Football has a habit of turning the form-book upside down and surprising people.
The odds were heavily stacked against Sheffield Wednesday prevailing at Middlesbrough on Saturday. In seven previous attempts, the Owls had never won at the Riverside Stadium, losing on six occasions.
Momentum was with Boro as they finished last season strongly, recording six wins from their last eight league matches, and have started in a positive fashion this time around.
Many pundits fancy Middlesbrough to be competing in the upper reaches of the Championship come next May. The Teeside club have spent millions of pounds on bolstering their squad over the summer, bringing in players such as Kike and Adam Clayton.
But given Wednesday kicked off the campaign with victory at Brighton and Hove Albion before successive Hillsborough draws against Derby County and Millwall, you certainly couldn’t call it a home banker for Boro. Nonetheless, a lot of observers expected Aitor Karanka’s multicultural squad to claim maximum points.
The Owls, however, enjoy proving people wrong and deservedly became the third team in the league to triumph at the Riverside in 2014. Victory extended their unbeaten run to five matches and sealed Wednesday’s first win at Boro since 1991.
Wednesday’s good early form is in stark contrast to last year when it took them 13 matches - until November 2 - to claim a three-point haul.
Owls boss Stuart Gray said: “All you can ask for is players to deliver eight or nine out of 10 performances. You can maybe carry one or two but we aren’t carrying anyone. They are all at it, which is fantastic.”
The final scoreline hugely flattered Boro as the Owls dominated. Without Sam Hutchinson’s steel and Kieran Lee’s creativity, there were fears the Owls would find it hard to get a foothold in midfield. But Giles Coke, brought in for Hutchinson, who failed a fitness test, and Jose Semedo were imperious in the centre.
Atdhe Nuhiu and Stevie May will hog the headlines for scoring the goals but Coke and Semedo laid down the foundations for their away success. Coke can count himself unlucky not to get on the scoresheet as Wednesday pressed for a fourth in the final quarter of a thrilling contest.
The early goal settled Wednesday down. Nuhiu beat goalkeeper Tomas Mejias, who looked uncertain under the high ball all match, in an aerial duel after Tom Lees headed on Jacques Maghoma’s corner and the big striker eventually scrambled the ball in from close range after Kike failed to clear the danger on the goalline.
Middlesbrough’s build-up play was slow, predictable and lacked penetration. Their wide players, Albert Adomah and Adam Reach, really struggled to get in behind Wednesday’s well-organised back four.
Reach tested the reflexes of Keiren Westwood after one of Boro’s better attacking moves before Grant Leadbitter clipped the crossbar with a free-kick.
You did wonder if May’s wait for a goal would go on after Mejias brilliantly tipped his low shot on to the post after a lovely flowing move on the left involving Nuhiu and Maghoma.
But the 21-year-old was not to be denied and his first goal in English football was a thing of beauty. He raced on to Nuhiu’s neat downward header and coolly lifted the ball over Mejias. It was no more than he and Wednesday deserved after a dominant first-half showing.
“Stevie is a good, natural goalscorer and you could see why I brought him in,” said Gray. “He gambled on a flick-on. He anticipated and read it well and he’s got the ability to lob it over the keeper.
“He will get goals and sniff opportunities. His work ethic is fantastic. I don’t think he gave their back four any respite at all. It was a great finish. The calmness he showed to lob it over the keeper was fantastic.”
Wednesday were so on top that Gray’s opposite number, Aitor Karanka, elected to make a personnel and tactical change at half-time. He brought on Clayton and switched to a 3-5-2 formation.
The change made Boro, who were booed off at the interval, marginally more competitive but Nuhiu tightened the Owls’ grip on proceedings when he powered in a third, nodding home Maghoma’s well-flighted free-kick. Set-plays are vital at any level and Wednesday’s last four goals have all come from dead-ball situations.
Gray said: “I’m delighted for Attey with his two goals. He’s a wonderful lad. He’s got the ability to take the ball in and bring players in. Sometimes he has two people around him and that creates space for others. He got his breaks against Boro.
“The goals will be great for his confidence. The pleasing thing is we are supplying him.”
When Middlesbrough found the odd gap in Wednesday’s defence, Keiren Westwood stood firm, diving to his right to turn Kike’s low shot behind for a corner.
They were given a lifeline in the 72nd minute when referee Phil Dowd awarded them a penalty after Loovens clumsily tripped Kike. Leadbitter kept his cool to send Westwood the wrong way.
Boro left themselves wide open to the counter-attack as they committed more bodies forward and the Owls almost punished them through Coke, whose header struck the right-hand upright after a lovely delivery by May. Gary Madine, a replacement for Nuhiu, saw his follow-up effort brilliantly saved by Mejias.
Gray had no complaints over the first spot-kick but disagreed with Dowd’s decision to penalise Loovens for handball in added on time as the centre-half charged down Leadbitter’s effort.
He said: “The first one was definitely a penalty but I’m disappointed with the second. It hit Glenn in the midriff. I don’t know why Phil Dowd gave it.
“It was a bit nervy in the last few seconds but we thoroughly deserved the win. We controlled the game.
“We looked like we could pick them off at will. They changed their tactics at half-time and went to three at the back but they didn’t cause us any problems.
“The atmosphere in the dressing room and team spirit in the camp is fantastic. That result will give us fantastic confidence.”
Karanka described Boro’s display as the “worst” of his tenure but he paid tribute to Wednesday, tipping them to challenge towards the top end of the league.
“They are a very good, organised team,” he said. “The manager is good and very experienced. They are going to be a team who fight for the highest positions.”
Wednesday sit in sixth position, having collected eight points, and, on Saturday’s evidence, will carry on winning many more admirers and matches.