How Jos Luhukay has put the pride back in the Sheffield Wednesday shirt
In a little corner of West London two months ago, SheffieldÂ WednesdayÂ slipped to fourth from bottom of the Championship as Brentford gave them a footballing lesson.
The Bees ran out comfortable 2-0 winners at a boisterous Griffin Park and the manner of the Owls' performance was deeply concerning.Â WednesdayÂ were outrun, outfought and outplayed in every department after Neal Maupay's 20th-minute penalty. Brentford could easily have scored seven.
The visitors' display set alarm bells ringing, raising serious questions about the directionÂ WednesdayÂ were heading in. Although the transfer embargo had been lifted, there was little hope or optimism around Hillsborough.Â
Social media went into meltdown after Brentford, with many Wednesdayites fearing it would be a long, hard season. The mood was downbeat.
Forget a club in transition. Forget consolidation. Some supporters voiced their concern over the prospect of the club being dragged into a relegation battle.
Manager Jos Luhukay had big problems to fix. His team looked disjointed, shapeless and unbalanced.Â
Luhukay is usually an amiable, reserved character but he laid into his under-performing squad in a straight-talking team meeting two days after the Brentford no-show. He told them in no uncertain terms to up their game.
Fast-forward to the present day and Luhukay has reinvigorated the whole club, overseeing just one defeat in their last nine league matches and steering them into sixth spot. No longer are the Owls anxiously looking over their shoulder. They are looking up rather than down.
Luhukay used the painful, sobering Brentford experience as motivation to spark an upturn in fortunes. A big shake-up was required and the man nicknamed 'The Little General' atÂ former club VfB Stuttgart didn't disappoint.Â
TheÂ WednesdayÂ chief dropped established stars such as Sam Hutchinson, Fernando Forestieri and Atdhe Nuhiu and put his faith in the next generation. It was arguably the biggest risk of Luhukay'sÂ WednesdayÂ career leaving out Forestieri et al against Millwall and handing first league starts to academy prospects Matt Penney and Fraser Preston.Â
Anything less than three points and the scrutiny and pressure would have significantly increased on Luhukay.Â
His gamble paid off.Â
Penney and Preston repaid the faith shown in them by Luhukay, producing impressive displays in a pivotal home win.Â
Luhukay's team have picked up wins without playing brilliantly and he has commendably continued to promote youth. Penney and Jordan Thorniley have been the big success stories but others have had their moments too.
It was important Luhukay strengthened his first-team squad before the loan market closed at the end of August and he pulled off a big coup in landingÂ Michael Hector and Josh Onomah from two top Premier League clubs.Â
The Owls urgently needed extra quality and strength in depth in defence and midfield so bringing in Hector and Onomah was a real statement of intent. It is still early days but Hector and Onomah look excellent acquisitions.
It helped Luhukay that expectations were low ahead of a daunting run of fixtures. Few people thoughtÂ WednesdayÂ would be capable of matching, never mind beating, the best teams in the league.
ButÂ WednesdayÂ have acquitted themselves well since mid-September, losing just once to Nottingham Forest, and there is a healthier outlook at the Championship club.
That's not to say Luhukay has got everything right. His baffling substitutions cost them dearly against West Bromwich Albion.
Yet the manager has repeatedly demonstrated he is not afraid to change tactics and personnel for the benefit of the team. The Owls have no set formation, which makes them unpredictable and awkward opponents.
As good a job as Luhukay's predecessor, Carlos Carvalhal did in leadingÂ WednesdayÂ to back-to-back play-offs, his team nearly always lined up in a rigid 4-4-2 system. Clubs with vastly inferior resources figured out how to stop the Owls playing by the end of Carvalhal's eventful reign.
The fact is,Â WednesdayÂ are in good shape under Luhukay. There is a good mix of youth and experience in the side. The players look fitter. They are on a four-match unbeaten run and have yet to taste defeat on home soil in the league this season. Luhukay will be happy no-one is mentioning them as possible promotion candidates and hope that they can carry on going under the radar.
The search for a clean sheet goes on butÂ WednesdayÂ dug deep to grind out three points at Bristol City before the international break.
I have never seen Luhukay more animated than he was in the Robins mixed zone after the Owls' hard-fought win. He briefly raised his voice, saying: "I said to the players at half-time: 'What do you want to do? Do you want to go near the top of the Championship or will we stay closer to the bottom?' I said them to: 'This is the game andÂ in 45 minutesÂ we can decide it ourselves.'"
There is this perception of Luhukay that he is a quiet, undemonstrative person. But under-estimate him at your peril. He is a tough cookie and his half-time pep talk inspired a much-improved second-half performance.
"I was not happy in the opening 45 minutes," he said. "I was disappointed.Â
"I have so much respect for my team and what they do. They are hard-working and fight hard but on the ball it was not good enough in the first half. We didn't make good decisions. We lost the ball too fast.
"At half-time, I thought I must give the team a little bit more inspiration, passion and ambition to help them with their body language.Â
"Bristol were on the same points as us. The winner would go in the top six. I challenged them to get in the play-offs and the team made a very good reaction. I am proud of my team."
What Luhukay has done is silence some of his detractors and put the pride back in the shirt.
WednesdayÂ are in sixth position and the options at his disposal should only increase over the coming weeks. Gary Hooper, Sam Hutchinson, Sam Winnall and Marco Matias are edging closer to first-team returns.
There is still more to come from the team. Defensively the Owls have to improve and cut out the lapses in concentration to remain in the play-off mix.Â
We are more than a quarter of the way through the campaign and we are still waiting to seeÂ WednesdayÂ put in a full 90-minute performance. We have seen only flashes of their potential.
One thing is for certain. Jos has definitely shown he is the boss since the Brentford nightmare.