Sheffield Wednesday: The life and times of Stuart Gray

Deposed Owls boss Stuart Gray
Deposed Owls boss Stuart Gray
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SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY are searching for 12th manager/head coach this century following the decision to sack Stuart Gray after 18 months in charge of the Owls. Here Leon Wobschall a look at the reign of the East Yorkshireman, a technically gifted coach of considerable repute and popular with players on the training ground at Middlewood, but that was ultimately not enough for owner Dejphon Chansiri.

STUART GRAY wasn’t a sharp-suited, smooth-talking managerial figure armed with a stack of wisecracks and a barrel load of charisma on tap or a marketing man’s dream either.

Owls manager Stuart Gray during the Yorkshire derby with Leeds.

Owls manager Stuart Gray during the Yorkshire derby with Leeds.

But in in his quiet, unassuming way, the Yorkshireman got things done and earned respect in the process, especially in the sphere where he was most at home, on the Middlewood training ground.

It was there he proved a dynamic force with his players - who embraced his methods and genuinely enjoyed going into training every day.

At some clubs, the daily grind of training can get a bit stale, tiresome and repetitive. Not at Wednesday under Gray. A players’ coach, he certainly was.

But given the fanfare surrounding the appointment of Thai tuna tycoon Dejphon Chansiri as the new Sheffield Wednesday owner at the end of January - it was perhaps inevitable that the tenure of the understated Gray, known to few outside the waters of England - let alone as far away as Bangkok - would come under the microscope.

READ MORE: Stuart Gray sacked as Wednesday eye promotion

With foreign owners seeking to market Sheffield Wednesday beyond these shores, people like Gray ultimately have a shelf life. His exit just arrived a bit earlier than most expected, for sure.

But to show him the door after the commendable job that he did at S6 in at times trying circumstances was somewhat harsh and unforgiving and doesn’t auger particularly well for the future.

What chance has the new man got, some will wonder. And how must the players feel this morning.

Gray - out of football for seven months after being made redundant by Portsmouth - was brought in by former manager Dave Jones to Hillsborough in December 2012, when Wednesday were reeling after a torrid start to the campaign - and firmly in the relegation zone after just five wins in their opening 22 games.

Jones had worked with Gray at Southampton and Wolves and the appointment was widely seen as integral in the Owls’ steering away from fraught waters in the second half of 2012-13 - winning 11 out of their final 24 fixtures.

Jones paid the price after a second successive wretched start to a Championship campaign in 2013-14, when the Owls won just once in their first 16 outings, with Gray stepping up and again immediately showing his considerable prowess as a coach by pulling the club away from the relegation quicksand at the foot of the Championship.

The Owls were joint bottom when Gray took over as caretaker boss at the start of December 2013, but by the start of February, they were 17th.

Gray presided over a run of just two losses in his first 12 matches, including a famous 6-0 home victory over Leeds United on January 11, 2014 - the highpoint of his reign.

But it still took until January 25 for the Owls to hand him the full-time head coaching position, despite Gray orchestrating six wins and four draws in a dozen games in charge - compared to what went on before under Jones, it was World Cup winning form.

Gray’s substance over style earned the respect of Wednesdayites, with the Owls under his watch being well organised in and out of possession and hard to beat, with the likes of Liam Palmer and Caolan Lavery starting to flower under him. Everyone knew their jobs under Gray.

Gray’s first, and ultimately only, close season in charge proved a source of frustration, with the ill-fated takeover of Hafiz Mammadov hinting at plenty, but delivering nothing and leaving the Owls behind the eight-ball when it came to bringing in new recruits to build on a commendable second half of 2013-14.

With Milan Mandaric having made no bones about his desire to sell up if the right offer and owners came along, getting the deals he wanted over the line was somewhat problematic for Gray.

Recruitment was snail-pace slow at times, with the main movement coming close to the kick-off when Michail Antonio left for Nottingham Forest and Stevie May arrived from St Johnstone, although it was Gray’s signing of Kieren Westwood was proved far more instrumental.

Gray also earned credit for bringing in Tom Lees from Leeds and rejuvenating his career, with Lees and Westwood playing their part in the Owls highly impressive first month of the campaign.

It saw the Owls triumph at Gray’s old club, Premier League outfit Burnley in the Capital One Cup last August, with their opening to the campaign being their best since 1990-91.

Gray maximised his resources and got plenty out of the options at his disposals, although a lack of squad depth ultimately caught up with the Owls in the autumn, with Mandaric forced to give Gray the dreaded vote of confidence in mid-November with Wednesday boasting just one league win in two months.

A lack of goals, moreso at home, had some preparing to pen Gray’s obituary at Wednesday, but to be fair, he steadied the ship adeptly once more, competing against several sides, who may not necessarily have been as big in name or stature as the Owls, but who had bigger squads and playing resources.

Wednesday were again committed and diligent under Gray last term, but undeniably lacked stardust, although with funds limited and Milanic still seeking buyers, Gray had to cut his cloth accordingly.

A hub of creation eventually did arrive in Lewis McGugan, but another problem had also flared up, the simply awful state of the Hillsborough surface, which stifled any hopes of displaying attacking, entertaining football and forced Gray to be pragmatic and play the percentages.

Chansiri then came in and while his command of English was clearly limited, the message was that Wednesday wanted promotion by 2017 when the club celebrates their 150th anniversary.

And so the clock effectively started ticking regarding Gray, although on the surface, all was still fairly well. Hard-nosed and seasoned Wednesdayites probably knew better.

The Owls ended the season in a respectable 13th spot, with impressive late-season draws at promoted Bournemouth and Watford and a victory over Brentford secured before attention turned to the future.

A new three-man sporting committee was soon ushered in by Chansiri, with Glenn Roeder and Adam Pearson - who subsequently left - brought into advise the Owls owner and work alongside Gray, who was entitled to start to wonder where this left him.

Despite having initially received backing from Chansiri, Gray’s position was hardly rock-solid, with ex-Wednesday players Benito Carbone and Dan Petrescu tentatively linked to the post and few deals done regarding players that Gray wanted to retain or bring in. And few real signs either.

And now sadly the end for Gray, who can genuinely leave the club with his head held high.

Given his proficiency as a coach and the respect in the wider footballing community he has secured from the good job he did at Hillsborough, a new role somewhere will surely not be long in coming.

He can be sure of an appreciative reception when he returns to S6, of that there is no doubt.