Sporting Bygones: Back when Howard Wilkinson's job was not to save Wednesday from going bust but to keep them up in the country's top echelons

THEY finished higher than Chelsea, having scored more goals than the fancy Londoners, and fell just short of the illustrious Manchester United.

In the 1986-87 season, things were far different for Sheffield Wednesday compared to today, although the same could be said of those big-name opponents.

Chelsea were stuck in mid-table obscurity under John Hollins, the goals of Kerry Dixon alone not offering them opportunity to push on further, while United, despite winning the FA Cup a year earlier, grew similarly stagnant on Ron Atkinson's watch. He would be replaced by a certain Alex Ferguson barely four months into the campaign.

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Wednesday, meanwhile, came 13th, nudging past Chelsea due to that superior goal difference but it would prove the final full campaign of their own manager – the astute Howard Wilkinson.

He had carved out an excellent reputation after taking over his home-town Owls in June, 1983, leading them to promotion from the old Second Division in his first season and then keeping them in the upper echelon – including a highest finish of fifth in 1985-86 which would have seen them play in Europe if not for the Heysel disaster – and reaching an FA Cup semi-final.

But this line-up would be his penultimate as he opted to drop down a division again, accepting Leeds' offer to revitalise their fortunes, also taking many of these Owls players to help him do just that.

Gangly striker Lee Chapman, whom Wilkinson had bought from Arsenal for 100,000 in 1984, provided ample goals as Leeds won promotion in 1989-90 and did likewise as they went on to win the last-ever First Division title two years later.

Right-back Mel "Zico" Sterland, with his fondness of a fearsome free-kick, joined the Hillsborough exodus to Elland Road with Carl Shutt, Glyn Snodin and Northern Ireland left-back Nigel Worthington all joining Wilkinson up the M1 at some point during his time in charge at their Yorkshire rivals, buying into their erstwhile manager's philosophies and ambition.

As for the 86-87 affairs, Wednesday's fortunes did not rise as high as the previous year's, although there was some notable performances along the way.

The 2-2 draw against Coventry at Hillsborough on October 25 will not necessarily be memorable for its fare but the bemused Martin Hodge will not forget it in a hurry.

The Owls goalkeeper suffered the ignominy of being beaten by a freak downfield clearance from opposite number Steve Ogrizovic, the huge kick bizarrely looping over the stranded Hodge's head.

In only their second fixture they had earned a creditable 2-2 draw with eventual champions Everton while home fans were twice treated to some prolific striking as the rampant Owls destroyed Oxford 6-1 in October – travelling to Stockport to thrash them 7-0 in the Littlewoods Cup just three days later – and hammered QPR 7-1 in May.

Conversely, they were on the end of a 6-1 mauling from Leicester, ironically a side who suffered relegation along with Manchester City and Aston Villa.

That handsome success against Oxford, courtesy of goals from Shutt (2), England winger Mark Chamberlain, Chapman, Gary Megson and Gary Shelton, saw Wednesday rise to fourth spot, but it was a position they could not maintain.

They failed to win any of their next four games and, although Chapman kept plundering goals, including one in a 2-0 success over Newcastle at Christmas, their form nosedived in the New Year.

Following victory over the Magpies, Wilkinson's men fell into a rut which showed little signs of abating. It was not until a young David Hirst struck against Manchester United on March 21 that they tasted victory once more.

A 10-game winless run had done irretrievable damage.

The towering Chapman, with his uncanny ability to get his head or boot to anything, again proved a huge success, finishing with 22 goals to cement his place as an Owls legend, repaying the faith shown in him by Wilkinson, having already notched 35 in his first two campaigns, while Hirst highlighted the promise which would eventually see him play for England.

It is worth noting, too, how many managers eventually emerged from this vintage.

While Wilkinson has returned to the Owls as chairman, currently battling to help them stave off the threat of administration, many of his proteges forged their own managerial careers upon retirement.

Worthington is the current Northern Ireland chief while centre-half Paul Hart has been in charge of Barnsley, Nottingham Forest and Portsmouth, cultured midfielder Gary Megson led West Bromwich Albion and Bolton Wanderers in the Premiership, Snodin is assistant at Leeds with a then fresh-faced Wayne Jacobs going on to hold a similar role at Bradford City.