It’s been a busy ten days or so for Sheffield Wednesday. A mixture of the bizarre and ridiculous have begun to conflate at Hillsborough in a manner that is causing some to reconsider their opinion of the fitness of Club owner Dejphon Chansiri for his current position, and that a whole period of turmoil couldn’t be happening at a less conventional time of the year for a club that started the season with lofty ambitions of reclaiming a place in the Premier League after more than a decade and a half away but which now finds itself in a curious form of footballing limbo.
It a began on Christmas Eve with the departures of Carlos Carvalhal from his position alongside that of Garry Monk from his equivalent role at Middlesbrough following Boro’s two-one win at Hillsborough the night before. We all know that the lifespan of a football manager within any club is more fragile than ever right now, but even so there was, it rather felt, some degree of sense behind this decision. Carvalhal had overseen the first team through two unsuccessful shots at the Championship play-offs, but this season has seen inconsistency plague the team, which had dropped into the bottom half of a league table that they were expected to challenge at the top of.
A decision to replace the club’s entire medical staff with people previously connected with Carvalhal at the end of last season may or may not have led to the injury problems that have wreaked havoc upon Wednesday’s season, but the fact that one followed the other hasn’t been a strong look for either the club or the manager. Even so, however, Carvalhal’s departure from the club was followed up by the former manager accepting a job with the Premier League sheen that the entire club has been chasing for the last few seasons. Swansea City swooped about as quickly as is possible over the Christmas break, taking a manager who had spent the last three seasons trying unsuccessfully to get his club into the Premier League into that division via a fast-track.
At first, it felt as though something of a dead cat bounce might give the impression of having vindicates Chansiri’s decision. A three-nil win at Nottingham Forest – even a Nottingham Forest so out of sorts that they would go on to sack their manager, Mark Warburton, on New Year’s Eve – was not to be sniffed at, after all. Here, though, the good news started to grind to halt. Since their trip to the City Ground, Wednesday have lost consecutive matches against Brentford and Burton Albion, whilst the team’s next two matches are a potentially tricky trip to Carlisle United in the Third Round of the FA Cup this weekend followed by a definitely tricky trip to Bramall Lane to play Sheffield United in the league the following Friday.
Off the pitch, the club hasn’t fared a great deal better. With the January transfer window looming – and what sort of players could the club reasonably expect to attract when they can’t even tell any prospective new signings who the new manager will be? – we might have expected the identity of the new coach to be swiftly and decisively confirmed. Instead, however, the club yesterday decided to announce a new Chief Executive rather than anybody to get involved in the football side of the club, and furthermore the identity of the new CEO was Katrien Meire, who has finally jumped ship from Charlton Athletic after three and a half years during which she marked herself out as one of the most despised executives involved in the running of any club in this country.
In the space of her time at The Valley, Meire oversaw the almost complete alienation of supporters from the club. Season ticket sales plummeted by 40% as the club fell from the Championship, whilst Meire made unwelcome headlines for comments that she made about supporters as criticism of the running of the club under her boss Roland Duchatelet grew and grew. Meanwhile, Charlton burned through eight managers during this time. The club, of course, has failed so far to reclaim its place in the higher division and Meire’s departure from The Valley has coincided with Duchatelet’s decision to finally put Charlton up for sale.
So, reviews for the new Chief Executive from her old employers were always likely to be negative, but Wednesday supporters seem reasonably happy to at least give Meire a chance at Hillsborough. This, however, doesn’t necessarily say very much for their opinion of Chansiri, who has spent much of the last three years running the club as his own fiefdom. Wednesday’s shirts lost their famous stripes, the badge was altered, and – most significantly of all – ticket prices shot up to Premier League levels. Given the unpredictable nature of what is required to get promotion from the Championship, pushing ticket prices up in pursuit of a passport to the promised land was always going to be risky and, considering the nature of Meire’s previous position, her rapid appointment at Sheffield Wednesday has only fuelled speculation that a role of covering for an increasingly unpopular owner is likely to be repeated there. After all, her time at Charlton can only reasonably be described as pretty disastrous and she had no football administration prior to this… so what exactly was the rationale behind appointing her to such a senior position?
As though this wasn’t enough, the club has also seen fit to announce that supporters who would like a “conditional refund” of their season tickets will shortly be eligible to do so. With some supporters actively considering surrendering them and others critical of those who might do so – the “conditions” referred to in the club’s message on the subject haven’t yet been made publicly available – it may or may not be charitable to see the divisions potentially sewn as a crude form of divide and conquer when it might as easily be interpreted as agreeing to something which presumably some have requested. We can only speculate behind what the reasoning for this decision might be – could Chansiri merely be over-sensitive to any form of criticism? If he is, then perhaps owning a football club might not be for him – but it might be argued that the fact that the club has made a decision that can only invite speculation over the motives surrounding it doesn’t feel particularly healthy in itself. When the decisions being made start to feel counter-intuitive, then perhaps that in itself is a cause for some degree of concern. Perhaps Chansiri has a grand master-plan to list the club into the Premier League. Perhaps, however, he doesn’t and is flailing. Who knows, for sure? There certainly seems to be little evidence to support the former of these two opposing theories.
Five months is a very long time in professional football these days, and the optimism with which Wednesday supporters greeted the start of the new season has almost entirely evaporated. Furthermore, this season marks the club’s 150th anniversary. It may well be a fool’s errand to hope for anything particularly to run according to plan in a division as unpredictable as the Football League Championship, but having seen a manager leave the club with no apparent plan to put in to replace him, a Chief Executive appointed whose only previous involvement at a professional club resulted in a banner being held above her head at a match with a huge downward arrow and the world “LIAR” written across it, and ticket prices still nosebleed-inducingly high, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that there is no plan at Hillsborough and that the current activity at the club is only indicative of their being no structure within it all other than the whims of the chairman.
No-one has a right to success in modern football, but all supporters have a right to believe that their club isn’t about to fall into a tail-spin as a result of muddled management at the very top. For the owner of any football club, ensuring its health should be the most important of priorities. It’s down to Dejphon Chansiri to prove a growing number of doubters wrong, and no number of new Chief Executives and refunded season tickets will address these concerns. It will only come with substantial improvement on the pitch, most likely through appointing the right person as the club’s next manager. January is a bad month in the football calendar to be looking rudderless. Sheffield Wednesday need to steady their ship soon, before a season that has already turned sour mutates into something even more troubling.