Al be back

ANOTHER day, another new manager. Well, OK, Alan Irvine has been in charge of Sheffield Wednesday for a good 10 days now, so he must almost be the Championship’s longest-serving boss. (Ho ho.) But due to the weather, he had to wait until yesterday for his first match with Wednesday.

Here’s a statistic that might interest you: Of the 24 clubs currently in the Championship, only nine have the same manager with which they started 2009. (It’s eight if you discount Billy Davies, officially appointed by Nottingham Forest on January 1 last year, although everything had been agreed before that.)

The turnover of managers throughout the top four divisions of English football has rapidly accelerated in recent times. (Is Rafa Benitez really the seventh longest-serving manager in the country? Yes, he really is.) But in the Championship, that turnover is approaching the kind of rate normally associated with soap opera characters.

Some of those managerial departures have been more surprising than others. And Irvine’s exit from Preston on December 30 was certainly a surprise, particularly to him. After all, he had guided North End to the play-offs the previous season.

On the morning of his dismissal, Irvine had given an interview to the Lancashire Evening Post which gave no hint of his sacking. This wasn’t because Irvine was trying to hide anything – it was because he didn’t know himself.

“I was shocked, then I had the angry stage,” Irvine said later. “I quickly moved on because of the staggering level of support from people in the game.”

Irvine has earned plenty of respect from his fellow coaches, partly because he’s good at what he does, and partly because he works phenomenally hard. Following yesterday’s 2-1 victory at Barnsley, he said that his job on getting home would be to watch the match again on DVD to look for things that could be worked on in training.

Wednesday needed that victory at Barnsley. Having not won a game for one day short of three months, they had slipped to second from bottom of the Championship. It was a run of form that got Brian Laws the sack. But if Laws’ subsequent step up to the Premier League with Burnley was a surprise, Irvine’s quick return to management wasn’t.

Veteran midfielder Michael Gray admitted as much in the build-up to yesterday’s game, saying on his BBC website blog: “Alan was in probably one of the safest jobs in English football as assistant to David Moyes at Everton but he had ambitions to be a manager and left to be Preston boss.

“He did a great job there and, in my eyes, Preston’s loss is Wednesday’s gain.”

Wednesday and Barnsley have both changed their manager since they met in a 2-2 draw at Hillsborough on the opening day of the season, when the weather was a lot warmer. Simon Davey didn’t see out August, though, and Mark Robins has since guided the Tykes steadily up the Championship table.

Lately, though, there has been a wobble. A poor showing at Scunthorpe two weeks ago led to an FA Cup exit, and a better display at Coventry still brought a defeat. In front of a noisy Oakwell crowd bolstered by almost 5,000 Wednesday fans, Barnsley needed a good start. They didn’t get one.

I’ve only seen Barnsley a handful of times this season. But whenever I have, they’ve looked vulnerable at set-pieces. Three minutes in, from Wednesday’s second corner of the game, keeper Lee Steele flapped under pressure and Tommy Spurr bundled in the loose ball.

It was full-back Spurr’s first goal since scoring in the Sheffield derby victory at Bramall Lane last February. He’s obviously got a taste for scoring in derby matches.

Wednesday’s lead lasted only four minutes, though. Emil Hallfredsson is an Icelandic midfielder who has arrived at Barnsley after stints in Sweden, Norway, Italy and Tottenham’s reserves. He’s had a rich and varied career, and he’s only 25. I doubt he’s scored many goals like the one he got yesterday, though, a looping left-wing cross that drifted over keeper Lee Grant and bounced in off the post. It was a goal that surprised just about everyone – including, dare I say, the scorer. Even Robins described it as “fortunate”.

Still the action kept coming in a frenetic start. Barnsley’s Maltese striker Daniel Bogdanovic made a pig’s ear of a chance after Darren Purse had done likewise with an attempted back header. Then Steele made a smart save to deny James O’Connor. And then Barnsley’s set-piece weakness surfaced again.

They made something of a mess of trying to clear Darren Potter’s free-kick, and when the ball was lifted back towards the edge of the penalty area, Marcus Tudgay flicked on and Jermaine Johnson smashed a shot into the roof of the net. Great finish. 2-1, with only 2-1 minutes gone. What score was this going to end up?

Well, as it turned out, 2-1. Hallfredsson had a penalty shout turned down when Wednesday’s Barnsley-born centre-back Mark Beevers challenged him inside the area, and Stephen Foster was denied an equaliser by Potter’s goalline clearance. But after the interval, Barnsley slowly ran out of steam, while Wednesday were content to play on the counter-attack.

There was one flashpoint near the end, in the far corner of the field, when a number of players from both sides threatened to come to blows. The incident happened in the part of Oakwell between the away end and one of the home stands. And just for a moment, it looked as though both sets of fans might get involved with each other too.

The line of police patrolling that area made sure nothing serious happened – but for the most part, the two sets of supporters had been content to stick to chanting, anyway.

While Barnsley’s fans sang “Wednesday’s going down” to the tune of the Lightning Seeds/Skinner and Baddiel classic, the away supporters responded with a chorus of “Shall we sing a song for you?” when the home faithful went a bit quiet.

The one song that dominated the second half, though, was about Wednesday’s new manager. I couldn’t make out if the visiting fans were singing “Alan Irvine’s barmy army” or “Alan Irvine’s blue and white army”. Either way, the support for the new manager was indisputable.

“It was a great performance, but it’s only a start,” said Irvine, who has set his side a target of 53 points for Championship survival. “If we feel as if that’s it, and everything’s going to be OK, then we’ll end up having problems.”

Irvine’s got work to do. But he’s on his way. And he shouldn’t have to worry about being a Championship managerial casualty again for a while.


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