Sheffield Wednesday: The downfall of Jos Luhukay
Stood on the Bramall Lane touchline after watching Sheffield Wednesday pick up a deserved, creditable point in his first match in charge, Jos Luhukay was asked how much satisfaction he took from the Owls' clean sheet.
The question left Luhukay puzzled. He had no idea what clean sheet meant and turned to Wednesday's director of communications Trevor Braithwait for assistance.
Given Luhukay was appointed just a week before the trip to high-flying Sheffield United and had had little time to work with his new players at their Middlewood Road training complex, a goalless draw was a mightily impressive result.Â
The little-known Dutchman arrived in January with the Owls labouring in the bottom half of the Championship. Not only did Luhukay have to get to grips with the English language, he also had to adapt to a new league and country. A big ask.
But the man with three promotions on his CV quickly stabalised Wednesday. Luhukay, renowned in Germany for being a defensive coach, tightened up their leaky rearguard. His switch from a back four to a three-man defence was an inspired move. Luhukay's decision immediately paid dividends as the Owls chalked up six shut outs in nine outings.Â
Despite inheriting a bloated, ageing, injury-ravaged squad short on confidence, Luhukay instilled discipline, better organisation and some much-needed steel.
Players bought into Luhukay's methods. Their hard work on the training ground initially paid off.Â
Luhukay, famed for his pragmatism and ability to get the most out of his players, earned plenty of plaudits in the short term.Â
The praise, however, did not last long as the clean sheet and points soon dried up.Â
A five-match winless streak threatened to drag the club into the relegation scrap. The honeymoon period was over.
Yet Luhukay refused to panic and, boosted by the return to fitness of key trio Tom Lees, Barry Bannan and Fernando Forestieri, comfortably steered the Owls to safety with three matches to spare and a 15th-placed finish. Job done.
Six victories in the last nine fixtures ensured Wednesday went into the summer break on a high. Things looked on the up after their 5-1 home demolition of Norwich City on the final day of the campaign. Thousands of Wednesdayites stayed behind to clap the team off in the lap of appreciation.Â
There was a buzz around the club again following a strong finish to a turbulent year. Their fine run lifted the doom and gloom around S6 and gave them upward momentum.Â
Luhukay injected a freshness from within by promoting a raft of academy players into the first-team fold. The likes of Jordan Thorniley, Cameron Dawson and Ash Baker grabbed their opportunities.
Luhukay embraced the club's youth system in a way his predecessor Carlos Carvalhal was perhaps guilty of overlooking. The Luhukay affect was paying off.
Could Luhukay build on the renewed hope and optimism? Would he be given the tools to turn Wednesday from a mid-table outfit into promotion contenders?
A four-month transfer embargo for breaching Profitability and Sustainability regulations prevented Luhukay from putting his own stamp on the side in the close season.Â
No new faces. No money to spend. No good all round.
It was far from an ideal situation and, as part of the club's cost-cutting measures, club captain Glenn Loovens and Ross Wallace departed following the expiry of their contracts. Jack Hunt was sold to Bristol City in a Â£1.6m deal and Jordan Rhodes joined Norwich City on loan to reduce their whopping wage bill.
Luhukay was dealt a rough hand.
The embargo, to some extent, left Luhukay with little alternative but to blood a number of academy players.
Nonetheless, Luhukay made it his remit to promote the kids and reduce the average age of the squad.
Despite Luhukay's admirable intentions, the warning signs were there in pre-season that it was going to be a long, hard campaign.Â
The club elected to stay in England rather than go abroad on a warm-weather training camp. Wednesday's hierarchy expected the team to be competitive and get off to a fast start.
Luhukay, though, went away from what brought them success. He changed their approach, demanding the team play out from the back and look to play through the thirds. Luhukay craved an expansive, free-flowing, entertaining style of play.
His fellow Dutchman Ruud Gullit coined the phrase "sexy football" and that was what Luhukay attempted to deliver.
Clean sheets had gone from the top of Luhukay's priority list to the bottom.
"For me, it is important to keep clean sheets but I can also live when we win 3-1, 4-2 or 5-3," he said. "I have no problem with that.
"Of course, you don't want to concede goals but when we make more goals it is always good and the fans like the games when they are more attractive."
Mansfield Town and Villarreal ruthlessly exploited the Owls' defensive shortcomings. Things looked ominous.
Some managers would have pointed to Wednesday's problems off the pitch and used that as an excuse for their slow start to this season.Â
But, to Luhukay's credit, the former Borussia Monchengladbach and Hertha Berlin chief never complained about his lack of resources. He just got on with the job at hand.
Wednesdayites, though, understandably questioned the direction the club were heading in after the team's inept, demoralising second half showing at Brentford.Â
Luhukay was heavily criticised and rightly so. His baffling tactics included playing Sam Hutchinson, a defensive midfielder, in the number 10 position behind two strikers. The balance and shape of the team was all over the place.Â
Defeat to Brentford acted as a wake-up call.
Two days later, Luhukay laid into his under-performing stars in a frank team meeting. He took no prisoners and dropped some of their established stars. Only energy, effort and commitment would do.
Luhukay put his faith in the next generation, with Matt Penney and Thorniley particularly flourishing.
Three wins on the spin lifted the mood and ensured Wednesday made their best start to a second-tier campaign since 1990.
Spirits were further raised by the embargo being lifted. It allowed Luhukay to sign Michael Hector and Josh Onomah on loan from Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur respectively at the back end of August.
Everything looked rosy after 12 matches as the Owls entered the second international break sitting in sixth position. Talk turned to a possible play-off tilt.
Adam Reach's goal-of-the-season contenders and Lucas Joao's occasional pieces of individual brilliance masked a series of unconvincing performances.Â
Their defence remained a glaring weakness that Luhukay never addressed.Â
Slowly but surely the Owls' hopes of a top-six push unravelled.
The lack of consistency in Luhukay's team selection and tactics contributed to the downward spiral. One week Wednesday would line up with a back five, the next a flat back four.Â
No one was immune from the axe. Captain Tom Lees and on-loan Chelsea defender Michael Hector were both hooked as Luhukay looked for a winning formula.
Luhukay constantly played players' out of position, including Thorniley, Penney and Joao. By the end of his reign, players looked confused over their roles and responsibilities and didn't know whether they were coming or going.
The cracks started to show in Luhukay's relationship with Wednesday's supporters at Birmingham City when the 2,800 travelling fans booed his decision to take off Steven Fletcher.
Luhukay had already alienated a large section of the fan-base by exiling experienced campaigners such as Keiren Westwood and Sam Hutchinson. Long time No 1 Westwood was publicly declared third-choice goalkeeper behind Cameron Dawson and Joe Wildsmith while Hutchinson, David Jones, Almen Abdi and George Boyd were also left out in the cold.Â
Luhukay insisted that there had been no fallout with the Owls' out-of-favour players but he had created an unhappy camp.
Supporters chanted for Westwood and Hutchinson to be recalled in the humiliating 4-0 home drubbing to Norwich City. The players' showing against the Canaries was exactly the sort that gets managers sacked. Their second half surrender was inexcusable yet Luhukay lived to fight another day.
A spirited, resolute defensive display helped the Owls stop the rot in the Sheffield derby. The result bought Luhukay more time to arrest their slump.
A priceless victory over fellow strugglers Bolton Wanderers earned Luhukay some much-needed respite.
Four days later, Wednesdayites called on the club to sack Luhukay after the team shipped in another four goals at Blackburn Rovers. The discontent was building.
'We want Jos out' reverberated around Hillsborough after the Owls' home draw with struggling Rotherham United.
A 2-1 defeat to Swansea City piled more pressure on Luhuay, who walked outÂ on a post-match interview with BBC Radio Sheffield after reacting angrily to a question about his future.Â
Luhukay slammed their defending at the Liberty Stadium and it was Wednesday's inability to keep clean sheets that proved his big undoing and cost him his job.