INTERIM manager Lee Bullen believes that Sheffield Wednesday’s under-achieving players are fighting for their futures at the club following a desperately poor first half of the Championship season.
After two successful campaigns, which saw the Owls go close to promotion to the Premier League by reaching the play-offs each time, the managerless Hillsborough outfit are potentially facing a relegation battle at the other end of the table following a grim return of one win in their last 10 league fixtures.
The need to bring in a new permanent manager at the earliest available juncture was magnified by Wednesday’s atrocious performance in Monday’s 3-0 home loss to Burton Albion.
The Owls, who have one of the biggest squads in the Championship – albeit they have an entire first XI sidelined through injury – produced a disturbing lack of collective fight against the Brewers, with interim chief Bullen questioning the mental strength of the confidence-sapped players.
Two further character examinations await over the next week and a half, with the Owls facing a hazardous FA Cup tie at Carlisle United on Saturday before travelling to Bramall Lane for a Steel City derby on Friday week, where the Blades will be chasing their first double over their arch rivals since 2005-06.
A tough month also sees Wednesday take on promotion-chasing Cardiff City managed by Neil Warnock and Tony Pulis’s play-off chasing Middlesbrough.
Overall, there is a good squad of players but there is obviously an issue with confidence at the moment. But, come on, we are men and you have got to stand up and do the basics right. You have to tackle someone when they are running through.Lee Bullen
On the notion of the Owls lacking mental toughness, Bullen, acutely aware that Wednesday have taken just seven points from the last 30 available and have not beaten any side in the bottom eight this season, said: “You would be fair with an assessment like that after a performance like that.
“But I have got to back them because over the last couple of years, the majority of them have been fantastic in strong scenarios.
“They have let themselves down so far this season and I do not think any of them would argue about that.
“People are playing for their futures. There is a new guy coming in, but after performances like that what is he going to think? I am gutted to be saying that.
“Overall there is a good squad of players, but there is obviously an issue with confidence at the moment. But, come on, we are men and you have got to stand up and do the basics right. You have to tackle someone when they are running through.”
Bullen stopped short of saying that some players lack passion towards representing the club after a fraught campaign so far, but acknowledged that fighting spirit and a battling approach were both conspicuous by their absence given the damning evidence against Burton, where the visitors’ collective unity was in total contrast to that of 16th-placed Wednesday.
The first task for whoever takes charge at Hillsborough is likely to be replenishing drastically diminished levels of confidence in a side who have massively underwhelmed in 2017-18.
Questioned as to whether some Wednesday players, subject to a chorus of, ‘You’re not fit to wear the shirt’ by some home supporters towards the end of Monday’s game, care for the club, Bullen added: “They have done in the past. That is why it is hurting me so much more as well because I have been with these players in the past two or three years and seen the highs that they can produce and the quality.
“Yes, we are missing one or two, but a lot of these lads have proved that they are good enough for anyone in this league and a match for anybody.
“But, at the moment, I don’t know whether it is just confidence... but things like that just sound like excuses.
“They huffed and puffed and gave it a bit of a go and were camped in Burton’s half a lot of the time, but it was just naivety with the goals.
“Two or three of them put in a shift, I felt, and never gave up and kept running and trying to be positive. But two or three is never going to be enough against anybody in leagues below, never mind this league.”
One glimmer of light on the horizon for Wednesday comes with the news that winger George Boyd – out since September following shoulder surgery – is in contention to make his return in Saturday’s third-round tie at Brunton Park.
Bullen said: “George Boyd is back. One of them... thank goodness.
“Obviously, we got Jack (Hunt) back on Monday, but he has tweaked his knee again. It ballooned a little bit and that is why we had to take him off. Glenn Loovens played with a major illness down at Brentford and we had to try and shoehorn him back in.
“To be fair, he probably should not have started the game and I have asked him to do it. We brought on Danny (Pudil) at half-time.
“But it would be great to get George back in and involved. So he will be available for selection for Carlisle.”