When Paul Jewell announced he was leaving Wigan Athletic just twenty four hours after his side had won a last day relegation shoot-out at Sheffield United, few people criticised him. This, after all, was the man who had masterminded- with the aid of Dave Whelan of course- the club’s fairytale ascent of the Football League, and ensured they were more than just one season wonders in the Premiership, even leading the Latics to a League Cup final with Manchester United in the process. Jewell himself cited the pressures of battling relegation as one of the major factors in his decision to walk away from the JJB Stadium, although the common consensus is that he also felt he would be unable to take a club with such a limited fanbase as Wigan much further.
Jewell is a fairly popular figure in football, a regular panelist on TV and radio, and his opinions are often worth hearing. When Chris Hutchings was sacked by Wigan after just a handful of league games, Whelan admitted that Jewell was his number one target. Jewell himself seemed to welcome the idea, with sources close to him stating that he was missing being involved with football day-to-day. But the glorious return to Lancashire never materialized for whatever reason, and Jewell was eventually unveiled as the man charged with the daunting task of reviving a Derby County side that was quickly and regularly finding out just how tough the Premier League can be. Derby fans were pleased to have a very good manager at the club, but to most outsiders, it seemed a strange move on Jewell’s part.
And that doubt seems to have spread since November, Jewell’s only victory as Rams boss so far came in an FA Cup 3rd round replay on penalties against a Sheffield Wednesday side currently languishing in 21st place in the Championship, and who had been ahead both in the initial match, and the replay. In the league, he has seen his side pick up just a single point from nine matches, and they currently sit bottom of the table with a 7 points from 23 games, 13 points from safety and staring at the prospect of overtaking the Sunderland team of 2005-06 as the worst in Premier League history. As if that wasn’t bad enough, yesterday he saw his side humiliated 4-1 at home in the FA Cup by a side that sits a place lower than Sheffield Wednesday in the Championship, Preston North End. For Jewell, relegation has now become not just a reality, but a solace.
From the moment Karl Hawley was given the freedom of Pride Park to put North End ahead yesterday, there was only one side in the game. The visitors may well be in a relegation dogfight of their own, but their players played with a passion and a desire that Jewell can only dream about instilling in his own side. The Derby defence has already shipped 50 goals in the league this season, and it was easy to see why as Simon Whaley added a second, before Hawley grabbed his second on the stroke of half time. Robert Earnshaw’s first goal for the Rams since a summer move from Norwich offered the merest suggestion of a revival, but Neil Mellor’s late penalty, following the dismissal of young defender Lewin Nyatanga, condemned the home side to perhaps the most humiliating defeat of a season that has seen them ship six goals at Anfield, five at The Emirates, five at home to West Ham, and even a penalty shootout defeat at home to Blackpool in the League Cup. The boos that reverberated round Pride Park at the interval and the full time whistle may well have been directed at the players rather than the manager, but Jewell could not hide his own personal embarrassment in his post match interview, saying “I’m at a loss to explain it. I see them Monday to Friday in training and they’re totally different people. They come out on a Saturday on match day and they fall apart at the first sign of adversity”.
And yet it shouldn’t come as too great a surprise to a man who has never been one for getting ideas above his station, his side contains a lot of players that probably won’t register on most clubs’ transfer radar when their inevitable relegation is confirmed. Strikers like Earnshaw, Kenny Miller, Craig Fagan & Jon Macken are not going to keep any side up, let alone one that relies on Gary Teale & Eddie Lewis for its supply from wide areas. Whilst at the back, the likes of Claude Davis, Danny Mills, Michael Johnson, Andy Todd & Marc Edworthy are no longer, or never have been, Premier League quality. Add to that the presence of two far from reliable keepers in Steve Bywater & Lewis Price, and you have a recipe for disaster. The side leaks goals for fun, and simply cannot score enough to win games.
There are a couple of bright spots I guess. Young Giles Barnes is a talent that may well flourish next season at a lower level, or more likely bring in a few million pound from a move to a mid-table top flight side. Nyatanga is another youngster with talent, he already has picked up 17 caps for Wales, but throwing a player that until a fortnight ago was on loan at Barnsley in at the deep end was always a gamble. The temperamental Robbie Savage has been brought in, desperate times call for desperate measures indeed, along with temperamental former Newcastle winger Laurent Robert, temperamental former Leeds defender Danny Mills, temperamental Egyptian midfielder Hossam Ghaly and temperamental Argentine forward Emmanuel Villa. If it is temperament and battling spirit that Jewell wants from his players until the end of the season (which to be honest, came yesterday), he may well be left disappointed.
It will be a shame to see Jewell credited with the tag of being manager of the Worst Premier League side ever, after all, it wasn’t him who spent £7m on Earnshaw & Miller in the summer, and Derby lack the resources of some of their relegation rivals (Sunderland & Birmingham spring to mind immediately). Their former manager Billy Davies said himself that the club had been promoted at least a season too early, and more esteemed managers than Jewell would have found it impossible to keep this ramshackle side up, but as Jewell watches better jobs come and go, he may well cast his mind back to May 2007 and feel he made a hasty decision in leaving his comfort zone at Wigan.