Alan Biggs speaks exclusively to Owls chairman Milan Mandaric and gives his thoughts on the Blades goalless run.
“That’s a very good question,” says Milan Mandaric, breaking stride from a flow of effusive words on his “mission” for Sheffield Wednesday... and his contempt for the wrong type of foreign ownership in his adopted English football.
Would he, in a previous guise, have sacked his manager this season? “Would I have done it ten years ago?” the Owls owner repeats, buying time on whether he would have replaced Dave Jones.
More silence and another “good question.” Followed by: “YES, I probably would.”
Mandraric is clearly at pains to be as honest as possible in this exclusive Telegraph one-to-one interview before the Owls beat Millwall 2-1 at the New Den on Tuesday. And then a laugh at his own expense: “Maybe I’ve got a little too old for making these changes!”
Don’t you believe it. I’m looking at a man with the enthusiasm of someone half his 74 years. A man of enduring hunger who has bucked the national trend on sackings and defied his own reputation. “Sometimes, with experience, you do things differently,” he says.
“I wouldn’t be straight with you if I said: ‘No, I’m still the same.’ I like to learn from other people’s mistakes... I look at how many clubs have changed their manager this season.”
Blue eyes ablaze and with perpetual motion body language fired by a restless energy, he adds: “I know I had a little bit of pressure from different sides over Dave Jones here.
“But I thought it would be wrong because this club needs stability. I looked at the experience of our manager and thought: ‘I won’t jump, I’ll be patient.’”
Patience doesn’t come easily with Mandaric. He’s a truly passionate character who wears his heart on his sleeve. That’s why, after an hour in his engaging company, you can understand the empathy he has generated with Owls fans who trusted him to make the right decision on Jones. A surge towards safety suggests resoundingly that he has.
Not that Mandaric could switch off the electricity that crackles within him if he tried.
“Lately, I don’t relax at all,” says the ever-dapper Serbian-American businessman, deep into his third year of a Hillsborough rescue that followed successful stints in control of Portsmouth and Leicester. “I could never swallow it or live with it if we went down. That puts so much pressure on me inside. But I don’t show that because, in a war, if you show you’re scared then all your army gets scared. But, inside, it’s a bit of a stressful time for me. I’m confident we are on the right track, though. We’ve made changes with the team and turned things around. But it’s hard to relax, especially if you care. And I do care for this club and those really loyal people, our supporters. Once we stay up and build for next season, we’ll get our rewards for how we all behaved.”
Mandaric includes himself for keeping faith in a manager his insticts insist is the right one, while the new breed of foreign owner - at clubs including Blackburn, Nottingham Forest and Southampton - have fired off in all directions.
Even Saturday’s opponents Leeds United have parted company with Neil Warnock. And if the worst were to happen? “I would feel that I’d failed. Not my manager, not my players, not my people around the club. It’s my job to navigate the boat and not let it sink. But I couldn’t walk away because it would be further failure. It’s not my style. It would set me back. But I don’t leave my friend when he’s in trouble.
“To be honest, at my age I don’t have time for failure. I’ve got to move forward. When people around here start looking at budgets for League One I get so annoyed. No-one can even mention that word!”
It’s said with a smile. Mandaric is a deeply engaging, infectious and even charismatic character. He couldn’t possibly fake this much enthusiasm for football. As for some other foreign club owners: “I certainly don’t feel I’m one of that group. I don’t understand owners who buy something and don’t stay with it. When you see some owners, they just put the money in and let somebody else run the business.”
“You can’t correct everything with money. You’ve got to have presence, skill and experience and surround yourself with the right people.
“I don’t see that happening in some clubs and people are learning in a harder way than they should be.
“Football is a stage. It’s not something you do behind closed doors. England is so traditional. The game was born here.
“As they say, when in Rome do as the Romans do.”
Mandaric puts Wednesday somewhere in the middle of the Championship’s wages league with a playing budget of “around £10m.” He says he’s had to top up the pot by putting in “£6m or £7m cash in additional money” this season.
“It’s only money but one day, if I sell the club, I’ll see if I can get my investment back,” he adds, sticking to an open-ended timescale. “If I don’t then it’s not the end of the world.
“I want to be able to look back with a lot of smiles. But if you treat it only as enjoyment, you are stepping away from what really needs to be done.
“You have to have two things, the heart and the brain. If you have only one, and not the other, you are in trouble. You can’t be a supporter other than for that 90 minutes. Then you need your business hat on.
“We all have the same agenda here - to take this club to the Premier League and stabilise it there. The question is: Am I going to go all the way through that myself or will I just be a path for that and bring somebody else to take it on from me?
“But I’m going to do what’s right for this club. When I leave it then it will be as a proper club going in the right direction to accelerate the plans I have.”
Mandaric’s family - wife, two children and two grandchildren - are split between London and America, where he still has business interests after making his fortune there in the computer components trade. Do they ever tell him it’s time to stop?
“My family are putting a bit more pressure on me than usual and rightfully so. I love them, they’re great supporters.
“But they also understand that I have a mission that I need to accomplish. Once I do that, I’ll take a break and see what else is there.
“When I see my doctor he tells me that football is good for me!
“He says the stress of winning and losing are both good. As long as you find the right balance!”
* NEXT WEEK: Part two of the Telegraph’s one-to-one with Milan Mandaric.
Danny deserves respect from fans
I’m not here to soft soap away four home games and six hours without a goal, which is Sheffield United’s current record at Bramall Lane.
Neither would it be right to point the finger at a crowd who’ve taken plenty of flak but who supported commendably on Tuesday before understandably booing a shock 2-0 home defeat to Crawley that surrendered more initiative in the League One promotion race.
Equally, the players whose individual errors triggered that loss - reliable defenders Neill Collins and Harry Maguire - are not the ones to blame for an astonishing lack of penetration by the best supported team in the division.
But the fact remains, however quirky, that the Blades remain firmly in contention for the second automatic promotion spot ahead of Saturday’s visit of rivals Swindon who, it should be noted, also lost on Tuesday, as did leaders Doncaster.
Manager Danny Wilson is paid to put a professional front on things and protect his dressing room. He does not need to be told that an improvement is needed, having admitted in his midweek programme notes that “some of our performances of late have not been of the standard we would have liked.”
How he behaves on the touchline is also neither here nor there, as nobody ever comments on this entirely frivolous aspect of the game when a team is winning.
Besides, calmness is more of a virtue than going berserk. Wilson’s instincts will be to not throw the baby out with the bath water when he analyses how and why United are experiencing such difficulties.
Having personally seen eight home games, and no home goals in five of them, from a side still with a strong chance of a top two finish, I am hardly in a position to advise - other than by staying away!
But there comes a point when it is do or die and I think it is no exaggeration to say that applies this weekend.
Right now United are not getting behind defences with enough pace or invention to unlock teams who will take their cue from the formula of many successful visitors. I don’t envy Wilson the problem of solving that because there is no obvious remedy within the squad, but I do know that his record across two seasons deserves respect and trust.
He won’t lose it. Don’t you!