Alan Biggs at Large: Owls will last the pace with power

Sheffield Wednesday v Carlisle........Owls hero Michail Antonio with his dramatic injury time winner celebrates the goal
Sheffield Wednesday v Carlisle........Owls hero Michail Antonio with his dramatic injury time winner celebrates the goal

People have been talking all season about Sheffield Wednesday’s power. Now they should be talking about their pace.

It’s the dynamic that really defines their challenge and is one department where they edge the Blades. There are others, including midfield creativity, where the reverse has been true to create a race still too close to call.

Wednesday’s end product might not always be there but the sight of Michail Antonio, Jermaine Johnson and Nile Ranger exploding goalwards from all distances and angles is too much for your average League One defender.

Will it be enough to tilt the balance of power (and yes, the Owls have that as well) in Sheffield’s promotion showdown? Who can tell, but one thing’s for sure. Dave Jones’ side won’t lack for scoring chances in their last two games.

Jones has boldly executed the underlying desire of predecessor Gary Megson to go with two out-and-out wingers. He has gambled on outscoring the opposition at the expense of midfield solidity by deploying Antonio on one flank and Johnson on the other.

What gives them the licence is the security of a mighty mainstay in Jose Semedo, not just a midfield anchorman but a player who seems to pop up everywhere there is a ball to be won.

It has worked to the tune of eight victories in Jones’ 10 unbeaten matches and with Ranger offering speed as well as strength through the middle there is nothing to suggest the Owls won’t win the next two as well, pressuring United to do exactly the same.

By the way, I’ve seen some goal celebrations in my time at Hillsborough. The one that greeted Antonio’s late, great strike last Saturday has surely seldom been topped.

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As managerial challenges go it’s right up there.

You lose your star striker for reasons which can’t be trivialised by association with football, yet in the most deeply morale-sapping circumstances. You have already lost his partner through injury. You then lose a football match - albeit a first defeat in 10 - to leave your nearest and not so dearest breathing fire down your neck.

There is no manual, nor any amount of experience, that can prepare you for such a challenge and here I refer almost exclusively to the jailing of Ched Evans for rape. Such a serious and emotive issue has to be separated from professional sport and yet it can only leave a huge cloud over the offender’s workplace, whether it be a factory, an office or a football club.

It has added up to a traumatic time for Sheffield United, no getting away from that. But if a man can stay cool in such an inferno his name is Daniel Joseph Wilson.

Don’t ask me. Ask John Dennis, his old chairman at Barnsley. It is exactly 15 years ago today that the Reds celebrated their historic climb to the Premiership. Before it was achieved in a must-win home game with Bradford City, Wilson’s Barnsley lost 4-2 in a midweek outing at Portsmouth. The wider circumstances might not compare, but the on-field scenario certainly does.

I quote from Dennis’s excellent book, The Oakwell Years: “The expectation and the tension in the town became almost tangible, but the only person that I knew who appeared untouched by it was Danny Wilson. He went about his business in his usual calm and controlled manner and if he was feeling the pressure, it certainly didn’t show.”

Wilson’s only human, of course. He’ll have felt it then, all right. And he’ll be feeling it now. But it’s how individuals handle the strain that counts. Wilson doesn’t transmit it to his players, preferring reason to ranting. By all accounts, Dave Jones across the way is similar and in that regard the duel is well matched.

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If anything remotely positive can emerge from the jailing of a footballer for rape, it can only be the view of Richard Caborn and others that the recreational culture within the game must change.

Beyond that, how can you offer reasonable comment on the downfall of a man who was a hero to so many? Still is in some cases, though to highlight or encourage such support, however well-intentioned, would be irresponsible here, until or unless proven otherwise. So how do we react?

Right now any sympathy for Ched Evans is obviously out of the question, not to say morally wrong when it is solely due to the victim.

Sadness? Yes, a deep and intractable sorrow about the whole episode and the consequences for all concerned.

Shock? Yes, that a seemingly likeable young man could become so embroiled. As for shock at the verdict itself, that is a personal thing. I admit it was my instant reaction and a good many clearly feel the same way.

That’s not to say it was wrong necessarily, albeit an appeal is being made and Evans has maintained his innocence in the strongest terms. The law is the law; football, though it likes to think otherwise at times, is not beyond it. But I do think that, without going into detail, there are some aspects of the case that left many of those who followed it quite perplexed. Others will disagree and it would be wrong to be too strident in either direction because these are lay views removed from the legal process.

There was further shock - in a different way - at the sudden blotting out of one of the game’s brightest talents. That’s tragic. A career not destroyed at 23, but severely jeopardised. I don’t really know Evans but still felt sick to the pit of my stomach when the conviction and five-year sentence were announced. So it’s hard to imagine the feelings of everyone at Bramall Lane, let alone the player himself.

No sympathy, mark you, unless future events turn the other way. We all make mistakes in life, some worse than others, and we have to live with the consequences. But I do genuinely hope and believe this will not be the end of Ched Evans the footballer once justice has taken its course.

Until then, my only wish is the one expressed more powerfully by Caborn, Sheffield’s former sports minister - for others to heed the lesson that, as a general point, the social lifestyle of some footballers - not all - leaves a lot to be desired.

Caborn tells me he’s pushing hard for football to create an advisory body for young players, spanning all aspects of their lives including financial advice and lifestyle guidance. He is not without powerful support after lobbying the likes of Sir Trevor Brooking, Sir Alex Ferguson plus the League Managers Association and the PFA.

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A nice link this week between award winners Tony Currie and Kyle Walker. Happened to remark to TC recently that I’d never seen a more startling impact from a young player than Walker’s storming performance in Sheffield United’s play-off victory over Preston at Bramall Lane in 2009.

“Too right,” he said. “I went on the pitch afterwards to shake Kyle’s hand - and it’s the only time I’ve ever done that.”

Fast forward three seasons and Walker, now of Tottenham and England, is the PFA Young Player of the Year - while Currie is the inaugural winner of the Sheffield Star and Green ‘Un’s Hall of Fame award. Well deserved and congratulations to both.

Fitting also that United and Wednesday should share the Team of the Year award. Just can’t split ‘em. Good bash too, by the way. Enjoyed swapping running stories with table companion and fellow Sheffield Half Marathon entrant Richard Caborn - after it turned out we’d both put in 10 mile training stints last Sunday morning. Oh, sorry. . . I see you’ve nodded off. . .

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Referees have not exactly covered themselves in glory this season. Hopefully Mark Clattenburg, comfortably one of our better ones, will help redress the balance as the only British official at the Olympic football tournament.

In fact, Clattenburg is the first English referee to win Olympic selection since Sheffield’s own Keith Hackett officiated at the 1988 Games in Seoul. Hackett took charge of the semi-final between Brazil and West Germany which finished 1-1 and went to penalties. Amazingly as it now seems, Germany lost from the spot! Maybe we should bring Keith out of retirement the next time England face the old enemy. . .