Monday, October 23, 2006

The Consumer Society

Loathe as I am to wish to be seen to flogging the proverbial dead horse, events at Hillsborough on Saturday, where a crowd of 300 people demonstrated against the sacking of manager Paul Sturrock, felt almost like a nostalgia trip. You don't see this sort of thing any more. Particularly when you take into account the fact that the demonstrators were taking the almost (but not quite, considering everything) perverse stance of protesting against the directors of the club, and in favour of the recently-fired manager.

There can't be supporters of too many teams over the last ten years that have had to put up with the sort of indignity that Wednesday supporters have had to put up with - particularly not for a club of their stature. Before I come onto that, though, it's worth taking a very quick look back over Wednesday's history, for no other reason than to give our younger readers a little perspective on the recent difficulties that they have been having.

You see, Sheffield Wednesday are a "big" club. To say that their supporters are "long-suffering" would be something of an understatement. In the 1960s, they had to suffer the brunt of the great match-fixing scandal, and in the 1970s, they dropped to the original Third Division (League One, by today's standards. Their revival, of sorts, ended with promotion back into the top flight in 1984. For someone, like me, who was twelve in 1984, this was a restoration of some sort of natural order, even though Wednesday hadn't been in the top division in my lifetime then. Part of the big club mentality (a large part of it, to be honest) came from Hillsborough. Hillsborough was a "Big Match" stadium. It had hosted matches in the 1966 World Cup Finals, and was regularly the FA's choice as their northern venue for FA Cup semi-finals. Even if Wednesday's teams frequently fell short of expectations, their ground, at least, was something to be proud of.

Of course, that illusion fell aside on the 15th April 1989, and the club were deeply inplicated in the subsequent report by Lord Justice Taylor. The crush barriers behind the goal were shown to have been in a poor situation, and the club had done little in previous years with any regard to health and safety with Hillsborough. The Hillsborough disaster has become so much a part of the narrative of English football that it almost becomes difficult to remember what an enormous shock it was at the time. After Heysel and the Bradford fire in 1985, a half-hearted effort was put into making our stadia safe, but many of us will recall that crumbling concrete, rusty iron and large fences were still very much part of the landscape in 1989.

On the pitch, at least, Hillsborough had nothing like the psychological effect on Wednesday that it had on Liverpool. In 1991, they won the League Cup at Wembley against Manchester United and promotion back to the top division, and in 1992-93, they played at Wembley four times in the Premier League's first season, losing both the FA Cup and League Cup finals to Arsenal. These may turn out to have been Wednesday's last "great" years. When the television money exploded, Wednesday, by this time under the chairmanship of Dave Richards, gambled massively. The wheels fell off the wagon when they were relegated in 2000, and again in 2003. By this time they were close to bankruptcy, but Richards had departed to take over as the Chief Executive of the Premier League. Football must be the only industry that rewards such failure in this manner. As they cast off the shackles of crippling contracts for non-starters like Gilles De Bilde and Gerald Sibon, they got promoted back into The Championship, but they have struggled massively since they got promoted back and, at the time of Sturrock's departure were back in the relegation zone.

All of this would be difficult enough for Wednesdayites to deal without Sheffield United's promotion into the Premiership at the end of last season. Both sides of the Sheffield divide have had their periods in the ascendency over the years, but United are making a decent fist of it amongst the big boys, whilst Wednesday are fighting to keep their heads above water a division below. Paul Sturrock, whose managerial career had had it's fair share of ups and downs, had taken Wednesday up in 2004, though, and was still popular amongst the supporters. The general feeling at Hillsborough seems to be that the clubs current woes aren't Sturrock's fault. A lack of investment in the squad is largely to blame for their current position. It has been compounded, though, by a decision of almost staggering stupidity. The Wednesday board, you see, sacked Sturrock just five weeks after agreeing a new four-year contract extension. So... they have to pay him up in full, when they've just come out of a financial crisis that threatened their very existence, and at a time when they can't pay the sort of wages that they need to pay to build a successful team.

Against this background, the free-for-all for a new manager has begun in earnest. With Burnley having turned down a bid for Steve Cotterill, the smart money is going on Gary Megson or Nigel Worthington. Megson, whose ego may have been chastened by his disastrous spell in charge at Nottingham Forest, may be the man for the job, though there will be those who will see parallels between Wednesday and Forest and will wonder whether he's up to the job. Worthington, having taken Norwich up in 2004, may prove to be a more sensible choice, though given the Wednesday board's recent track record in the "sennsible choices" department, one may have reason to believe that the'll end up with Peter Reid or Bryan Robson.

In the meantime, though, one startling fact remains. A quarter of all the teams in the Championship have shed their managers already this season, and we haven't even reached the end of October yet. The two most successful managers in recent British football history, Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson, have clocked up 30 years at their clubs between them. The incumbents of the six clubs in the Championship to have lost their bosses so far this season barely managed 30 weeks between them.


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