Twenty-six league matches down. 20 to go.
So far the positives far outweigh the negatives for Sheffield Wednesday. They have gone from a side battling to retain their Championship status to outside play-off contenders in just 12 months.
It has been a truly remarkable transformation and Stuart Gray, appointed head coach on a permanent basis a year ago yesterday, has masterminded the turnaround.
The key to Gray’s successful management style has been his ability to keep everyone in his squad happy. I have never interviewed a player who has ever criticised or questioned Gray’s selection decisions or coaching methods. That’s because the Owls chief makes everyone feel valued and appreciated whether they are in the team or on the substitutes bench. All he asks for in return is effort, desire and commitment.
There can be some big egos in football dressing rooms. But Gray has proven he can handle big personalities - for example, Royston Drenthe - and got them to play to their potential within a team framework.
What you see is what you get with Gray. From journalists to footballers, he treats everybody with the utmost respect. Believe me, not all managers - or head coaches - are like that!
In their last outing, against Bolton, Wednesday looked vulnerable defensively, but in the main that has been their biggest strength under Gray. It is no fluke that they have one of the best defensive records in the division. Their backline has been well drilled and well coached by the Owls’ coaching staff.
But Gray is so much more than just a good coach. Yes, he loves working on the training ground, but he has got an eye for a bargain.
Last summer, Gray picked up two gems in Keiren Westwood and Tom Lees. The duo have earned rave reviews since moving to South Yorkshire and continue to be linked with big-money moves during the January transfer window. Chairman Milan Mandaric is adamant Westwood and Lees are staying put.
There is no disputing the fact that Westwood and Lees have blossomed but it was a major coup for Gray persuading Glenn Loovens to sign a new one-year deal. He is a vocal, commanding figure and the Dutchman has brought a calmness to to their defence.
Not all of Gray’s recruits have enhanced the team. For every Drenthe and Lewis McGugan, there has been a Hallam Hope and Gary Taylor-Fletcher. Some loan signings quickly adapt to their new surroundings whereas others just struggle to make an impact.
Compared to the two previous seasons in the second tier of English football, the Owls have relied less on temporary additions which can only be a positive in the long term.
While Gray will generally be satisfied with the progress Wednesday have made, he will know they could have been even higher than ninth in the table. They have missed opportunities to crank up the pressure on the top sides and are now 10 points off sixth-placed Watford.
The two things which have really let them down are their lack of goals and results at home. The Owls are not even averaging a goal per match and only Yeovil Town (six) have found the back of the net in the Football League less than them in their own backyard.
When they have had good spells in games, too often they have let the opposition off the hook by failing to convert the chances they have created. They have lacked a cutting edge and Hillsborough encounters with Nottingham Forest, Rotherham and Wolves could, and perhaps should, have yielded more points.
Speaking at the end of 2014, Gray said: “Ideally, I would prefer our home form to be better than our away form but that’s the way it is. We are trying to address that.” 14 points out of a possible 39 at Hillsborough is, as Gray readily accepts, not good enough. They have simply got to rectify that record to push for the play-offs, starting against Birmingham City tomorrow night.
Last August, Wednesday spent £800,000 on striker Stevie May. He was Gray’s marquee signing but the Scotland international has yet to deliver, scoring just five times in 28 appearances. I’m convinced May will ultimately prove to be a big asset. It just has not happened for him in front of goal yet.
It is not just May who has struggled in the final third. It is the entire team who have fallen short in that department. That final piece of the jigsaw has consistently cost them.
Gray is desperate to find a solution to their scoring problems. Signing Will Keane on loan from Manchester United until the end of the season increases competition for places on the frontline and provides Wednesday with a bit more mobility at the business end of the field. But can Keane come in and make a telling contribution similar to that of Ross Barkley and Connor Wickham? Only time will tell.
Keane and Lewis Baker gives Gray more attacking options but they are short on experience at this level. Will they add that extra class when matches are on a knife edge? Gray certainly will hope so.
One thing that is for certain is Wednesday have yet to effectively replace McGugan and Drenthe in midfield. They miss the duo’s vision, creativity and flair. McGugan remains a transfer target while Drenthe has moved to Turkey.
In a week’s time, the transfer window will close at 11pm. If Owls were to bring in further reinforcements, that would be a big statement of intent, underlining their desire to compete in the upper reaches of the division. Then again, they may decide to wait as long as possible for the right personnel to become available. Clubs outside of the Premier League can sign players on emergency loans and youth loans from February 9 until March 26.
Everything could change very quickly if the Thai consortium in talks with Wednesday swiftly conclude their takeover of the club. Maybe then Gray would not be forced into relying mainly on free transfers and loan signings.
Mandaric, vice-chairman Paul Aldridge and Gray met with the potential investors before the Owls’ defeat to Bolton. The Thai group will have their own specific ideas on how they plan to take the club forward should the deal go through.
Takeover or no takeover, Wednesday must invest now to keep their faint Premier League dream alive or risk letting all Gray’s hard work go to waste.