Pleat whets Wednesday

Stephen Brenkley meets the manager of the moment, whose Owls are off to a flyer
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The Independent Online
From the side of the training pitch the manager of the Premier League's leading club studied his players. David Pleat watched their every move intently and it was almost possible to see him making the mental notes which he would shortly transcribe for their edification. He played every ball and received every pass.

Another middle-aged man was more directly involved running the practice match. This was Peter Shreeves, the club's coach, who like Pleat is a former manager of Spurs. Between them Pleat, at the start of his second season, and the newly arrived Shreeves have guided Sheffield Wednesday to the top of the richest league in the world. After just three matches this is not success on the grand scale even for fans of today's quick- fix mentality.

Still, Wednesday's opening salvo has been the more surprising because it has contained away wins at Leeds and, almost heretically considering the cash they have spent in a game ruled by the stuff, at Newcastle United. Played three, won three was not necessarily a refrain Pleat can have expected to be reciting to himself once he had taken his first look at the fixture list. But, careful as he is, he must think that played four, won four is imminently possible after Leicester City's visit to Hillsborough tomorrow.

"I wouldn't say we have turned anything round yet," he said. "We have got a better spirit. People are now respectful towards each other and certain others have, should we say, left the playing field. And without going into too many tactics, we have changed things. We are doing things differently in the way we play."

Whatever the secret of this is, it was hardly tantamount to saying that Wednesday will sustain their early pace. Pleat knows they will not. Reluctant already to be seen as leaders at this embryonic stage, he called Wednesday's start a base on which to build.

"I'm not going to be cynical and muse on what might have happened had we lost the first three," he said uncynically. However, it should not be assumed from Pleat's attitude - which is nothing more than the realism of a man steeped in the vagaries of a changing game - that Wednesday's place is a happy accident. Last season Wednesday flirted with relegation closely enough almost to consummate the affair on the final day.

During the summer Pleat changed his entire coaching staff. Those brought in included Ricky Hill, the most successful individual playing product of Pleat's early managerial days at Luton, and the specialist goalkeeping coach, Martin Hodge. Most crucially, Shreeves also came. They make an odd sort of pairing in these flash, brash days. They are both over 50 and look it with the gentlest hint of paunches, but Pleat is insistent that they can get through to players.

"We're both young at heart though I'm not saying I know what their tastes in music are any more," he said. "Peter is a coach who knows the mentality of the experienced footballer. Deep down they're good decent people but the game today makes it all selfish and self-centred. He's also important because he's relaxed. Some would say I'm intense. Well maybe, but Peter can calm me down. If we lose two home games on the trot now and that's seen as a disaster he'll simply say it was probably bound to happen."

While Shreeves conducted practice and Pleat's role appeared more peripheral last Friday, the manager was always ready to bounce in with his ideas, singling out a player here, another one there, to let them know what he thought. Both of these middle-aged footballing men spoke, it was noticeable, in measured, unexcitable tones.

"Oh, I can shout," said Pleat. "But I try not to because you tend to end up shouting at the same people, the ones who can take the hammerings; that's not right. I wouldn't say that players are good listeners but it's important not to talk above their heads or get too technical with them."

Pleat was almost alone among Premiership managers in the summer in seeking new players from the lower English divisions instead of the continent. Four came from unsung teams and he is already confident that they will adjust to their new surroundings. Since then he has been to Holland to bring back Orlando Trustfull and has another pounds 5m to spend immediately. The twinkle toes of Regi Blinker, his pounds 1m signing from Feyenoord in March, have proved how astute a buyer Pleat can be. But he is building for the future, too, determined to fight against what he regards as a selfish game. At Wednesday he is trying to build for the future.

"Too many buy just for today and there's no sensible long-term strategy in that," he said. "With all this television money around, the temptation is all the greater."

Pleat took the Wednesday job after his second spell at Luton - still the club closest to his heart - because he wanted one more go at the big time. He is one of those managers to whom the big time should be kind. "I must be off," he said, and dashed off to watch some more of the leading club in the land.

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