Two wins from three for Owls caretaker

Owls Connor Wickham strikes home his free kick for three vital points
Owls Connor Wickham strikes home his free kick for three vital points
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No wonder Milan Mandaric was smiling when he left Vicarage Road.

What more could a chairman want?

He had seen a first clean sheet and first away of the season and had his faith in Stuart Gray justified again.

Gray once more proved himself capable of running the show while Mandaric takes his time over a longer-term managerial appointment , and the caretaker boss strengthened his own claim for the job.

The result and the team’s performance mean that Gray’s selection and tactics worked.

He made three changes to the side hat started against Forest, leaving out Seyi Olofinjana, Atdhe Nuhiu and Joe Mattock, and bringing in Reda Johnson, Jeremy Helan and Stephen McPhail, while changing from 4-4-2 to 4-5-1 for the demands of an away game against pacy opposition.

The aim may have been to make use of the pace of Reda and Helan, and try to gain from McPhail some of the creativity that was missing in the Forest game, while having the solidity of three central midfielders.

The slight surprise was a rather more advanced, central role for Kieran Lee than anyone may have expected; Lee’s energy and positional play were put to good use here instead of in his normal spot on the right flank.

The Owls were set up to be hard to beat, and quick on the break, with Helan and Jacques Maghoma on the wings and Connor Wickham the sole central striker.

As it turned out, it was more of a defensive job than anything else, for the whole team, but they still take credit for organisation, effort and determination, they passed the ball constructively when possible, and won with a top-quality strike.

Gray said: “I don’t think it was a smash and grab, I think we held our own with Watford as well, and deserved the win.”

Watford raids were sporadic, rather than being a continual danger. Inevitably they were going to have chances, but their finish could not match the way Wickham put away his terrific free kick, which he smashed home from 25 yards to give Wednesday a vital edge in the 24th minute.

Maybe it could have been 2-0 seven mintes after that. My instinct when Nyron Nosworthy brought down Maghoma inside the box was that it was perhaps an unfair tackle from behind, but I was too far away to be sure.

Gray, a lot closer, said: “I thought it was a nailed on penalty. The lads did, It wasn’t just Jacques appealing - is was six or seven of them. We didn’t get that break. We haven’t had a penalty all season, despite many appeals. That’s the next thing we need to have.”

Wednesday had some close calls: left back Marco Cassetti put a free header from a corner over the bar in the 20th minute; speed merchant Ikechi Anya had an equaliser rubbed out for offside, and Damian Martinez did his bit in the last minute of the first half, when he beat away a shot from midfielder Sean and kept out the follow-up from Anya.

In the second half, Wednesday did not really threaten Watford’s goal except for good balls played across the box by Reda Johnson and Helan, but the home side found the Owls hard to break down and struggled to make chances.

Zola brought on Fernando Forestieri, who scored both goals in the Hornet’s 2-1 fightback win last season - but this time he missed the target when he was put through in the last of five added minutes.

Gray acknowledged that Glenn Loovens and Roger Johnson formed a defensive bedrock: “When the ball comes into the box, they’re willing to get a few stitches for you.

“What I mean by that is they put their heads in where it hurts. They complement each other; they read each other’s game. When Watford did breach the back four, Emmi (Martinez) was there to make a couple of saves. I was delighted to get the clean sheet.”

Was it a good time to play Watford?, he was asked: “We just felt that if we could start brightly and keep the crowd quiet....they hadn’t won in four home games. It was a case of starting with the right intensity and putting them on the back foot, and I thought we did that well.”

On the game plan, he commented: “We decided to put Kieran Lee just behind Connor; I swapped Kieran and Jacques Maghoma at times to give support to Connor. Kieran and Jacques did it very well.

“Watford have pace to burn, Anya got in a couple of times in the first half. We addressed that at half time, felt he’d got in a bit too easily”

Wickham naturally takes the plaudits as well, and not just for his strength and talent in games. Says Gray: “He puts the shift in on the training ground. He practises that free kick. It’s a lesson for any younger player coming into the game. You have to put the effort in to get better.

“He was playing against two very experienced centre halves, Nosworthy and Hall, and held his own. His ball retention was good, and he ran himself into the ground.”

Gray feels he has benefited from being able to pick Loovens and Lee, who were not available to Dave Jones: “You know you’re going to get seven or eight out of 10 from them every week. It helps us.

“It’s just a matter of keeping up confidence around the place and the belief that we can do it.

“You know you’re going to have a bit of luck or a bit of form. The thing that disappoints me at the moment is I wish I was talking about seven points from the three games. We thoroughly deserved a point against Forest, which was probably a better performance. But this, as a team performance, was fantastic.”