Darren Moore is under huge pressure, but that’s nothing new. The Sheffield Wednesday manager has just led his club to their highest ever points return in a season, but he’s two games away from a potential sacking that many supporters would accept is the right decision and others would consider a massive cause for celebration.
That’s often the way of things when you mix play-off football with the kneejerk world of social media, but for Moore and Wednesday the whole scenario is magnified given that their magnificent haul of 96 points felt a couple of wins short of where they really should have been. Defeats to Forest Green Rovers and Burton Albion in a very forgiving run-in curtailed Wednesday’s previously inexorable march towards the League One title.
And if the Owls don’t now get past Peterborough United in the two-legged play-off semi-final, plus whichever of Barnsley and Bolton Wanderers awaits at Wembley, no amount of reflection on the records broken this season will prevent the general feeling around S6 that 2022-23 has been anything other than a gigantic missed opportunity.
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This season Wednesday have smashed their previous record unbeaten league run by avoiding defeat in 23 successive fixtures. The 24 clean sheets they recorded were also a club high mark, while those 96 points are easily the most ever posted by any team falling short of automatic promotion. But… and it’s a big ‘but’… they lost to Forest Green and Burton, and drew with Cheltenham Town, Lincoln City and Oxford United in a spell during March and April which will remain a bone of contention with many even if the Yorkshire side are lining up in the Championship by August.
Expectation was always going to be high around Hillsborough. Clubs of Sheffield Wednesday’s stature look out of place on a League One table at first glance, and Moore had had only two months in charge of the Owls prior to their 2021 relegation from the second tier. Even then he spent much of that time on his sickbed with Covid-19 and a subsequent strain of pneumonia which left him feeling lucky to be alive by the time he returned to work.
But that background only bought Moore so much favour with some fans, and a slow start to 2021-22 had many calling for his head before a second-half run saw them claim fourth spot in a very competitive division. A semi-final defeat to Sunderland in the play-offs left many pointing fingers at the former West Bromwich Albion and Doncaster Rovers boss. He’d been too conservative in the first leg at the Stadium of Light, some said. Substitutions were questioned by others.
This season it is January that has been used as a stick with which to beat Moore. Wednesday lost Mark McGuinness back to parent club Cardiff City and replaced him with Stoke City’s Aden Flint. The departure of Alex Mighten was no great loss, the Owls sending him back to Nottingham Forest after a forgettable five months.
But supporters wanted them to replicate Ipswich Town’s ‘balls to the wall’ approach to the promotion battle, yet those same sections of the fanbase seemed unable to agree on exactly where Wednesday needed to strengthen. Some said the forward line, some said out wide, others wanted more defenders. It was a ‘just get someone…anyone’ appeal which was never going to be Moore’s way.
“There were a couple of bodies we went for and it wasn’t us, it was the opposition club that at the last stage didn’t allow us to take the player,” Moore later explained. “That was a disappointment, but we just get on with it.”
And get on they did, continuing that long unbeaten run until the balloon was burst in mid-March in the absences of striker Josh Windass and midfielder George Byers. Of all the areas supposedly needing more resources in January, almost nobody had mentioned the centre of the park, but without Byers things went south quickly. Dennis Adeniran, Fisayo Dele-Bashiru and Tyreeq Bakinson went from examples of Wednesday’s immense strength in depth to underwhelming flops who couldn’t be trusted to plug the short-term gap.
Friday night brings the first leg of the Peterborough tie, away at London Road. While the overriding need is clearly for Wednesday to progress and belatedly secure the Championship spot that had for so long looked an inevitability, there is also the unshakeable notion that, rightly or wrongly, Darren Moore’s job depends on the next three weeks.
*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject to Change