Sheffield Wednesday rebuilding job proved too great for David Pleat

THE job which greeted David Pleat when he was appointed Sheffield Wednesday manager a quarter-of a century ago was far from straightforward.

The former Luton Town chief inherited an ageing squad, with the cracks starting to appear in a decade which saw the club enjoy a purple patch under first Ron Atkinson and then Trevor Francis before starting to tail off. It was plainly a time of transition.

Pleat’s hand was not a particular strong one, but neither did he play the cards he was dealt with particularly adeptly, even if a seventh placed finish in 1996-97 measures up rather well to what followed it.

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His transfer dealings were decidedly mixed – although in mitigation, hardly any manager gets all their signings right.

Welcome to Hillsborough: David Pleat meets the media at Sheffield Wednesday, on his appointment 25 years ago today. Picture: PA

Pleat was the man who would bring Benito Carbone and Paolo di Canio to the club – two hot-blooded, high-maintenance signings whose high-grade exquisite skills would grace Hillsborough.

Marc Degryse briefly showed vestiges of class at S6 before he left the club, many would say prematurely.

Famously, Pleat would bring in Yugoslav striker Darko Kovacevic, but failed to get a tune out of the big striker.

Real Sociedad would succeed where he failed and Kovacevic went onto sign for Juventus for a hefty £14m fee.

And there were other continental signings, with the likes of Orlando Trustfull and Patrick Blondeau being eminently forgettable ones.

Pleat’s first season at Hillsborough smacked of a team in transition. Wednesday finished in 15th place, with the highlight being a 6-2 home victory over Yorkshire rivals Leeds United.

The following season would represent the high point and history will judge it well.

It started off spectacularly, with Wednesday winning their opening four matches against Aston Villa, Leeds, Newcastle United and Leicester City to top the table.

The lightning conductor for that electric start was a local lad Richie Humphreys, whose audacious chip secured victory in a 2-1 win over the Foxes at Hillsborough.

Wednesday’s early-season momentum may have been checked, but it was still a campaign of substance and merit.

A Guy Whittingham goal gave the Owls victory at Anfield before Christmas and a strong late winter and early spring run saw Pleat’s side win five games out of seven in a season which ended with a 1-1 draw with Liverpool in front of almost 39,000 at Hillsborough.

Wednesday would finish seventh, with the main disappointing aspect of the campaign being elimination in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup when they were beaten 2-0 at home by Wimbledon.

If that season was encouraging, Pleat’s tenure unravelled in the following year and he was shown the doors at the start of November 1997 after a two-and-a-half year rein at the club.

Despite bringing in six new players, including Di Canio, Blondeau and Jim Magilton, Wednesday started the season pitifully and won just two of their opening 13 matches.

A League Cup exit against Grimsby Town further dampened the mood and matters came to a head after Wednesday’s 6-1 hammering against Manchester United at Old Trafford.

Less than 24 hours after that defeat, chairman Dave Richards informed Pleat that his time as manager was up.

Richards commented: “It’s always difficult when you take somebody’s livelihood away from him,”.

“But at the end of the day the manager carries the can.”

Pleat felt there was time to “turn things round”, yet acknowledged that the board of directors act on results rather than performances.

He said: “We’ve played some good football in the last few matches. Unfortunately, drastic mistakes, particularly in defence, gave us mountains to climb.

“Some players have done so well, others have not. We’ve also had a nightmare in terms of injuries to people who were so crucial to last year’s good performances, but that’s history now.”

Seven days later, caretaker manager Peter Shreeves presided over a 5-0 win over Bolton at Hillsborough. Funny old game.

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