Injury-ravaged Sheffield Wednesday got one over their bogey team Derby County as Jos Luhukay secured his first Championship victory as Owls boss.
Forward Lucas Joao notched a brace to help Wednesday seal their first home league win since October 31.
Given the Owls’ depleted squad and lousy recent results, few people saw this result coming.
But Wednesday, individually and collectively, raised their game and delivered a performance full of character and resilience.
Derby, lying third in the table, threw everything at them in the final quarter but the Owls held firm.
And the three points move the Owls up to 15th and, crucially, nine points clear of the relegation zone.
It was just their second win in their past 20 meetings against Derby in all competitions. They took their chances. Derby didn’t.
Joao was the Owls’ star man but there were other heroes in blue and white. Daniel Pudil marshalled the defence superbly, youngster Sean Clare made a promising first start in midfield and Adam Reach was outstanding.
Luhukay’s team selection raised a few eyebrows. The Dutchman made half a dozen changes from the team who were held to a draw at Barnsley last weekend. He surpisingly gave a chance to Clare, who spent time on loan at League One Gillingham earlier this season. His only previous outing came as a late substitute in the Steel City derby last month.
Luhukay also freshened up his defence, midfield and attack. Glenn Loovens returned after recovering from illness while Daniel Pudil also came in after serving a one-match suspension for his red card against Birmingham City.
There were recalls too for Jack Hunt, George Boyd and Jordan Rhodes.
Despite their lofty league position, Derby posed little threat in the opening 45 minutes. Wednesday, without over a dozen players due to injury, largely dictated proceedings, producing their best half of football under Luhukay.
Clare, an attacking midfielder, did not look overrawed by the occasion and tried to make things happen. He linked up well with Joao early on before seeing his left footed strike from outside the penalty area fly wide.
Wednesday hunted in packs, pressing and harrying their illustrious opponents into submission. Their closing down was impressive and upset the Rams’ rhythm.
Reach pulled the strings in the middle of the park. The former Middlesbrough man intercepted a loose ball and drove at the Derby back line but his fierce strike flew high over the top.
Although some of their approach play was pleasing on the eye, the Rams attacks kept breaking down in the final third and it was the Owls who kept on creating the bulk of the chances.
Frederico Venancio should have done better with a header on the quarter of an hour mark after a fine corner by Reach but Scott Carson was equal to it.
But Wednesday’s pressure paid off in the 18th minute when Joao deservedly made the breakthrough. Reach’s raking crossfield pass released Hunt and the full-back intelligently squared to Joao, who drilled a right foot effort past Carson. It was Joao’s fourth goal of the campaign and lifted the mood around S6.
Derby regained their verve and poise after conceding just their third league goal of 2018 and Andreas Weimann, one of six changes, glanced Chris Baird’s pinpoint cross narrowly wide. There was a lucky reprieve for Carson at the other end in the 42nd minute when he rushed off his line to make a clearance and nearly presented Hunt with the ball but the former Owls loanee eventually snuffed out the danger.
Joao gave Wednesday some much-needed breathing room after the break, claiming his and the team’s second of the evening in emphatic fashion. The striker skipped past a defender before rifling a glorious right-footed shot into the bottom corner.
Joao’s second stirred Derby into life and one-time England international David Nugent glanced over Baird’s corner.
Matej Vydra, the leading scorer in the division, threaded a ball through for Weimann, whose stinging drive was turned away by Jow Wildsmith.
The Rams were enjoying their best spell of the contest and Wildsmith came to the Owls’ rescue again, making a smart block with his legs to foil Vydra.
Wednesday were forced to soak up plenty of pressure from Derby as Vydra, who scored from the penalty spot in the reverse fixture, grew in stature. He blazed wide when well-placed after a rapid counter attack.
It was attack versus defence late on as the Rams kept the Owls on the back foot. Wildsmith expertly tipped over Weimann’s cross-turned-shot as they laid seige to Wednesday’s goal. But the Owls weathered the storm and held on to clinch their first league win since Boxing Day.
Owls: Wildsmith; Venancio, Loovens (Thorniley 86), Pudil; Hunt (Palmer 78), Boyd, Clare, Pelupessy, Reach; Joao, Rhodes (Nuhiu 86). Substitutes: Dawson, Fox, Jones, Stobbs.
Derby: Carson; Baird, Keogh, Davies, Forsyth; Huddlestone, Ledley (Anya 73); Weimann, Vydra (Palmer 82), Johnson; Nugent (Jerome 82). Substitutes: Roos, Wisdom, Pearce, Lawrence.
Referee: David Coote (Nottinghamshire)