Garry Monk faces arguably the biggest afternoon of his short Sheffield Wednesday tenure today.
A combination of poor performances and dire results – just one win in nine Championship games – has conspired to leave Monk desperate for a positive result today when Reading visit Hillsborough.
Since reaching the dizzy heights of third place before Christmas, Wednesday’s season has imploded to shatter their promotion hopes.
They currently sit 12th in the table, nine points adrift of the play-offs, and even without the threat of an EFL points deduction hanging over Hillsborough, this season looks to be drifting towards mid-table obscurity.
Just one point from their last four home games – including a humiliating 5-0 defeat to Blackburn Rovers – left Owls supporters looking at back-to-back trips to Barnsley and Luton Town, the Championship’s bottom two clubs, as a possible lifeline.
But a 1-1 draw at Oakwell was followed by a limp 1-0 defeat at Luton, which saw the travelling supporters deliver their assessment with chants of ‘you’re not fit to wear the shirt’.
At the end of the day as a team we’re not performing to the levels that we have done, and what we’ve seen they’re capable of.Garry Monk
Over the years that damning verdict has been reserved for some truly woeful Owls teams. The gauntlet has certainly been thrown down to Monk’s class of 2020 – yet to score at Hillsborough this year.
“Football can turn,” insisted Monk. “We’ve said that for a few weeks, it hasn’t turned for us yet, but it can turn.
“One performance can flood belief back and all that side of it, but it’s about work.
“I work very hard, I try to work the players very hard and try to give them some clarity to go out onto the pitch.
“What you want to try and encourage them is (have) belief in themselves and to go and show what good players they can be.
“It hasn’t come to fruition in this period but it can turn very quickly in football and that’s what we have to believe.
“I drive and fight in myself. I try to lead, I work as hard as I can possibly work, I’m experienced, I know football, I know what they [the players] go through and what it is. You speak to them individually, collectively, all those things.
“But ultimately in football and in life, it ultimately comes down to yourself and what is in yourself and how hard you want to fight in those tough moments.
“That’s what it comes down to, as well as someone speaking to you and trying to lead you and all those things.
“Of course I’ll try to do that and do that to the best of my ability.
“I’m not here to pin anything on anyone. It’s my responsibility.
“Ultimately, I’m the manager of this football club and the buck stops with the manager. I have to assume that responsibility. I’ve done that my whole life, my whole career and I’ll continue to do that.”
Monk – who was appointed as Wednesday boss in September – has certainly made some bold decisions to try and engineer a recent improvement.
Freezing out the experienced duo of goalkeeper Kieren Westwood and midfielder Sam Hutchinson were key reasons behind Jos Luhukay’s exit 13 months ago. And Monk has followed suit, with little evidence on the pitch that the changes have been beneficial to the Owls.
Whatever the reasons, Wednesday need their best 11 players starting games and the challenge facing Monk is to man-manage his squad.
There is no short-term fix and Monk – who had short managerial spells at Swansea City, Leeds United, Middlesbrough and Birmingham City – will need to stay longer at Hillsborough than his previous four clubs if he is to deliver promotion for owner Dejphon Chansiri.
The Owls boss switched to three centre-halves at Kenilworth Road. They gifted the hosts a penalty inside the opening minute, and that set the tone for another lacklustre display.
Leaking goals at one end – and with the attacking loan arrivals of Connor Wickham, Josh Windass and Alessio Da Cruz all finding their feet – it is obvious where the Owls’ problems are.
“At the end of the day as a team we’re not performing to the levels that we have done, and what we’ve seen they’re capable of,” said Monk.
“That’s very clear. When that happens there are a lot of things that you think can be better or you think ‘that’s not good enough’, but my job is to set the team up, have the clarity and try to give them belief.
“But belief needs to come from within as well.
“They need to fight to get themselves out of this situation, it needs to come as a collective, but as I said, it’s my responsibility.
“Football can turn. I’ve got a lot of experience with that and all of a sudden you can be on a different path but a lot of things need to go right for that.
“Silly errors and schoolboy errors need to change to give yourself the best chance of doing that.
“We’ve had too much poor defending and bad mistakes leading to goals in this period.
On the challenge of facing Reading today, he said: “If I’m honest, it’s about us. I’m more focused on us as I always am but more so in this period because it’s only us that can change it.
“It needs a big collective fight and we’re trying to push that from the players and get that from them.
“Confidence levels aren’t at their highest but what I want from the players is to fight through that and show that strength of character. They do have that, we’ve seen already in some weeks that we’ve had. Brighton away, Leeds, you have to have character to do that, so they do have it in them.
“But when confidence levels are lower you have to bring that from deep within, no matter what. That’s my job to try and coax that out of them.”