Four vital strides Darren Moore and Sheffield Wednesday must take if they’re to win all-important play-off promotion
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And if – and though the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against them it is still a case of ‘if’ – Sheffield Wednesday are to enter the play-offs this season, the Owls must improve on the bulk of their performances over the past six weeks to secure a 12th promotion in their history.
As has been a point laboured by onlookers, particularly since midweek wins for those above squeezed further breath out of the automatic promotion scrap, club records and vast improvements on the last campaign will butter few parsnips if they are not to secure promotion at Wembley on May 29.
Darren Moore’s stance after a 2-1 comeback win over Exeter City on Saturday – at least publicly – was one of relaxed calm, as has become clear is his modus operandi in close to 26 months in the Hillsborough hotseat. Privately, he’ll know strides will have to be made over the next couple of weeks.
Moore, his staff and players got back to business this week on making those necessary tweaks and improvements needed to better either Bolton Wanderers, Derby County or Peterborough United at the semi-final stage. Barnsley are the other side assured of a place in the post-season foursome.
A trip to Shrewsbury Town arrives on Saturday before Hillsborough plays host to a Derby side that may well be fighting for their place in that quartet and with two points needed to secure third place, there are a number of things Wednesday will be looking to do.
Prime Josh Windass – and everyone else
Of the injured cohort Josh Windass is the one looking most likely to play some part in the final push for Championship status. What a player he would be to get back.
The 29-year-old was a central figure in the successes Wednesday have enjoyed this season and his absence has torn a sense of spontaneity, movement and most of all pace from a re-jigged carousel of forward options whose vast skillsets lie elsewhere.
Much has been made of George Byers’ keenly-felt absence but it is Windass’ ability to link midfield and defence, to drag defenders this way and that and his ability to steal something from nothing that has perhaps been the bigger blow since he hobbled off against Bolton five weeks back. That’s not to mention a goal threat that has produced 23 goal contributions this season.
The task now is to ensure he is primed and ready to go. Though he was coming off a much more serious injury run in the last campaign, time was stacked against them as he and Barry Bannan battled back in time for Sunderland and for all their effort and heart across the two legs, it told.
There is more time to consider the priming of the former Rangers man this time out, with two matches to help facilitate his raising of match fitness. It must be carefully considered, such is his importance.
Rest altogether this weekend? Stage things up with a brace of substitute appearances? That’s for the data and Wednesday’s army of medical staff to advise – as in the case of defender Michael Ihiekwe, who made his return from the bench on Saturday.
There’s no doubt the return of Josh Windass – and a fully primed Ihiekwe – would be a monumental boost.
Stonewall the defence
“It's concentration for me. It's not happened all season, our first time contacts have been good, but it's the lapses in concentration.
“To find that answer right now, we'd all be a genius with it. Only at the time, in the arena, can the individuals tell you what is happening at that time from their viewpoint. That's not been us. We felt we'd addressed those first time contacts with the personnel this season.”
Those were the words of Moore after a 3-2 defeat at Burton Albion. Individual errors in defence again contributed to concessions in wins over Bristol Rovers and against Exeter City since.
And the Owls boss is right. The defence that not long ago was the best in the division has allowed sloppiness to creep in. How does a squad go about cutting those out?
They must find a way. As Wednesday found out to their detriment last season, play-offs are more often than not tight, cagey clashes that can be decided on defensive errors.
A match-fit Ihiekwe can help, you’d think. It’s long overdue they tighten-up.
Inject confidence – and get their swagger back
These next two matches are worth so much more than a training exercise for those coming back from injury. With third place in their grip and midweek outings in the rearview mirror, Moore can utilise the full breadth of his available squad to ensure his players have adequate recuperation time to come hard at the play-offs.
For an outfit that has laboured through a wham-bang fixture schedule in recent weeks, an eight-day gap between semi-finals is an advantage, you’d think, over the four-day whirlwind of last season.
But most important is that they win the two remaining league games and re-discover their swagger in performance. While top teams were rarely blown to pieces in that long unbeaten run, there was a chest-out know-how to Wednesday and the way they went about things that has leaked from their body language in more recent times.
The Owls must use the ball better. There’s little doubt the absence of Windass has had them going more direct and questions have been asked of that way of thinking, but Moore has himself expressed frustration at an over-eagerness in possession.
More quality and more surety is required and can be built in the coming fortnight.
Lift the mood
Sheffield Wednesday’s greatest asset – by some distance – is its fanbase. And on occasions such as the play-offs, there are few you’d rather have behind your players. Hillsborough is something special when it’s bustling and bouncing.
The pain and disappointment of missing out on automatic promotion is not a last day affair and though the feeling is that raw, positive performances and most important of all two wins can inject even more life into the club and transform frustration into excitement heading into four – and maybe five – crucial matches.
The fans will do their bit. It’s up to Moore, his staff and his players to do theirs.