Sheffield Wednesday ended 64 days of Hillsborough woe as they completed a first league double over Middlesbrough since 1991.
aturday was the first time the Owls had won in their own backyard since Boxing Day, with Stuart Gray’s men finally giving the home fans something to shout about.
Quickfire second-half goals from strikers Atdhe Nuhiu and Will Keane helped Wednesday secure back-to-back Championship wins and there are plenty of reasons for Wednesdayites to be cheerful at the moment.
Victory moved Gray’s troops up to 10th as the Owls recorded a 17th clean sheet of the campaign.
Gray’s troops are, at long last, starting to find the back of the net on a consistent basis. They have scored seven goals in their last three outings.
“I knew the goals would come,” insisted Gray. “We have been creating chances. We just haven’t been taking them.
“We have scored seven goals in the last three games but we have achieved nothing. We have got to make sure we keep going.”
Wednesday have now breached Boro’s backline five times this season. Boro have, by a distance, the best defensive record in the division.
If that wasn’t all positive enough, Dejphon Chansiri’s £30 million takeover of the club is also expected to be ratified by the Football League today. The Thai businessman and outgoing chairman Milan Mandaric are set to address the media at a press conference this morning. Before Saturday’s fixture, seafood magnate Chansiri had a brief chat with Gray on the touchline and went into the dressing room to introduce himself to the first-team squad.
Gray said: “He came in and met the lads. I’m looking forward to sitting down with Mr Chansiri to discuss how to take the club forward on and off the pitch.”
Things could have been so different if Middlesbrough had been awarded a penalty in the third minute. Albert Adomah went down under a challenge by Jacques Maghoma but referee Stephen Martin turned down the winger’s appeal.
Aitor Karanka, the Boro boss, bemoaned the decision.
“The same thing happened last season here,” he said. “Last season we scored a goal at that end and then linesman saw something.
“This time, nobody saw anything when it was us, but they got a penalty in the second half.”
The first period was a scrappy affair on a battered Hillsborough surface. Keane nodded narrowly over from close range following a flick-on by Nuhiu while Adam Clayton fired wide from distance.
In the closing minutes of the half, Adam Forshaw steered a lob inches off target before Claude Dielna’s rasping volley was well gathered by Dimi Konstantopoulos.
You sensed the first goal would be crucial and Owls got their noses in front seven minutes after the interval from the penalty spot when Kenneth Omeruo was penalised for handling Palmer’s delivery while challenging Keane in the air. It looked a soft one but Nuhiu stepped up to lash in his ninth goal of the season.
The former Austrian Under-21 international produced a hard-working performance and, along with Keane, was a constant thorn in Middlesbrough’s side. It was the fourth time Nuhiu has scored against Boro.
“You want your striker to be a focal point so you can then you can build off them and that’s what Attey did,” said Gray. “He was up for the physical battle and probably won more headers against Boro than he has done in the last two or three games.
“His ball retention allowed us to sustain our attacks and play the game in their half.”
With Boro rocking, Owls went for the jugular and doubled their advantage through Keane. The Manchester United loanee bravely headed in from close range after Nuhiu’s flicked header from Lewis McGugan’s free-kick hit the right post and bounced across the six-yard box.
Gray said: “Will is technically a very, very gifted boy. He just needs to get a little more ruthless on the physical side. He’s gone from playing regular under-21s football and now he’s playing against strong men.
“It wasn’t a fluke the goal Will got. He anticipated it would come off the post and he gambled. That’s why he’s going to be a top player and is at a top club in Manchester United.
“Will has got a good footballing brain. His touch is unbelievable and it will buy him that extra second. He makes good runs, reads situations well and tends to pick out the right options. That goal will give him confidence.”
Nuhiu and Keane worked in tandem and were a handful throughout. “I asked my team to defend from the front and they set the tone,” said Gray. “I think there’s a good partnership starting to develop between Attey and Will. Attey takes all the batterings and Will reads situations and picks up the bits.”
After falling two goals behind, Boro switched from a 3-5-2 formation to a 4-2-3-1 system but Wednesday continued to carry the greater attacking threat and Keane drilled a fierce shot straight at Konstantopoulos after latching on to McGugan’s through ball.
There was a big flashpoint in the 64th minute when Owls skipper Jose Semedo was alleged to have spat at substitute Grant Leadbitter as things threatened to boil over. Tempers flared and the complaints continued at full-time. Neither Karanka, Gray or Kamil Zayatte could shed any light on the incident post-match.
On the incident involving Semedo and Leadbitter, which led to Semedo and Boro forward Lee Tomlin receiving yellow cards, Karanka said: “I can’t say anything because I don’t know what happened.
“Grant, I know him, he’s a very good lad, a very good player but if he (reacted) like that it’s because something happened. He’s a strong character but he doesn’t do anything if he doesn’t receive anything bad.”
Zayatte and Tom Lees stood out in the final quarter of the contest as Wednesday withstood the late pressure Middlesbrough put them under. The Owls got put under the cosh but they stayed firm.
A midtable finish beckons for Wednesday, but this result should give them plenty of confidence. Their next target should be to surpass the 53 points they accrued last year.
Wednesday: Westwood 7; Palmer 8, Lees 8, Zayatte 8, Dielna 7; Lee 7 (Hutchinson 57* 6), Semedo 7, McGugan 7 (Maguire 82**), Maghoma 7; Nuhiu 8, Keane 8 (May 87***). Substitutes: Kirkland, Mattock, Helan, Vermijl.
Middlesbrough: Konstantopoulos 6; Adomah 6, Kalas 7, Omeruo 5 (Leadbitter 58*, 6), Gibson 6, Husband 6; Clayton 6, Whitehead 6 (Tomlin 58**, 6), Forshaw 6 (Wildschut 71***); Bamford 6, Kike 6. Substitutes: Ripley, Friend, Nsue, Woodgate.
Manager’s view - Stuart Gray: “We’ve caused a good side problems by being in their faces and they couldn’t get into any rhythm. We won more second balls than them and stopped them playing. I’m pleased for Keiren Westwood and the back four with the clean sheet which was deserved. We need a new pitch and the good thing is Mr Chansiri’s seen the state it is in!”
Manager’s view - Aitor Karanka: “ Last Tuesday I said that against Bolton could be our worst performance (of the season) and today has been worse so it’s difficult but we have to learn from it.
I don’t want to use the pitch as an excuse because against Blackpool the pitch was worse than today. I like to play on better pitches but it’s not an excuse.”
Viewpoint: Wednesday’s best home win of the season. Atdhe Nuhiu’s 52nd-minute penalty gave them a big lift after a tight first half. The goals are starting to flow and should fancy their chances of picking up another positive result against Blackburn.
Referee watch: Stephen Martin. The Staffordshire official cautioned three players, including Semedo and Dielna. Yellow-carded Semedo and Tomlin after a second-half altercation which briefly sparked an ugly scuffle.