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Dec 13, 2009

Dire form left Owls with no choice

Brian Laws left Sheffield Wednesday on Sunday after three years in charge. That may be an eternity for a modern-day Owls boss, but time does not equal guaranteed success - in fact the club was headed for disaster.

Some may suggest that Brian Laws was not given enough time to rescue the Championship club's season, with less than half of the campaign gone. Others may feel that sacking Laws just hours after dropping into the relegation zone for the first time this campaign was kneejerk, but the facts do not back that up.

The Owls have been in decline for a year now. In fact, in the last 12 months to this very day the club have won just 11 out of 45 Championship matches. That is firm relegation form.

Wednesday have not scored a single goal since November 7 - almost nine hours of football. Laws lost his last four games, conceding 10 goals in the process, and has not tasted victory since a home win over Coventry on October 17. Last season, the Owls had the best home defence in the division by a three goal margin but this term they have already let in more goals than in the whole of 2008-09, with Barnsley the only team with a worse record.

To say the team has gone backwards is an understatement. When a club is hurtling from one disaster to another there comes a point when you have to understand that no amount of time or patience will change the fact that a manager's shelf life has expired.

The football has been dire, with the performance in the loss at home to fellow strugglers Reading eight days ago, the final straw for many fans, being as bad as it has been in the 10 years since the club dropped out of the Premier League. It could not be allowed to go on any longer.

Darren Purse was Laws' main signing of the summer, a player who he had identified as a target as early as last January. But Purse has been a disastrous free signing after his release from Cardiff City. He was immediately made club captain but almost every game would see an error which would gift goals or at the very least chances. Deposed skipper Richard Wood turned down a new deal and was sent to Coventry last month.

Wednesday also invested sizeable wages in Tommy Miller, released by Roy Keane at Ipswich, but he has been restricted to just four starts and struggled to fit into the side.

Anyone who watched Wednesday play in the last month had to come to the conclusion that Laws had run out of ideas and hope. After signing two players on loan in November, Tom Soares and Warren Feeney, neither player has even started a game despite the desperate form. It had fans wondering what the point was.

In defeat at Leicester on Saturday, with fans chanting "You don't know what you're doing," at Laws and "You're not fit to wear the shirt," at the players, a watershed had been reached.

Who to appoint - or rather who he can attract - will be the biggest decision of chairman Lee Strafford's short time in charge of the club. After being welcomed onto the board last December, before being named chairman a few weeks later, Strafford has been on a charm offensive to win back the fans. But no matter how much tub-thumping you do the bottom line is that results on the pitch dictate how many people you get through the gates.

Academy boss Sean McAuley will step in as caretaker after impressing in the interim role after the sacking of Paul Sturrock in October 2006.

Despite Laws leading the club to a superb derby double against city rivals United last season, it was a rare highlight as the Owls hovered in 13th place for most of the campaign. The monotony of inconsistent performances and an uninspiring style of play led to 1,500 season ticket holders failing to renew for this season despite lower prices and promises of better things to come.

The current form was threatening to wreck all the good work Strafford had done behind the scenes. And if Strafford did not act to stop the slide there was a danger that he could become the man being vilified most for the club's failure.

With gates falling this season - an attendance of 22,000 for the Reading game when it was £10-a-ticket was another disappointment - Strafford's plan to attract new investment to the South Yorkshire club was in danger of being derailed. While a struggling club may not be the most attractive opportunity, any sign that the paying customers are deserting a sinking ship is far more damaging.

The question now is whether or not the fans have already been lost, and whether anything other than an inspirational appointment will win them back. The problem is that big name managers want cash to spend; Wednesday do not have any.

Another relegation to League One would be disastrous. The last spell, 2003-05, came close enough to the club's time in the Premier League that there was a feeling it was purely a bottoming out exercise. The attendances were high and optimism remained. Today, most of that positive attitude has long gone and relegation could be catastrophic to attendances - and any hope of recovering.

With the debt standing at around the £30 million mark, the only way the club can move forward is via investment and promotion to the Premier League. That would enable them to virtually wipe the slate clean and contest on a level playing field again. That is easier said than done, as Strafford is finding out.

But as clubs like Leeds and Southampton have also since found out, falling out of the Premier League after being one of its founder members has serious financial consequences and the reality check it brings is hard to overcome.

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