Any student of crisis management in search of a suitably grisly case study need look no further than Sheffield Wednesday. Almost everything that could possibly go wrong at a football club has happened at Hillsborough in recent months; sometimes simultaneously.
If, in no particular order, a hefty points deduction, a relegation struggle, the sacking of two managers in successive months, players receiving only partial wage payments and a disenfranchised fan base were not sufficient, several club personnel are recovering from a significant Covid outbreak.
It all rather suggests that Neil Thompson, proving an understated hit as caretaker manager – after the dismissal of Garry Monk and Tony Pulis in November and December respectively – could do without engaging in a tactical duel with Carlo Ancelotti. Instead, a 57-year‑old stand-in who has just had coronavirus sounds as if he cannot wait for Sunday night’s FA Cup tie at Everton.
Thompson is anxious to extend his side’s run of four wins and one draw in their past five games before the virus forced two postponements and left most of his squad self-isolating. “It’s a great opportunity to pit your wits against one of the top managers in world football but I haven’t actually given it too much thought,” says the former Nottingham Forest, Ipswich and Scarborough full-back. “I’ve just been concentrating on trying to get some football back into the players’ legs.”
Wednesday’s Middlewood Road training ground – a weekday base perched above Hillsborough – had to be shut for 11 days, but in the past week the squad has been put through possession drills by an interim coach who, in the course of a varied playing career, worked under Brian Clough, John Lyall and Neil Warnock.
Thompson has been part of Wednesday’s backroom since 2011 and, as an eclectic field of more celebrated names including Slavisa Jokanovic, Vladimir Ivic, Roy Keane, Gus Poyet and Paul Cook are persistently linked with the job, the East Yorkshireman seems determined to seize the moment.
“It’s my first time in management for 18 years since I player-managed Boston,” says a caretaker who clearly hopes to secure the post, despite straight-batting questions about the vacancy. “That’s a long time ago but you’ve got to trust what you do. I’ve tried to give the players that little bit of freedom they need within a defensive structure.
“I just wanted to get a bit of positivity into the team and I think we’ve done that. It’s been difficult but exciting. In football you’ve got to expect the unexpected.”
Far too many of the recent surprises at Wednesday have been of the unpleasant variety. While players reportedly only received a percentage of their November wages, with the remainder deferred, already disillusioned…