UNTIL shortly before 9pm on Wednesday night, Milan Mandaric had done nothing wrong as chairman of Sheffield Wednesday.
His decision to terminate the employment of manager Gary Megson, however, is a mistake that will cost the Owls promotion to the Championship.
Forget the excuses about poor results; this simply boiled down to a clash of personalities.
The relationship between Mandaric, chief executive Paul Aldridge and the club’s manager had been on the slide for several months.
Megson fights his corner with passion and there have been a number of bad-tempered meetings, both at Hillsborough and the club’s training ground, during the last few weeks.
Publicly, Megson has been biting his tongue, possibly due to the fear of going too far with his criticism.
Yet he has still made it clear that Mandaric’s investment in players, in his opinion, did not justify the pressure he has been under to secure a top-two spot.
The Owls are currently third in the League One table and look nailed on for play-off qualification.
Although they had lost three league games in a row, they won the Steel City derby against Sheffield United last weekend and Megson was hailed a hero.
Striker Chris O’Grady celebrated the winning goal with his manager and, at the final whistle, Megson was lifted off his feet by captain Rob Jones.
Everything was there to suggest that he had the full backing of his players.
Supporters, too, had stuck by the Owls manager despite the brief downturn in results.
In the near two decades that I have covered Wednesday, plenty of managers have been drummed out of office by popular opinion. David Pleat, Danny Wilson, Paul Jewell and Terry Yorath were all subjected to abuse from the stands before leaving – but not Megson.
This is the first time since Ron Atkinson walked out to join Aston Villa in 1991 that Owls supporters have been so united in their objection to a managerial departure.
Shock, disbelief and anger were the main emotions evident on internet message boards and local radio phone-in programmes.
Above all, they could not understand the timing of the decision – just three days after victory over the Blades and with 13 games of the season to go.
It may be a tall order but the Owls are still in the race for automatic promotion. The Blades are five points clear with a game in hand but no one at Hillsborough is giving up the chase.
Even if they fall short, and qualify for the play-offs, it would still be a major improvement given the situation 13 months ago when Megson arrived.
One of the cruellest twists in this whole saga has been the unexpected success of arch-rivals Sheffield United.
Relegated last season, the Blades had been widely tipped to struggle because of financial pressures. However, the appointment of Danny Wilson – ironically a former Owls player and manager – helped turn around their fortunes.
Unfortunately for Megson, the Blades are ahead of the Owls with a firm a grip on second spot.
If they had been involved in a relegation battle, however, it would have changed completely the attitudes to Wednesday’s league performance.
Mandaric, of course, has never been slow to change managers whether at Portsmouth, Leicester City or Wednesday. He has now axed 15 managers during a 14-year involvement in the English game and had been working with Megson for the second time in his career. The announcement of the sacking contained no sign of ‘thanks and best wishes’ which spoke volumes.
The pair’s relationship has often been stormy and Mandaric grew increasingly irritated by Megson’s comments relating to investment. Having rescued the club from the brink of administration and wiped out debts in excess of £40m, the Serbian justifiably feels he should not be criticised.
However, there is also a steely determination on Mandaric’s part to make big money out of his involvement with Sheffield Wednesday. At 73, it may yet be his last challenge in football and the only way to ensure a profit is by moving the club up the league.
Mandaric’s next managerial appointment will pick up a double-edged sword.
The team are excellently positioned in the league but the players have been hurt by the lack of loyalty shown to their manager. Supporters are also up in arms and unlikely to grant the newcomer any sort of settling in period. That is why I believe promotion hopes now lie in serious jeopardy.
Commenting on events, Nigel Short, chairman of fans group Wednesdayite, said: “Mr Mandaric is an experienced chairman and Paul Aldridge is an experienced CEO. They will not have taken the decision lightly or without a plan. The saddening thing is that Gary is also an experienced football man and we now have to face the next 13 games with an unknown quantity at the helm.
“It was becoming clear, through Gary’s recent press statements, that there were problems developing in his relationship with the club’s hierarchy. A team is a team – and a football management team includes the chairman and CEO of the club. If the three main players at the club can no longer work together then someone will make way. Clearly that was always going to be Gary and we now have to place our faith in the chairman to appoint the man he believes will move us forward. Irrespective of recent events, we call on all Wednesday fans to continue to support the team through this vital final quarter of the season. It is imperative that SWFC complete the job and celebrate promotion in May, and the support of the fans is key to this aim.”