Assigning two men to 'not look at the ball' against Man United was a bad start
During a football season, there’s a point when certain statistics start to become interesting. A player’s first goal or appearance of the season may sound banal in August, but in March or April its intriguing quality tells a story about that player. However, there’s also the reoccurring statistic of a team failing to win away from home all season.
This usually happens to the more unfashionable clubs, think of Coventry City or Grimsby Town: those that rarely achieve anything better than a late push for the playoffs. These sorts of teams often struggle in the league; it may only be their home form that staves off the threat of relegation. You may see Jeff Stelling, during the penultimate or last weekend of the season, claiming that they’ve finally won an away game, but sometimes this unwanted run remains unbroken.
There’s the inevitable disappointment and gallows humour associated with a scoreless draw at Gigg Lane, a hapless defeat at Ashton Gate, a last-grasp equaliser by Hereford United at Edgar Street and an occasional thrashing at Oakwell. One season is bad enough but imagine if your team did not win an away match, in the league, for nearly two years and a total of 36 matches. That’s right: nearly TWO YEARS, during your club’s darkest hour.
Such a thing happened to Sheffield Wednesday in the mid-1970s – a run that started after a 1-0 victory at Southampton on 28 December 1974 and somehow lasted until a 1-0 win at Reading on 16 October 1976, to be precise. In hindsight, and to be perfectly fair, it was clear such a run was coming. The 1973/1974 season, in particular, should be seen as a catalyst for Sheffield Wednesday’s sharp decline in form.
That season had started fairly ordinarily and the Owls seemed to be safe in mid-table as, by the beginning of October, they were 13th in the Second Division. Such a position was fairly typical under the stewardship of Derek Dooley: apart from the occasional peaks and troughs in form, the Owls were stuck in mid-table mediocrity.
However, a nine-match winless run – brought on by a mystery virus that led to the Public Health Department fumigating the Owls’ showers, toilets, and dressing and medical rooms – meant that Wednesday’s league position plummeted. By the beginning of November 1973, the club was in 18th place and, by early December, it had slipped into the relegation zone. Subsequently, Wednesday’s greatest ever player, Dooley, was sacked on Christmas Eve, of all days.
Dooley was replaced by rookie manager Stephen Burtenshaw, formerly QPR’s chief coach. Although, thanks to Ken Knighton’s goal against Bolton Wanderers, the Owls managed to narrowly avoided relegation, an 8-0 defeat at Middlesbrough in the 1973/1974 season’s penultimate game was an early warning sign. The club was also facing financial difficulties as they had made a £102,000 loss on the previous season, despite a £47,000 donation from the Development Fund.
Few could have predicted how badly the 1974/1975 season went, though. Not only were Wednesday relegated to the Third Division for the first time in their history, but they started two runs after their fifth and last league win of the season at The Dell. One was the aforementioned winless run away from home; the other was a 20-match winless run, lasting until they defeated Wrexham on 6 September 1975. To make matters worse, in the last 17 games of the 1974/1975 season, they lost all but three of their games and scored just two goals.
There were several reasons behind the runs: most notably, the sale of influential midfielder Tommy Craig to Newcastle United in December 1974. The club’s supporters were also unsettled; attendance figures rarely peaked beyond the 15,000 mark during the 1974/1975 season and, a season later, these figures declined further, regularly dipping below 10,000. Despite the best efforts of the Sheffield Star’s ‘Save our Owls’ campaign in January 1975 – which tried to encourage more fans to attend matches – morale and finances were at an all-time low.
The inept Burtenshaw wasn’t blameless either, as his inability to decide upon regular partnerships in defence and attack ensured that he was as bumbling as Peter Eustace and Alan Irvine. For instance, during the 1974/1975 season, he used six different players at right back and seven at left back, as well as four players in five different combinations in the two centre-back positions. Meanwhile, up front, he used 13 different striking combinations, with only one of these lasting more than three matches. To highlight how much Wednesday struggled in attacking positions, their two top goalscorers during that season – Eric McMordie and Tommy Craig, who even then only scored ten goals between them – left the club in mid-December 1974.
Unsurprisingly, it was more of the same in the Third Division. By September 1975, Burtenshaw departed Sheffield Wednesday after a poor start had left them 17th in the table. And, rather inevitably, when things couldn’t possibly get any worse, they did. Step forward, Len Ashurst. The former Hartlepool United manager – whose coaching schedule seemed to largely consist of runs in the moors and military-style roll calls – certainly didn’t make a good first impression.
Another hopeless run, this time consisting of one win out of 14 matches, ensured that the Owls were rooted in the relegation zone by January 1976. They eventually escaped relegation to the Fourth Division, via a 20th-place finish, but the away run continued. During the 1975/1976 season, they failed to register an away win in the league after losing 13 matches and drawing another ten. However, it must be said that a number of these draws were scoreless at the likes of Shrewsbury Town and Halifax Town. Although the Owls conceded 34 goals in 23 away games – which is fairly respectable for a side that finished in the bottom five – they only scored 14, highlighting the extent of their toothless showings in the final third.
Thankfully, during the 1976/1977 season, Jeffrey Johnson’s winner at Elm Park ended the Owls’ near 22-month winless run away from home and their league form began to improve. Although Wednesday only registered seven away wins during the 1976/1977 season, they achieved an eighth-place finish and Ashurst’s overhaul of the club’s youth policy benefited Jack Charlton and Howard Wilkinson during their spells in charge. From the mid-1980s to the late-1990s, Sheffield Wednesday were a regular fixture in the first tier of English football, though history has repeated itself in recent years with financial problems and struggles in the third tier. But, despite this, it’s unlikely they’ll ever repeat this away record from the mid-1970s:
L, L, L, L, D, L, L, D, L, L, L, L, L, D, L, L, D, D, L, D, D, D, L, D, D, L, L, L, L, D, L, D, L, L, D, D.