If the managerless Owls didn’t know before they were in a relegation scrap, then they certainly do now.
Wednesday lie just six points above the drop zone after suffering a third successive home league defeat for the first time in over five years.
Strikes either side of half-time by Tom Flanagan, Lloyd Dyer and Tony Naylor ensured the Owls kicked off 2018 in miserable fashion at a rain-lashed Hillsborough.
Burton, managed by ex-Sheffield United boss Nigel Clough, outplayed, out-thought and out-fought Wednesday in every department. Clough has never lost against the Owls in a league match as a manager (W4 D5).
Some fans turned on Wednesday following their shocking, inept performance. Supporters in the North Stand chanted ‘You’re not fit to wear the shirt’ in the dying minutes of the contest. Plenty of supporters had already left the ground by that point.
“A performance and result like that is embarrassing and totally unacceptable to the football club,” admitted interim boss Lee Bullen. “I asked the players for their opinions and to be fair two or three of them stood up and completely agreed and said that under no circumstances was that acceptable for the club and group of players we have got.
“They were given the information and we knew exactly how Burton would play. Let’s give them credit. They played well and took their opportunities but our performance was unacceptable.
In an attempt to combat the hectic festive programme, Bullen rotated his squad, making four changes to the team who lost to Brentford last weekend.
Jack Hunt, Frederico Venancio, David Jones and Lucas Joao were handed first-team recalls. Sam Hutchinson (quad) was not included in the matchday squad while Liam Palmer, Daniel Pudil and Atdhe Nuhiu all dropped to the bench.
The changes failed to add a spark and Wednesday produced a lacklustre, lethargic showing.
The lack of confidence in the side was there for all to see as Burton were awarded a fifth minute penalty after Butterfield was adjudged to have brought down Will Miller, having cheaply given possession away deep inside his own half.
Striker Lucas Akins stepped up to take the spot-kick but Wildsmith, for the second home match running, saved well from 12 yards. Akins’ casual penalty lacked power and accuracy but Wildsmith dived low to his left to turn it away.
“That should have lifted the players,” said Bullen.
Tom Flanagan forced Wildsmith into action again in the 20th minute, seeing his powerful header kept out.
Joao nodded over at the back post and Jones’ dipping volley flashed agonisingly off target as the Owls briefly showed some attacking intent.
But Burton, operating on a shoe-string budget and with vastly limited resources compared to Wednesday, were the better team for long periods and deservedly went ahead courtesy of Flanagan. The midfielder fired home after gliding past several non existant challenges.
Bullen said: “The first goal is an absolute nightmare. You wouldn’t see it in the playground.
“For someone to walk 50 yards through a team without anyone laying a glove on them is completely unacceptable.”
Moments before the interval, Wednesday missed a glorious chance to level things up. Adam Reach whipped in a teasing delivery which Jordan Rhodes met with a bullet header from point blank range but it went straight at ex-Owls Stephen Bywater.
Boos rang around Hillsborough and Bullen, who gave his players a half-time blast, rejigged his defence, bringing on Pudil for captain Glenn Loovens.
And there were more jeers aimed at Wednesday’s under-performing team when the Brewers doubled their advantage in the 50th minute.
Lloyd Dyer raced on to Akins’ defence-splitting pass and expertly slotted a shot past Wildsmith. The Owls’ makeshift back four went completely awol.
Ben Turner then dragged an effort wide after linking up well with John Brayford as they pressed for a third.
Wednesday, missing an entire eleven due to injury, rallied and Rhodes’ header at the near post from Morgan Fox’s inviting centre was turned away by Bywater.
Nuhiu, a second half replacement for Butterfield, drilled a shot straight into the side-netting as the rain poured down.
The Owls adopted a direct approach and Rhodes fed Nuhiu, who’s half volley was superbly turned away by Bywater.
But Burton compounded Wednesday’s woes late on, adding a third through Naylor. He turned in Akins’ scuffed shot to spark more boos from the home faithful.
These are worrying times at S6 and the team’s confidence looks rock-bottom following a dismal run of just one victory from 10 outings. Indeed, Wednesday have not won on home soil since October 31 and failed in nine attempts to beat any of the bottom eight clubs this season.
And things could get even worse over January as the Owls’ next three Championship fixtures are against promotion-chasing Sheffield United, Cardiff City and Middlesbrough.
Bullen added: “Let’s not beat around the bush. We are six points above the relegation area and with performances like that, you can see it going that way instead of that way (a play-off push).
“Today was just so painful.”
Owls: Wildsmith; Hunt (Palmer 63), Loovens (Pudil HT), Venancio, Fox; Wallace, Butterfield (Nuhiu 52), Jones, Reach; Joao, Rhodes. Substitutes: Dawson, Matias, Baker, Abdi.
Burton: Bywater; Brayford, McFadzean, Buxton, Turner, Dyer (Sbarra 90); Miller (Allen 71), Flanagan, Murphy (Scannell 90), Naylor; Akins. Substitutes: Ripley, Akpan, Warnock, Sordell.
Referee: Darren England (Norfolk)
Star man: Adam Reach