It was Martin Keown who described Sheffield Wednesday as a well-machined-oil [sic] in the middle of their 2-1 victory over Premier League Newcastle United in the 3rd round of this year’s FA Cup. Keown’s description, even in its own muddled way, is apt. This season Wednesday manager Darren Moore has guided his team to the top of the League One table, keeping 20 clean sheets in 35 games and currently rolling on a club-record unbeaten run of 23 games as they surge toward promotion back to the championship
Moore’s start in the role could scarcely have been more contrasting, the former West Brom and Doncaster head coach inherited a club in turmoil, the Owls had sacked previous manager Tony Pulis after 45 days and one win in ten games, assistant Neil Thompson took charge but could barely stem the rot that had left Wednesday 2nd to bottom in the championship.
In his first press conference as Wednesday coach Moore spoke of his desire to see the fans return to the stadium during a pandemic-hit season, but would soon be the one to miss out after being diagnosed with Covid five games into his tenure. A brief return for a game against Swansea would prove costly as Moore was diagnosed with pneumonia and spent a week in the hospital.
“I was in there (hospital) a full week, full 24 hours’ oxygen. I’ve not talked about this and I’ll be honest with you, I was scared. I went through a four-hour period in the emergency room with three cardiac nurses around me.” Moore said.
Wednesday ended the season relegated to League One, with Moore only able to return for the final game of the season, a 3-3 draw against Derby that sealed their fate. The relegation could not be held against the current manager, the damage had been done before he arrived and added to by a 6-point deduction due to financial mismanagement.
Moore’s first full season in charge required a big rebuild, and a massive task to drag a team together so badly demoralised and mismanaged for so long – the previous season staff and players had gone months without pay while the club solved its financial issues. The summer of 2021 saw 17 first-team departures and 15 arrivals (without spending a penny) for a season that would ultimately end in playoff defeat at the hands of Sunderland.
This campaign, Moore’s men have shown something different. They currently sit clear at the top of the tree. 4 points above second place Plymouth and crucially 6 above third place Ipswich, with two games in hand on both. 78 points from 35 games is not bad going. One of the signature turnarounds has been in defence, the previous campaign saw too many goals conceded and as a former defender Moore’s big goal was to fix that area of the pitch.
It’s fair to say it has been achieved, at this stage last season, the Owls had shipped 37 goals, this season only 23 shots have hit the back of the Wednesday net and the previous record for clean sheets (17) was broken with a remarkable 16 games to play. Personnel consistency has not been easy to come by either, but Moore has managed to navigate injuries, suspensions and loan recalls with aplomb.
Michael Ihiekwe and Ben Henegan were brought in to be defensive mainstays but Henegan’s season ended in October with an ACL rupture and Ihiekwe is yet to return from a knee injury picked up in November left the Owls desperately short at the back. Up stepped Mark McGuinness, the then 21-year-old centre back was brought in on loan from Cardiff as a backup option but soon became a pivotal member of Wednesday’s defence. 13 clean sheets in 17 games at the centre of Wednesday’s back three was enough for his struggling parent club to recall his services.
Perhaps as impressive as McGuniess’s performances was Darren Moore’s ability to replace him. Alarm bells rang around Hillsborough at the loss of such a big component of an air tight defence, and few objectors were satisfied with the signing of Aden Flint, a 33-year-old loanee from Stoke who hasn’t played a game since October.
His first game came against Plymouth on February 4, who were then league leaders, an outstanding display saw Flint win header after header resulting in Argyle having to completely switch tactics to try and evade the 6ft4 defender. It’s fair those who questioned the decision to bring in Flint were quickly proven wrong, and the last remaining Moore dissenters quietly faded away.
It seems at this stage Moore is finally settled on a formation, a 5-3-2 which allows his full backs and wide centre backs to fill the wings while the middle is occupied by his preferred midfield 3, George Byers, Will Vaulks and Barry Bannan seem to be able to outmanoeuvre the strongest presses in the league.
One of the best compliments that can be given to Moore is how he has united a fan base and a club that at times felt fractured beyond repair. The going has not been easy, and even up until the victory over Newcastle in the FA Cup pockets of supporters were not sold on Moore. But now, as the club faces down a historic season, few can deny what Moore has achieved. March 1 2023 marked two years since Darren Moore took charge of Sheffield Wednesday, the two years prior had seen 5 separate managers take charge.
At the end of the doomed 2020/21 season, club captain Barry Bannan almost departed, speaking at the end of the campaign on his future he said: “There’s a lot of people leaving behind the scenes, so it’s not a great place to be at the minute. Once I get back in on Friday and have talks, we’ll find out what I’m going to be doing next season.”
In the end, despite being offered more money to play higher up the football pyramid, Bannan decided to stay. Earlier this month, when asked for an update on his previous comments, Bannan responded: “A lot has changed since then mate, great place to be and in good hands.”
Perhaps an understatement, Wednesday now stand a good chance of breaking their record for most points ever recorded in a single season (93) and an outside chance of breaking the League One record set by Wolves (103). They’d need 26 points out of 33 available from the remaining 11 games to beat that record. In the previous 14 games, they’ve picked up 36 points. A well-machined-oil indeed.
By: Tobias Gavelle / @tobygavelle
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Alex Dodd – CameraSport