Work hard and we will love you.
A Sheffield Wednesday fan tweeted that to Claude Dielna shortly after the Frenchman completed his move to Hillsborough last month. Well, right now, the team’s hard graft is paying off and the results are coming.
There were heroes to be found all over the pitch against Reading as the Owls claimed their first Championship home victory since March 25. The spine of the side was excellent. Keiren Westwood starred in between the sticks, Tom Lees headed and blocked everything away, Jose Semedo kept launching himself into tackles while Stevie May was a constant pest up front.
The truth is, Stuart Gray’s men should have been behind at the interval. Glenn Murray, a transfer target for the Owls last season, some how fired wide after good play out wide by Simon Cox.
But the Crystal Palace loanee was then handed the opportunity to score from the spot just after the half hour mark after Giles Coke clumsily bundled the striker to the ground. Gray had no complaints over the decision. It was poor defending by the midfielder who got the wrong side of Murray.
Fortunately for Coke, Westwood spared his blushes, keeping out Murray’s penalty with his legs. Chants of ‘There’s only one Keiren Westwood’ reverberated around the ground.
Gray said: “Keiren has been outstanding since we got him into the building in the summer and I am fortunate to have two excellent goalkeepers. He did his job. It was a big, big save.
“Stevie May’s job is to score goals and it’s Keiren’s job is to save them. He had a good, good day.
“What I’ve got is competition for places. Keiren is in top form but I’ve got Chris who is pushing him every day in training. Chris has come in for a couple of games and kept clean sheets. It’s healthy competition and Keiren is looking over his shoulder. He knows if he doesn’t play to his best he’s got somebody who could step into his shoes and that’s what I want in every position.
“That penalty save woke all the fans up and it suddenly kicked us into gear.”
Westwood’s stop was the turning point. Even in the second period, when the Owls grew in stature, he continued to blunt Reading’s forward line, thwarting Jake Cooper and Nick Blackman. Throughout the campaign, Westwood has produced several important saves to foil the opposition.
A modest Westwood said: “People will look at the penalty but Jose Semedo has thrown his head at everything, Atdhe Nuhiu has done the same when we needed to dig in and those contributions are just as important.
“We worked hard together to keep the ball out of our goal and as a unit, I think it was a good performance.”
Referee Mark Heywood got the spot-kick decision right. However, his overall performance left a lot to be desired. There were times when it seemed the West Yorkshire official had no real grip on things and tempers threatened to boil over.
Neither boss was enamoured with Heywood’s display. Indeed, Wednesday will still be wondering how he turned down Atdhe Nuhiu and May’s strong penalty claims in the second half.
Gray said: “It’s a difficult job being a referee. I’ve got to be careful what I say. Sometimes you’ve got to let the game flow.
“I felt the 50/50 decisions didn’t seem to go our way. It was a stop start game. The fans don’t come to watch the officials. They come to watch the game.”
What Wednesday may lack in quality they make up for with sheer hard work. Nobody epitomises their insatiable work ethic more than May. The Scotland Under-21 international scurries around defenders, forcing them into errors. He earned his huge slice of good fortune on Saturday in front of nearly 30,000 supporters. His low free-kick in the 83rd minute took a big deflection to wrong-foot debutant Mikkel Andersen.
Gray said: “We went to Bolton last week and had 24 goal attempts but we didn’t get a break. Stevie May’s free-kick took a deflection and the ball ended up in the bottom corner. I thought we earned that break.
“It’s all about the team. I’ve just said to the players that they deserve that win because they gave the crowd something to shout about and that has come from the graft they have put in. We defend from the front and we have done that superbly.”
Wednesday’s defensive improvement is truly staggering this season. It took the club until mid-December to keep a clean sheet last term. They were the last team in all four divisions to record a shut-out. They already have seven this time around.
“Even at the end, the boys threw their bodies on the line,” said Gray. “It starts from the front with Stevie May and Atdhe Nuhiu.
“We have two of the hardest-working strikers in the division in Stevie and Attey and credit to them all because they deserve the rewards they are getting. Their hard work is making life a little easier for the midfield boys and the back four. I’ve got a very solid back four and a good goalkeeper.”
With Scotland boss Gordon Strachan watching in the stands, May did his chances of a senior call-up no harm at all by bagging his third goal in Owls colours.
Gray said: “Nothing beats scoring goals. It’s an unbelievable feeling especially in front of your own fans. That will Stevie a huge lift. He worked his socks off and got his little break.
“He runs himself into the ground and that’s why these fans will love him. I think Attey has turned the fans around too with his effort and commitment.”
May enjoyed opening his home account.
“It was nice to get a first home goal and win of the season,” he said. “As a team, I think we are working really hard and playing some nice football.
“Maybe not as nice today as we have done in other games, but we got the job done and that’s definitely the main aim.
“It’s nice to get goals as an added bonus but, first and foremost, we want the three points and we’ve managed to do that twice this week.
“The fans have been outstanding. They’ve been really vocal and our 12th man. It’s always nice to get a goal in front of a big crowd.”
It was a hard-fought match, admits May.
“Reading came here and put in a good performance,” he said. “They worked hard, pressed us high up the park and made it difficult for us.
“But we came out in the second half and we knew we would have a 15 to 20 minute spell when we would be on top and it was a case of making the most of it. We got a bit of fortune with the goal.”
May’s late strike took his tally to three goals in eight Owls outings since moving south of the border.
He said: “I didn’t know anyone at the club but it just felt right.
“It’s going well but it’s about continuing that now and building on it.
“Hopefully we can maintain our good form and I can pick up a few more goals.
“I’m not setting any targets. The most important thing is we keep picking up points.
“We can’t get ahead of ourselves. We can’t look too far into the future. If you get a little bit of luck, then who knows. Anything can happen.”
At the final whistle, Gray clenched his fist and punched the air in delight. His stock continues to rise with every passing match.
As Gray rightly pointed out in his post-match press conference, it is too early to talk of a promotion push. The team have made a great start but have achieved nothing yet.
One thing’s for sure. The fans are loving the football Gray’s hard-working squad are producing on a consistent basis.
Manager’s view: Stuart Gray: “It’s nice to put that one to bed because people keep saying that we haven’t won here since March 25 in the league so they’ll have to think of another question now next week!
“I just felt that the penalty save was probably the defining moment in the game. It gave us a lift and it gave the fans a lift. We seemed to then pick up a bit of momentum.
“Credit to Reading because they closed us down and pressed us. They forced errors, but the players responded.
“We started the second half very well and probably deserved the win in the end.”
Manager’s view: Nigel Adkins: “I thought we did well in the first half and kept the crowd quiet.
“I’m not sure Mikkel Andersen had a shot to save all game until the very end with a deflected shot.
“It was a good Championship fixture. We had some good chances but Keiren Westwood made some good saves. Unfortunately, he saved the penalty with his feet.
“Was it a penalty when Alex Pearce knocked the ball back and the ball struck the defender’s arm? It’s fair to say the referee had an interesting afternoon.”
Sheffield Wednesday: Westwood 8, Palmer 6, Lees 7, Loovens 6, Mattock 7; Maguire 6**, Semedo 7, Coke 6*, Maghoma 7***; Nuhiu 6, May 7. Substitutes: Hope 65* 6, Helan 77**, Dielna 90***. Not used: Buxton, Zayatte, Madine, Kirkland.
Reading: Andersen 7 Gunter 6, Pearce 7, Cooper 6, Obita 6; Blackman 7, Norwood 6 Akpan 6, Taylor; Cox 6**, Murray 6* Substitutes: Pogrebnyak 67* 5, Mackie 74** Not used: Guthrie, Edwards, Kuhl, Long, Lincoln.