Alan Irvine is ready to shake up his Sheffield Wednesday side if they don’t shape up to the steepening demands of a promotion bid - and it’s no idle threat.
Irvine is the first Hillsborough manager in recent times who can truly carry it out.
With a recruitment drive still in full swing and eight points to be made up on second place, the Owls boss cannot accept the wildly fluctuating standards of last weekend’s 2-2 home draw with Charlton in a game they badly needed to win to gain ground on rivals.
For all his mild-mannered demeanour, Irvine was still bristling this week even though Wednesday made good a two-goal deficit after a calamitous start.
“The difference is that in my time, and that of previous managers here, you had to think: ‘This is what we’ve got,’” said Irvine. “Now, with extra strength in depth, we are able to change the team if they don’t perform.”
With striker Gary Madine and defender Mark Reynolds added to the mix, Irvine will expect a response at Leyton Orient, a team Wednesday were lucky to beat when they met in October.
“I’m looking at this weekend as a game on its own,” he added. “If players perform well, as they did at Bristol City in the FA Cup, it’s very easy to say ‘same again.’ If they don’t - as they didn’t in the first half against Charlton - they leave the door open for me to change things.
“I wasn’t happy at the end - we were far too inconsistent in that game. I’ve had a look through it again and we should have won. I feel that very very strongly.”
Centre half and skipper Darren Purse is likely to be among those whose form is under the microscope after defensive reinforcements cost partner Mark Beevers his place.
Giles Coke and Lewis Buxton are back in training to add to the squad’s mounting strength, although the focus is very much on the new boys. Reda Johnson, with the bonus of a fine headed goal on his home debut, and Michael Morrison have slotted into a defence that now has an extra option in Reynolds, who packs a lot of experience for a young player and who can play variously at left back, centre half or even - as Irvine recalls from his Scotland Under 21 days - centre midfield.
Madine from Carlisle, a strapping 6’ 3” 20-year-old with the physique of Andy Carroll and maybe even the potential to match, will rival Clinton Morrison for the job of muscling in on opposition defences.
“We haven’t stopped looking and we won’t do,” said Irvine. I understand Rotherham’s Adam Le Fondre - among many linked with the Owls - is not a target. But a midfielder and another striker remain on a hit-list that has already seen new owner Milan Mandaric commit to over £1m in transfer fees, a huge amount these days, especially for a League One club.
“It’s beyond my expectations, without a doubt. I didn’t expect anything like this,” said Irvine. “Even signing one player would have been a bonus and, looking at the window, there was more likelihood of losing players than bringing them in.
“So it’s been terrific and everyone is relieved Milan came in when he did.”
Another huge spin-off, as Irvine indicates, is that there is absolutely no pressure to sell. “Lee Grant and Marcus Tudgay are examples of players we wanted to keep and couldn’t,” he added. “It’s very different now. We are trying to build, not wheel and deal.”
Any activity will only be on the fringe - witness young forward Nathan Modest’s loan switch to Darlington - and it’s interesting to hear rumours of interest in Paul Heffernan from Bristol Rovers where the striker’s former Doncaster boss Dave Penney is now in charge.
There’s no doubt Irvine expected better of one of his prime summer captures. But a goal last Saturday, doubling his tally, has left the Hillsborough door open for Heffernan, who is one of those forwards you tend not to notice unless he is scoring.
“He’s shown good form when he’s come on and is producing what we knew he was capable of,” said Irvine.
As for the rest of the window, it will be interesting to see if Wednesday opt for one experienced addition to balance the emphasis on developing talent. “All the four we’ve signed have the potential to become very good acquisitions - at this level and higher,” said Irvine.
“They’ve all played a lot of games, so they are not just young kids for the future. I wouldn’t say we won’t sign a 30-year-old but I wouldn’t have thought Milan would be keen on four or five of them. The ones we’ve got are investments.”