Column: Next season a difficult one for Owls after play-off despair at Wembley
It was always going to be 'there's always next season.' The sense of an exciting journey only just underway rather than one ended; Premier League by 2017 being the Dejphon Chansiri project.
One game doesn’t change any of that. This is still a club on the way back. But the second season is looking just as steep a challenge as the first, despite the excellent progress made, and I have to admit my view of the way ahead was altered a bit more than I’d have expected by the play-off final defeat to worthy winner Hull City.
From feeling that Wednesday only had to build a little on to what they already had, I wonder about the degree of improvement required to keep pace and make the distance – largely because of two considerations beyond their control.
First, they will start with raw expectation rather than curiosity over what a new regime might bring; there was tolerance of dips across the last nine months, an understanding of a new team gelling and thunderous acclaim – highlighted by awesome backing from the 40,000 at Wembley – for a stirring revival. Next time there won’t be too much latitude for not hitting the ground running.
Then there is the heightened competition that Newcastle’s drop, and Rafa Benitez’s remarkable decision to stay on Tyneside, looks certain to bring. With Aston Villa’s relegation throwing another heavyweight into the mix (and don’t overlook the bounce-back qualities of Norwich City), making the top six is a tough enough test in rivalry with the likes of Nigel Pearson’s new club Derby County, Brighton and any number of others.
But that and more can be done because there are also two factors heavily in the Owls’ favour – the resources to ratchet up the squad and the team togetherness that has carried the club so far. The trick will be doing one without weakening the other.
Even with Chansiri’s weighty backing, Wednesday won’t be in a position to out-buy everyone else with Financial Fair Play restrictions to consider.
The key across the last season was Carlos Carvalhal’s bridging of the gap by bonding. A mix of new and old, with a British bulldog ethic underpinning an uplift in quality, became a highly effective blend.
Wednesday can’t afford to lose this; it has to be at the heart of another promotion bid.
However, Hull did expose certain shortcomings at Wembley, allowing that Wednesday – and particularly their big performers - can play so much better. There was an explosive element of power and pace in Steve Bruce’s more direct outfit that the Owls could not match.
Wednesday had some of it in the past with the likes of Michail Antonio and Jermaine Johnson. In wide positions and up front the team of today lacks that sort of zip. But, of course, you need consistent performers, as Antonio has become at West Ham, rather than erratic ones and the commodity doesn’t come cheap.
The degree of upheaval need not be great, and certainly not on the scale of last summer, but with the future of several players to resolve, there is much for the admirable Carvalhal to ponder. It’s terrific that he has the three-year contract he revealed last week but this, in reality, is more a symbolic gesture of faith.
He will know, I think, that he needs to make early inroads next season and his refusal to focus publicly on anything other than starting better than last time is a wise stance.
In terms of recruitment, he needs a little that adds up to a lot. But the base is firmly in place – not least the natural resource of fantastic support from fans whose reaction to Wembley defeat, defiant and instantly forgiving,
eclipsed even their brilliance before and after the match itself. It was nothing short of fantastic, phenomenal and overwhelming.