Any student of crisis management in search of a suitably grisly case study need look no further than Sheffield Wednesday. Almost everything that could possibly go wrong at a football club has happened at Hillsborough in recent months; sometimes simultaneously.
If, in no particular order, a hefty points deduction, a relegation struggle, the sacking of two managers in successive months, players receiving only partial wage payments and a disenfranchised fan base were not sufficient, several club personnel are recovering from a significant Covid outbreak.
It all rather suggests that Neil Thompson, proving an understated hit as caretaker manager – after the dismissal of Garry Monk and Tony Pulis in November and December respectively – could do without engaging in a tactical duel with Carlo Ancelotti. Instead, a 57-year‑old stand-in who has just had coronavirus sounds as if he cannot wait for Sunday night’s FA Cup tie at Everton.
Thompson is anxious to extend his side’s run of four wins and one draw in their past five games before the virus forced two postponements and left most of his squad self-isolating. “It’s a great opportunity to pit your wits against one of the top managers in world football but I haven’t actually given it too much thought,” says the former Nottingham Forest, Ipswich and Scarborough full-back. “I’ve just been concentrating on trying to get some football back into the players’ legs.”
Wednesday’s Middlewood Road training ground – a weekday base perched above Hillsborough – had to be shut for 11 days, but in the past week the squad has been put through possession drills by an interim coach who, in the course of a varied playing career, worked under Brian Clough, John Lyall and Neil Warnock.
Thompson has been part of Wednesday’s backroom since 2011 and, as an eclectic field of more celebrated names including Slavisa Jokanovic, Vladimir Ivic, Roy Keane, Gus Poyet and Paul Cook are persistently linked with the job, the East Yorkshireman seems determined to seize the moment.
“It’s my first time in management for 18 years since I player-managed Boston,” says a caretaker who clearly hopes to secure the post, despite straight-batting questions about the vacancy. “That’s a long time ago but you’ve got to trust what you do. I’ve tried to give the players that little bit of freedom they need within a defensive structure.
“I just wanted to get a bit of positivity into the team and I think we’ve done that. It’s been difficult but exciting. In football you’ve got to expect the unexpected.”
Far too many of the recent surprises at Wednesday have been of the unpleasant variety. While players reportedly only received a percentage of their November wages, with the remainder deferred, already disillusioned supporters were particularly shocked by the points deduction.
Although the original 12-point sanction – imposed for Wednesday’s well-documented attempt to circumvent the English Football League’s profit and sustainability rules – was reduced to six on appeal in November, the team remain second bottom of the Championship, with the avoidance of relegation the overriding priority for the owner, Dejphon Chansiri.
The recent wins choreographed by Thompson have at least left them within touching distance of an escape from the drop zone and, coming after a run of one victory during Pulis’s vexed 10-game tenure, the mood music has changed appreciably.
Izzy Brown, the playmaker on loan from Chelsea, found himself among those players frozen out by Pulis, playing 15 minutes under his charge, but has now spoken enthusiastically of the new‑found “freedom to express yourself in the final third” facilitated by Thompson’s tactics.
This mini-renaissance remains an awful long way from not only Wednesday’s early 20th-century zenith, when they won four English titles and three FA Cups, but the early 1990s. Back then a side once referred to as “Sheffield Midweek” by English language broadcasters in the Middle East finished third in the top tier, lifted the League Cup and were losing FA Cup and League Cup finalists. Along the way they became synonymous with a brand of expansive football epitomised by Chris Waddle’s creativity and David Hirst’s near constant stream of goals. If reprising the past is unrealistic, Thompson would enjoy recreating a little of that flair at Goodison.
“We’re chomping at the bit after our enforced break,” he says. “We’re under no illusions that we’ve got a really tough three and a half months ahead but this is a diversion from the Championship and I’m a great believer in building momentum.
“We’re not naive enough to think we can play really open football at Everton but we still need to be on the front foot when we can. We’ve done a lot of work on taking our chances in training this week. You just have to trust yourself.”
Wednesday’s captain, Barry Bannan, suggests the squad have implicit faith in their caretaker manager. “We’ve got massive respect for Neil,” he says. “We know him really well and he knows us inside out. The boys would be more than happy if Tommo was here until the end of the season. The big thing he’s done is to lift our spirits and let us express ourselves. He wants us to have a go and, if we lose, so be it. He’s done really well.
“If Everton is his chance to shine and get the job, then we’re 100% behind him.”