Dave Jones hopes to deliver automatic promotion today and repay the risk taken by Sheffield Wednesday chairman Milan Mandaric.
The Owls owner surprised the footballing world when he sacked fans’ favourite and boyhood Wednesday fan Gary Megson just days after winning the Steel City derby in February.
It sparked an outcry from the Hillsborough faithful, but Mandaric insisted he needed to act after a run of just two wins from 10 games prior to the victory over the Blades which had seen Wednesday’s automatic promotion hopes seemingly crumble.
Mandaric turned to former Cardiff manager Jones to try to salvage the season, and he has helped the club to a 13-match unbeaten run heading into today’s Hillsborough sell-out against Wycombe Wanderers.
Victory will clinch automatic promotion after reining in and overhauling Sheffield United, who were five points in front with two games in hand at one stage.
For Jones, that would repay the faith of Mandaric – who rescued the club from the brink of administraion in 2010 – with Championship football next season.
“Because of the circumstances of how I came in and took over from the previous guy, there was always going to be a backlash from some supporters,” said Jones, who was yesterday named League One manager of the month, while defender Miguel Llera won the player of the month award.
“The only way you could justify doing it is by getting results. My remit was to win football matches, and if you win football matches you win over the fans.
“I think they had won two out of 10 but to come in on the back end of winning a derby was always a difficult decision for the chairman to make, but he made it.
“If it wasn’t me sat here it would be somebody else. The chairman had made his mind up, now it was down to whoever sat here – and I am fortunate it is me – to repay that by getting results.
“We have had a four-game swing round – when I arrived we were five points behind and United had two games in hand.”
A win today will see Wednesday promoted, a draw and they must hope United falter at Exeter. Defeat for the Owls and just a draw would suffice for Danny Wilson’s team, who have a superior goal difference.
Jones had a watching brief for his first game as Owls boss, a dour 0-0 draw at Rochdale which failed to impress the new manager as he sat in the directors’ box alongside Mandaric.
“When I sat in the stand at Rochdale, I will be honest, I didn’t like what I saw,” confessed Jones. “I tried to change it and that’s what we have done.
“But because I didn’t like what was there on the day doesn’t mean it was wrong because they had got themselves into such a fantastic position anyway. I am not taking the credit, the players deserve the credit.
“It’s unusual for a manager to come in and take over a football club when they are in the top part of the table with a shout for promotion. It’s normally the other way.
“When I first came to the club, there were still 13 games to go and that’s what I spoke to the chairman about. Automatic promotion was still a possibility, but we had to rely on others around us faltering. If you had said going into the last game of the season it was in our own hands, we would have snapped it up. We have worked really hard and need to stay focused.”
Jones is expecting a 37,000-plus sell-out crowd to turn Hillsborough into a cauldron of nerves today, and is urging his players to keep their heads.
“We have tried to keep things normal, we still have a job to do and we take nothing for granted,” said Jones, whose side have won 10 out of their last 13 matches, drawing the other three.
“The atmosphere at Hillsborough will just add to the nerves. I hope the fans blow the roof off, are ferocious from the word go. But we have just got to focus on one thing and that’s to get out of this division at the first attempt, which is automatic.
“We were hoping that it would be in our hands when I arrived; we are at that stage, now we don’t want to blow it. The pressure and expectation is still there for us, nothing changes, the players have had that through the season.
“I can’t ask from the players anymore than what they have given, except give me one more victory which will guarantee them a life-changing experience. It doesn’t matter what division you go up from, it is always a life-changing experience.
“The supporters have come in their droves, their expectations have risen – they have been in the doldrums for a long time – and it’s nice when you see a club like Wednesday have all the emotions that they are going to show (today).”
Jones was in charge of Wolves when they beat the Blades 3-0 in the Championship play-off final in 2003. Asked if lightning could strike twice and once more thwart the Blades’ promotion bid, Jones replied: “It would be nice, but we are not playing Sheffield United.
“You play the game, not the occasion. You spoke about Sheffield United at the Millennium Stadium; we felt we played the game and they played the occasion.
“Nothing would please me more if we went up automatic, and they went up the other route. I think they are two big clubs. It would be nice for the city if they both did it.”
Jose Semedo salutes Owls supporters: Page 3.