Wilson's parallel world Managers of misadventure: Wednesday and Villa battle for stability as form and fortune desert them

Simon Turnbull speaks to a man who knows all about dogfights
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The Independent Online

Danny Wilson has been this way before. Fourteen games into the 1997-98 season he was in charge of the team stuck at the bottom of the Premiership pile. "I would say we had something like 11," he said when asked whether he could recall how many points Barnsley had in their top-flight bag two years ago. In fact, they had only 10 points, which happens to be four more than Sheffield Wednesday have to their name as they prepare to face West Ham United - and Paolo Di Canio, if he passes a late fitness test - at Upton Park this afternoon.

Danny Wilson has been this way before. Fourteen games into the 1997-98 season he was in charge of the team stuck at the bottom of the Premiership pile. "I would say we had something like 11," he said when asked whether he could recall how many points Barnsley had in their top-flight bag two years ago. In fact, they had only 10 points, which happens to be four more than Sheffield Wednesday have to their name as they prepare to face West Ham United - and Paolo Di Canio, if he passes a late fitness test - at Upton Park this afternoon.

It seemed harsh to depress a man when he had reason to be down, but in the interests of recent historical perspective it was drawn to the attention of the Wednesday manager that his Barnsley boys of 97-98 finished five points short of the safety mark - and that Blackburn, who were bottom with nine points after 14 matches of the 98-99 season, finished six points adrift. Despite the precarious position of his Owls, perched on the bottom rung of the Premiership table, it is clear that Wilson is far from down in the emotional sense.

"I'm still very, very optimistic," he said, settling into the manager's chair at Wednesday's training ground. "We've got enough quality here to stay up. I think more than anything in our situation there's no substitute for experience and we've got a lot of players who have great experience at international and top-flight level, which is something we didn't have at Barnsley two years ago.

"The thing that gives me even more optimism is the fact that nobody's really pulled away from us. There's still a handful of teams we're quite capable of catching if we put a decent run together. The lads have just got to come out with their chins up and their chests out and have a go at it, because the bottom line is that they and myself will take the flak for it. We don't want to be in the record books as having been relegated."

As it is, the record books thus far this season show that Wednesday have gained only one point away from Hillsborough and that their next three Premiership fixtures, because of Manchester United's jaunt to Japan for the Toyota Cup, are all on the road - at West Ham today, then Liverpool on 5 December and Aston Villa on 18 December. There is, in fact, just one match left at Hillsborough this century - against Middlesbrough on Boxing Day.

To Wilson, it is just another instance of the fates conspiring against him. In the nine weeks since Wednesday's 8-0 walloping at Newcastle, he has seen his players perform impressively but without reward at Sunderland and Leeds and drop two home points after an excellent first-half showing against Coventry. Wednesday, it seems, have the makings of a decent Premiership side - with an accomplished midfield quartet of Alexandersson, Jonk, Sonner and Rudi and with Gilles De Bilde starting to make a striking impression up front. With debts of £17m, however, Wilson has no money to plug such glaring gaps as the lack of an even half-decent goalkeeper.

It is the Wednesday manager's misfortune to be paying the price for the club's costly investment of money and faith in Di Canio, whose place in the West Ham team today is under doubt because of an ankle problem, and Benito Carbone. Though Dave Richards, Wednesday's chairman, has taken the brunt of the fans' ire, Wilson has not escaped criticism for failing to hold on to the Italian showboaters brought to Hillsborough by David Pleat. One disaffected Wednesdayite wrote to the Green 'Un last Saturday to point out that without Di Canio (initially because of the Paul Alcock pushover and since January because of his cut-price £1.7m move to West Ham) the Owls have won 12 and lost 24 of 45 matches.

"From my point of view, what happened with Paolo and Beni is history," Wilson said, clearly irked by the subject. "But in Paolo's case what was our misfortune, in losing a player for a fraction of the value he should have been worth on the open market, has been another club's gain. West Ham have got a quality player cheaply. Obviously, we feel a bit aggrieved about that, but it was something we could not control. It was either let him go for the pittance that we did or get nothing whatsoever."

For £3m, Wilson has acquired a foreign body of considerable talent in De Bilde. The summer signing from PSV Eindhoven scored the two second-half goals that earned Wednesday a point in their last match, a 2-2 draw at home to Watford, and was on target for Belgium in their 3-1 win against Italy in Lecce last weekend. But if Wilson thought his troubles with overseas players were over he had reason to think again on Tuesday afternoon. Officers from Sheffield Council's Animal Inspection Unit revealed that they are to interview De Bilde about allegations that he flouted quarantine laws by bringing two dogs and a cat to England. The offence carries a maximum penalty of two years in prison.

Wednesday are already in the doghouse with their supporters, many of whom have been calling for the resignation of Richards. Wilson has been assured that his job is safe, though he acknowledges these are less than secure times for Wednesday. "What we need most of all is stability," he said, "not just this season but over a five-year period. Sometimes in football you have got to take a step backward to take two forward and if that is the bottom line at the end of the season - whether I'm still here or not - I hope the club will come back stronger because of it.

"But I honestly feel we are still in a good position to get ourselves out of trouble. You might not get good odds at the bookies but you would in my household."

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