Optimism balanced by realism. That’s not a bad combination for a football club. Too often the first is replaced by that word “expectation” and the second is forgotten completely.
Not so at Sheffield Wednesday and that’s one reason why this column is more hopeful about next season than it was about the one just gone. I thought the place was gripped by tension; the feeling that the manager HAD to win promotion at the third attempt, that much the same team HAD to succeed. Expected to make the top six if not the top two, they fell well short.
Maybe, as Adam Reach suggested this week, some players even psyched themselves into believing it would happen automatically. When performances suggested otherwise and the criticism rained in, they could not recover.
Taking the injuries out of the equation, Wednesday didn’t start the season convincingly despite having a full squad at that time. Carlos Carvalhal seemed to go into a tactical shell and play safe. That’s what I mean about the stranglehold exerted by pressure.
Of course, without some degree of pressure none of us would perform at our best. But there was a sense of fearing failure more than relishing what could be achieved.
You could feel it in the air and, intangible though it is, the mood around a football club is critical.
Today, that mood has changed. You can feel that, too. Do Owls fans hope for promotion next season? Of course, they do. Do they necessarily expect it? No they don’t.
Top six maybe, but there’s a recognition that this would be a real achievement rather than a bare minimum requirement. That’s the difference.
Sometimes, falling short can be good – if that pause for reflection corrects the course for the longer run. Wednesday’s well-financed push for the Premier League is taking longer than hoped for or envisaged, but it is still concerted and unwavering.
Perversely, the FFP squeeze can be a good thing in my book. It has stopped a stockpiling of players, many on a similar level, triggered a stripping down process, focused minds on what is the best team and led to the promotion of young talent. All very good things, along with the aim of a more youthful, fitter squad.
Would Wednesday have been in this shape without all the injuries? Lamented as they were, from the way the season started, and the choking atmosphere, I seriously doubt whether the outcome would have been a top six place even with a full squad. The team had gone stale. There is a freshness in its place which needs topping up with new players in some areas.
Jos Luhukay has earned himself a chance to put his stamp on things.
And you can’t put a label on that. He arrived with a reputation as a defensive coach and shored up the back half of the team, as was much needed at the time. Cue a rocky spell but once Wednesday were back on an even keel, Luhukay presided over goal sprees in late-season Hillsborough wins against Preston, Reading and Norwich.
What I liked best was his apparent embracing of the idea of playing Fernando Forestieri just behind a front two, rather than going with a solo striker. Now that is bold.
But with the quality of player in that area, for me it’s the way to go in a new season that has scope for more freedom of expression now that expectations are more realistic.