Three points, a clean sheet, a new striker signed up and a very early contender for Goal of the Season.
As opening day matches go, Sheffield Wednesday’s trip to Brighton and Hove Albion could not have gone much better.
Stuart Gray’s side produced a disciplined, professional away performance. Every part of the team functioned well.
Centre-back Tom Lees was outstanding in his first Wednesday outing alongside skipper Glenn Loovens, Sam Hutchinson starred in the middle of the park and Atdhe Nuhiu put in a hard-working shift up front.
Giles Coke’s stunning strike was undoubtedly worthy of settling a tight contest. His left foot made the sweetest of connections with the ball and his 25-yard effort looped over Brighton debutant David Stockdale, flying into the top right-hand corner of the net.
It was Coke’s first goal since the draw at Millwall last January.
He told The Star: “It is probably the best goal of my career. I scored a good one for Mansfield against Shrewsbury a few years ago but I think this one edges it.”
The midfielder ran the entire length of the pitch to celebrate with the Owls fans.
“The fans pay their money to come and watch us and Brighton is not a short journey but we had nearly 3,000 fans there,” he said.
“When you score a goal like I did, your emotions sometimes get the better of you and I was just really, really happy so wanted to celebrate with them.”
Coke’s sublime finish didn’t surprise Wednesday head coach Stuart Gray.
He said: “Giles has a goal in him and it was such a good hit.
“Full credit to him because that wasn’t an easy strike to direct where he put it.”
Credit must go to Wednesday for making a team who have reached the Championship play-offs in each of the last two seasons look very ordinary.
Gray’s players knew their jobs, nullified Brighton’s threats, executing the game-plan with militarylike precision.
Keiren Westwood smothered Kazenga LuaLua’s goalbound strike before Coke’s opener and the lively Seagulls winger dragged a left -oot shot narrowly wide on the stroke of half-time.
Andrews Crofts dismissal in the 50th minute for a dangerous tackle on Hutchinson made the task marginally easier and the Owls maintained their concentration levels and composure to seal a memorable away triumph.
Coke said: “It was a brilliant team performance. We are delighted to put in a great performance as Brighton is a tough place to go.
“We’ve got a brilliant team spirit and the boys want to work hard for each other. We’ve got no bad eggs or anything here. We had a brilliant pre-season and it looks like it is paying off.”
Gray felt referee James Linington made the right decision to brandish the red card to Crofts.
“I think the referee did a very good job, took his time and got it right,” he said. “I work with Sam every day and if he stays down, you know he’s been caught.
“I was pleased Sam got up because it did look a nasty challenge.
“But I don’t think the red card made any difference to the result because we controlled the game before it and we controlled the game after it as well.
“Every player gave an eight or nine out of 10 display, but they’ve set their standards now and we can’t drop below that.”
Brighton’s best spell in the contest came after they had been reduced to 10 men. Westwood, preferred in between the sticks to Chris Kirkland, pulled off great save to keep out Chris O’Grady’s right-foot drive in the 70th minute.
The Republic of Ireland international tipped the former Owls striker’s shot around the post. The resulting corner led to Inigo Calderon lashing in a low cross to the six-yard box but Lees brilliantly spotted the danger and cleared the ball to safety.
Gray said: “It was difficult choosing between Keiren and Chris but that’s why I’m in this job. I pick a team to win a game.
“I’ve got Keiren and Chris scrapping for a place so the competition is healthy in that area.
“Keiren didn’t have a lot to do in the game but he showed his quality by making a fantastic save.”
One minor criticism which could be levelled at Gray’s team is that they failed to test Stockdale enough, especially when the visitors had the extra man.
Jacques Maghoma broke clean away down the left flank but his cross evaded everyone in the centre with the Seagulls defence at full stretch while Kieran Lee’s centre narrowly missed the diving Coke in the centre.
The arrival of Stevie May, a prolific marksman with St Johnstone, considerably bolsters Wednesday’s forward line. Gray will be banking on the Scotland Under-21 international, who will train with his new teammates for the first time today, to regularly get into the positions to convert these chances.
Coke said: “I think Stevie’s a really good addition to the squad. He has scored a lot of goals. He’s young and hungry. We are all really excited and can’t wait to meet him.”
Things are starting to looking up for the Owls after a frustrating summer due to the delay in Hafiz Mammadov’s takeover. Coke insists the squad are taking little notice of the off-the-field troubles.
“It’s nothing really to do with us,” he said. “We don’t know anything that is going on. We just do our talking on the pitch.
“Whether it happens or not, it doesn’t really affect us. It’s for the chairman and the board to deal with that.”
It was at the 14th time of asking Wednesday won a match last season. The team went ahead on a number of occasions only to let the opposition off the hook. The pressure eventually told on Dave Jones as the side had to wait until November to claim maximum points.
Victory over Brighton gives them the Owls a nice platform to build on. Roll on a Hillsborough triple-header!
Stuart Gray: “It was a team performance. People probably didn’t give us any chance. But I work with these lads Monday to Friday so I know what they will give me. If we fail, fail on ability and not application. It was nothing more than we deserved, though, because I thought we were excellent all over the park. We controlled the game and maybe we could have won more comfortably. But if you’d have given me a 1-0 win at Brighton on the opening day with a clean sheet, I’d have snatched your hand off. It’s a great start and now we have to build on it.”
Sami Hyypia: “We played okay and are on the right path. I liked the effort of everyone on the pitch, although the red card didn’t make it easier. There are 46 games in the Championship and I’m not happy we lost as every match is very important.”