mixture of kids and journeymen...with the loan system being particularly heavily exploited this season as Turner and Yorath before him attempted to conjure a stable side.

In goal for Wednesday will be thirty-five-year-old Kevin Pressman. Pressman lost his place recently to South African Paul Evans, whose record of six goals conceded in seven games compares very favourably to the almost two-per-game record of Pressman. However a pelvic injury has ended Evans' season, and Pressman is back in the side with Chris Stringer likely to be on the bench.

At the back, Dean Smith was Turner's first signing, a veteran of six hundred games in the lower divisions whose steel has gone down well at Hillsborough. He is likely to be partnered by Danny Maddix, whose indelicate challenge brought Danny Webber's loan spell to a premature end earlier in the season. Leigh Bromby may also come into contention having returned from Norwich, although protracted negotiations may yet see him return to Carrow Road before Thursday's deadline. Wednesday's other centrebacks are largely employed elsewhere, with Ashley Westwood at right-back in place of fellow booboy-victim Steve Haslam and Tony Crane filling in up front. Ryan Green, once Wales' youngest ever full cap whilst at Wolves, is the likeliest cover.

On the left, with Derek Geary out for the season following a knee operation and David Burrows also, as ever, injured, Brian Barry-Murphy has been filling in at left back. Wednesday have issues on the left side on Saturday however with midfielder Alan Quinn, whose return to form has been marked under Turner, away with the Irish squad for the first time and Matt Hamshaw, scorer of a fine goal in the Worthington Cup Quarter-Final last season, out with ligament problems. One possibility would see Barry-Murphy pushed forwards with Jon Beswetherick, back from a successful loan at Swindon, coming in at left back. Alternatively, Turner could take a punt on Richard Evans, a Birmingham winger currently on trial at Hillsborough.

In the centre of midfield, ex-Luton man Paul McLaren is likely to partner Scot Simon Donnelly. Haslam, who has looked particularly uncomfortable in midfield, is the only real alternative, with injury depriving Turner of club captain Trond Soltvedt (ankle), recent recruit Daryl Powell, ex-Hornet Craig Armstrong (calf) and forever-injured Phil O'Donnell (thigh). Sunderland's Irish winger Michael Reddy is likely to complete his loan spell on the right, although another loanee, the disappointing Leon Knight, is back in contention following a virus.

Up front, where - Coventry excepted - Wednesday have been struggling for goals, they are further weakened by the call-up of Shefki Kuqi to the Finnish squad - he misses Saturday also. Lee Bradbury, on loan from Pompey, is likely to be paired with the very-tall-indeed Tony Crane in a partnership that leaves little to the imagination. Lloyd Owusu, somewhat perplexingly still on the bench, will provide cover with youngster Jon Shaw and Italian Michele di Piedi, back from Bristol Rovers, also in with a shout of a place on the bench. Owen Morrison, meanwhile, has rubbed salt into a very open wound by deciding to attempt to fulfill his potential across Sheffield at Bramall Lane, which has obviously gone down well.

We've specialised recently in providing the foil for struggling clubs to turn their seasons around, but with the boost of Michael Chopra's addition to the squad it's not too fanciful to rate our chances in this one, which looks the most winnable of the three away games before Southampton. The majestic but tragically underpopulated Hillsborough stands will be watching on. It may be the last time we get to enjoy that cavernous away end for some time.