Given the Herculean performance the Owls produced at the Etihad Stadium which yielded little reward, you could understand why Stuart Gray thought tiredness might be a factor against Nottingham Forest.
He has not got one of the biggest squads to choose from in the Championship. Loan stars Royston Drenthe and Lewis McGugan have recently returned to their parent clubs and half a dozen players have been out of action due to injury.
You could have even excused the squad if they had become ever so slightly distracted by the takeover talks off the pitch this week.
But the final scoreline at the City Ground was never in doubt once Wednesday midfielder Kieran Lee put the visitors ahead on the stroke of half-time. Gray’s men brushed aside a Forest side short on confidence and self-belief, delivering arguably their best display of the season. If Owls’ finishing had been better in the second half, they could have really embarrassed Forest.
It was undeniably a good time for Wednesday to take on Forest. Boss Stuart Pearce is under increasing pressure to turnaround their slump in fortunes following a woeful run of just two wins from their previous 19 matches. They are missing several top performers, including Chris Cohen and Andy Reid, but they are still hugely under-performing given the talent they boast in their ranks.
Forest will always hold a special place in Gray’s heart. They gave him his first break in football at the tender age of 17. He said it felt a “little strange” inflicting a fourth straight defeat on his old club.
Gray is also close friends with Pearce and his assistant. Steve Wigley. Pearce is now having to fend off questions regarding his job.
“I felt for Stuart in the technical area, but he doesn’t need me to stick up for him; he’s big enough to stick up for himself,” he said. “The pressure comes with the job.
“Forest have got good players. They are just lacking a little bit of confidence. They probably aren’t getting the breaks at the moment but they came up against a very good goalkeeper and defence.”
In contrast to Forest, Wednesday are maximising their resources to the full. So many individuals are in good form and are working incredibly hard collectively to push the team up the table.
Gray has got it tactically right so many times on the road this season. Away from Hillsborough, the Owls are so compact and well organised. They pressed and harried Forest into submission early on, forcing them into mistakes, before hitting them on the counter-attack.
He admitted: “We look a good side. We look very solid, difficult to break down but we are scoring goals as well.”
When Keiren Westwood was occasionally called upon, he stepped up and bailed Wednesday out of trouble. In a pretty dour first period, the Republic of Ireland international pulled off a fine save to deny Robert Tesche from close range.
That proved to be a critical moment as Forest switched off just before the interval. Stevie May raced in behind Forest left-back Eric Lichaj and whipped in a great cross which Atdhe Nuhiu should have converted. The big striker’s header was blocked on the line debutant Todd Kane but Lee scrambled in the loose ball.
“Credit to the boys; it was probably a bit of a dull first half,” said Gray. “It looked like it was going to be 0-0 at half-time but we hit them on the counter-attack. The goal gave us a bit of lift and set back them.”
Things got even better for the Owls five minutes after the re-start when Chris Maguire pounced on a poor clearance by Jack Hobbs to drill a left foot shot out of Dorus De Vries’ reach.
Gray said: “We didn’t want to give them a sniff. I wanted us to get on the front foot. Everybody was at it. We put them on the back foot.
“Chris’s composure in front of goal was fantastic.”
Had it not been for de Dries and some wayward shooting, the Owls would have triumphed by a far bigger margin. The goalkeeper, making his first league start of the season, had to be alert to foil May and Maguire.
Forest were second best as Jacques Maghoma’s drive deflected wide before Atdhe Nuhiu steered a fierce volley inches off target.
When things are going your way, you tend to get the rub of the green with decisions. Seven minutes after Westwood acrobatically tipped former Owl Michail Antonio’s looping header away from goal, Forest had a strong penalty appeal turned down when top scorer Britt Assombalonga appeared to be barged over by Claude Dielna. It was a similar incident to the spot-kick Dielna conceded at Fulham. Fortunately for the Owls, referee Andy D’Urso was unmoved and waved play on. If Forest had pulled one back at that stage, it could have been a very tense last half hour.
Nuhiu will still be wondering how he failed to add to his seven goals after missing a great chance in the dying minutes while at the other end, Westwood maintained his concentration levels to push Forest substitute Jamie Paterson’s rasping shot to ensure Wednesday recorded a 14th clean sheet.
Gray, who will not be offering a deal to Dutch trialist Guyon Fernandez, said: “We defend from the front. Attey and Stevie set the tone. They run themselves
into the ground and chase everything.
“When Forest did get through, they had to get past Keiren who pulled off two good saves.
“It’s a team effort. Everyone works hard for each other.
“They know in that dressing room if they don’t give 100 per cent we will fall down.
“It’s about having a settled back four. I think the only change we’ve had to make is at left-back. I looked at Forest and they’ve not had a settled back four and switched their goalkeepers around. You are always in the game if you keep a clean sheet.”
Victory moved Wednesday to within four points of the play-off positions and sealed their first win at the City Ground since 2001.
While disappointed at the Owls’ lack of ruthlessness in the final third, Gray was delighted the team claimed a fifth success in their last seven outings.
“The players deserve all the credit,” said Gray.
“We will stay under the radar.
“I’ve challenged the players to not throw all this hard work away. We have got an opportunity so let’s go grasp it.”
Forest: de Vries 7; Kane 6 (Paterson68***), Hobbs 6, Lascelles 6, Lichaj 6; Burke 5 (Gardner HT*, 6), Osborn 7, Vaughan 6, Tesche 7, Antonio 7, Assombalonga 6 (Veldwijk 68**). Substitutes: Darlow, Laing, McLaughlin, Burke.
Wednesday: Westwood 7; Palmer 8, Loovens 8, Lees 8, Dielna 7; Maguire 8 (Lavery***, 85), Semedo 8, Lee 8, Maghoma 8 (Baker 81**); Nuhiu 7, May 7 (Helan* 72). Substitutes: Kirkland, Mattock, Hutchinson, De Havilland.