Dom Howson’s Sheffield Wednesday column: Owls can take a leaf out of promoted Brighton’s book

Steven Fletcher

Steven Fletcher

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Emotions are, understandably, running high at S6 after Wednesday’s heartbreaking play-off semi-final defeat to Huddersfield Town.

It took a penalty shootout to separate the two Yorkshire clubs and the Terriers held their nerve to book a trip to Wembley.

Huddersfield were worthy winners, shading the tie over two legs. Things looked ominous for the visitors when Steven Fletcher headed the Owls in front of a vociferous S6.

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But Wednesday let slip their advantage. The hosts fell into the trap of trying to defend their lead too early and the Terriers punished them.

Fletcher, a good focal point in the attack, was inexplicably substituted just after the hour mark. He was a handful in the air and gave Huddersfield’s defence plenty to think about. It was a baffling decision to take him off.

Wednesday have an array of attacking talent, but Carlos Carvalhal’s men badly missed Gary Hooper in the final third. The striker was bang in form before he picked up his latest hamstring injury. His ability to link the midfield and attack was integral to the Owls’ strong end to the regular season. Hooper would have added an extra dimension.

It also didn’t help Wednesday that Ross Wallace was forced off early on in midweek. The wide man’s experience, direct style of play and quality from dead ball situations would have been handy in such a do-or-die clash.

But take nothing away from Huddersfield. The best team won.

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Carvalhal said: “We are devastated but we must keep our focus as a club and continue the progress we have made over the last two years. Even though we are disappointed, we must be proud. Sheffield Wednesday are now a team that fights for promotion.”

Now the Owls have to pick themselves up and go again. Wednesday’s squad does not need major surgery. They finished fourth in the table, seven points better off than the 2015/16 campaign, for a reason.

Their recruitment drive has to be better. It was telling that only Fletcher started of the 2016/17 recruits in the second leg - and even he might not have played from the start had Hooper been available for selection. Wednesday have bolstered their squad but upgrades to the starting eleven are required.

The Owls should look to follow Brighton and Hove Albion’s example. The Seagulls have been remarkably consistent in recent years, reaching the play-off semi-finals in 2013, 2014 and 2016.Twelve months ago, Middlesbrough narrowly pipped Brighton to automatic promotion.

The deflating promotion near-misses made Brighton even stronger and they finally had their happy ending, securing promotion to the top-flight this April. Wednesday can take a leaf out of the Seagulls book and target the top-two positions.

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