These are tricky times at Hillsborough, though not yet desperate. It is only when the humour that sustains a football club, along with tea if not sympathy, is missing that the real trouble has arrived. Even Trevor Francis could joke after the incident when he was harassed while in his car: 'I was pleased it was Bradford City fans and not Sheffield Wednesday's'
The manager awoke last Sunday to read a story, quoting an unnamed source, that senior Wednesday players would like to see him replaced by Chris Waddle. It gathered momentum during the week, with mutterings of a 'mole' and speculation about the identity. Then came the damage to his Merc compounding the murk, and a Coca-Cola Cup match against Bradford that Wednesday squeaked through 2-1 after falling a goal behind.
'It has become an embarrassment in Sheffield,' Francis said the morning after that. 'I think we are in danger of giving all this tabloid gossip too much credence. Possibly it is a player who has left the club but then it can happen at any club. If a player is out of the team, he is bound to have a grievance. The problem is that people have now seized on the car incident and suddenly I am under fire and every story will refer to 'under-fire Trevor Francis'.'
Francis is right that any disaffected player at even the most successful club can nurture dislike for a manager; a situation neatly summed up by one in perfect supremo-speak years ago: 'There's a rat in the camp trying to throw a spanner in the works.' There is also another factor at work: big money and the high expectation it brings, so that when a rich club suffers a bad start to a season, as Wednesday have, sourness soon surfaces. Their match tomorrow night against Leeds United, themselves stuttering, thus assumes a wider significance than a spot of Yorkshire in-fighting might otherwise.
When they returned to the top division in 1991, the Wednesday board, according to Mackrell, saw the signs that a two-tier division was developing and that as a club with big-city support they ought to be on the upper level. Hillsborough was being refurbished at a cost of pounds 6m, Francis was hired to replace Ron Atkinson, and from being a selling club they became one that bought players and, more importantly, paid the wages necessary.
The total bill, in fact, has risen 50 per cent from pounds 3.6m to pounds 5.4m in three years and has yielded third place in Francis's first season, followed by seventh and seventh - the latter after a start worse even than this year - FA and League Cup final appearances and a season in European competition. 'Now, of course, people's aspirations are greater,' Mackrell said. 'You only have to read the fanzines that say 'Hang about, you've spent pounds 6.6m on Dan Petrescu, Klas Ingesson, Ian Nolan and Ian Taylor this season.' We are happy enough at the moment. If we weren't, we wouldn't have given Trevor the money to buy Ingesson recently. The last thing we are going to do is then change the manager. The new manager would say, 'I don't like this player or that one,' and then you would end up having done your money.
'The squad we have got is a top-six squad. I am not going to say we would make a change if that is not realised but there is no doubt the club has made the resources available. It's where we finish up that counts.'
It will be comfort, at least in the short term, for Francis, who has a contract until June 1996. The problems, he believes, are simple: strikers who have not yet found their touch; integrating the new players; the absence of the injured Waddle. There is a bigger one, though: solving them. Against Bradford, Wednesday patently missed a player with Waddle's wiles - the sort who separates the top from bottom tier - to unpick a frequently locked defence. Only the perceptive Petrescu threatened to do so. Ingesson may pull up some trees - he has that build - but the once-explosive David Hirst, still floundering after an absence through injury of over a year, could not have finished a good dinner.
'The football we are playing is fine,' Francis insisted. 'We are passing as well as anybody but if you look at the teams above us, they are the ones with goalscorers at the moment. David is probably trying too hard, trying to cram all the lost months into a quick period.
'I think it is to be expected that we don't quite gel in the early stages with the new players coming into it. But I had to make changes. Losing the two cup finals had a damaging effect on some players. Also I had eight players in their thrities. I had to reduce the average age. I do believe that the present group are the best we have had here, including the cup finals.'
For all the present reassurances and lightheartedness, Francis's voice does have a pained tone. 'I feel comfortable that I have done a fair, honest job,' he said. 'I must be a decent manager in the eyes of the FA because nine months ago I was interviewed about the England job.' Then he slipped in: 'I am aware that this may be my last chance.' On his mind was the 11 months at Queen's Park Rangers, when it appeared that player power forced him out. He seems uncomfortably aware of the possible parallels now with then. 'I did a lot of good things there,' he said. 'I signed Andy Sinton, David Bardsley, brought Les Ferdinand back from Turkey, but all people remember is the Martin Allen thing.' It may be a measure of a change in him that his then Michael Portillo attitude towards paternity leave became more Tony Blair when he recently allowed Ingesson to return to Sweden to be at the birth of his child.
Francis took Glenn Hoddle's point about a new breed of young managers sufficiently secure financially to implement a style of play without fear but added that pride remains a motivation. Having European experience may be more of a common denominator.
He agreed, too, that having club money to spend brings its own burdens - though having sold Carlton Palmer to tomorrow's opponents, he says he is only pounds 1.175m in debit - as Malcolm Allison and others have found out. For every Wolverhampton Wanderers there is a Derby County, and how ironic it was to see shoestring Reading - at an Elm Park that was like stepping back into, well, the Eighties - outplaying them with the outstanding passing football of their manager, Mark McGhee, in midweek. Those without money, however, will gladly trade places when injuries and suspensions bite.
Storm in a sustaining teacup or no smoke without being under fire at Wednesday? We will know a little more after tomorrow; more still if the frivolity, and most importantly the finance, dry up.
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