Exeter City v Sheffield Wednesday – Isolating Neil Thompson hoping Owls can avoid FA Cup upset

SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY players did not need to look outside of the window on the long coach trip down to Devon to notice that a perfect storm was brewing – and it had little to do with the wintry weather.

Caretaker manager of Sheffield Wednesday, Neil Thompson, is self-isolating after a Covid outbreak at the club's training ground. Picture: Darren Staples/Sportimage

To say that Wednesday have had a difficult week is putting it mildly. with their Middlewood Road training ground being out of bounds since Monday due to an outbreak of Covid-19 among the club’s coaching and backroom staff, which has affected caretaker manager Neil Thompson, among others.

Thompson and interim assistants Lee Bullen and Steven Haslam were among several personnel to test positive – and they will watch the action unfold remotely from Yorkshire and not the West Country today, with the Owls entourage travelling down on three coaches on Friday.

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Under-18s chief Andy Holdsworth will take the team, assisted by Daral Pugh, Nicky Weaver and Tony Strudwick.

The virus has fortunately not decimated the club’s playing ranks, but despite huge difficulties in terms of preparation, Thompson is not the sort of individual who looks for excuses. Quite the opposite.

This despite the justifiable view from the outside that Wednesday are on a bit of a hiding to nothing today.

Thompson, who expressed hope that the club’s training facility will re-open on Wednesday said: “We have got a big hurdle to get over, but this could galvanise the spirit. Bumps in the road are a part of football and this is no different.

“It is not ideal. It is disappointing, but above all else, the safety of everybody at the football club and my family as well is a major consideration.

“When this hits you, reality sets in a little bit. We have been really good at the club in terms of infections and it has been very light and the protocols have been in place. Unfortunately, this came in and spread very quickly.”

Professing full faith in the team who will direct dug-out operations today, Thompson added: “Andy is a good lad and he’s been at Barnsley and involved in the odd game or two (in a caretaker team).

“He is more than capable and is a good coach with a lot of good people around him. Daral Pugh has a wealth of experience in football and Nicky and Struds.

“The Zoom calls have been really productive and we have formulated a plan. You have to give them the trust and authority and autonomy to grow.”

Thompson may have every confidence that Wednesday will be in good hands today, but the 57-year-old will not need telling twice that this tie, for all manner of reasons, possesses the classic ingredients often associated with a Cup shock.

Wednesday face an Exeter side who are chasing history as the club seeks to reach the last 32 of the FA Cup for the first time since 1980-81, a season which is etched into Grecians’ folklore.

The names of the likes of Tony Kellow and Martyn Rogers were propelled onto the national stage four decades ago in a Cup run which saw Exeter memorably dispose of Leicester and Newcastle in home replays to reach the quarter-finals.

When asked about the chances of Exeter reaching the fourth round for the first time in four decades this week, present-day manager Matt Taylor was positively bullish.

‘We will never get a better chance’ was his unequivocal response – many Devonians would be forgiven for feeling the same as Exeter aim for an overdue piece of the spotlight.

As a player who was not averse to helping to deliver a giant-killing or two in his time at Neil Warnock’s Scarborough, Thompson recognises that the boot is now firmly on the other foot.

If Wednesday avoid an upset as he views events from afar as he continues to isolate, it should aid in his convalescence.

“I spent the first part of my career playing with Scarborough in the non-leagues and lower leagues and we had ties against teams like Portsmouth and Southampton,” Thompson said.

“It gave you a real lift to play these teams and see what you are about. There is no ‘given’ and you have to earn the right. You have to be in the right frame of mind and that has been the focus.

“We have taken 10 points from the last 12, so the lads should be confident. But Cup games are different and Exeter will be wanting a scalp. You cannot just turn up and expect to win these games.

“They are tough games and I remember when we went down there eight or nine years ago and it was tough. We will not expect anything less.”

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