Sheffield Wednesday feature: How Owls kids shone and star men missed out as Jos Luhukay turned August around

Matt Penney
Matt Penney

The month started with talk of star men Keiren Westwood, Fernando Forestieri and Sam Hutchinson.

It ended with relative unknowns Matt Penney and Jordan Thorniley on everyone's lips.

Jordan Thorniley

Jordan Thorniley

Much happened between Championship opening day and the start of the first international break for Sheffield Wednesday.

August was a time of change. Initial alarm gave way to optimism and by the time the Owls won at Reading on September 1 they had made their best start to a second-tier campaign since 1990.

No-one saw that coming in those fraught early stages.

Long-time No 1 Westwood was publicly declared third-choice goalkeeper by boss Jos Luhukay, former Player of the Year Hutchinson didn't settle in midfield or at centre-half, talisman Forestieri, despite scoring twice in three games, wasn't playing for the team in the manner his manager wanted.

Barry Bannan

Barry Bannan

After a 3-2 defeat at Wigan Athletic and a 1-1 home draw with Hull City, matters came to a head in a dreary passageway in a cramped corner of Griffin Park yards from where Wednesday fans had packed the two-tier away end only to see their side raise the white flag against Brentford.

Luhukay is normally unflappable but was unable to disguise his anger at the 2-0 loss while under fire from the media, pointing the finger at some of his under-performing senior men. "It isn't the defending alone," he stated. "When you see what we bring offensively, it was also nothing. Zero."

He followed up with a frank team meeting two days later and a change of approach. Youngsters like Penney and Thorniley would be given their chance, only 100 per cent effort would be accepted. Much had gone wrong, but the message was now right.

Successive 2-1 wins against Millwall, Ipswich Town and the Royals ensued. The Owls are up up to 11th, a point away from the play-off places, Penney and Thorniley are still in the side, Hutchinson and Forestieri stay benched, Westwood remains nowhere.

Goal joy for Lucas Joao

Goal joy for Lucas Joao

Tougher tests than the Lions, Tractor Boys and Reading await. Stoke City, a Premier League outfit last term and pre-season favourites to make an immediate return, provide the Hillsborough opposition when Wednesday return to action on September 15.

But you can beat only what's in front of you and nine points from a possible nine represents commendable progress. Or a good progression, if you prefer one of Luhukay's favourite phrases.

The Owls have been immeasurably boosted by two factors: the return from injury of fleet-footed Lucas Joao and the form of twinkle-toed Barry Bannan.

Striker Joao has struck three times in the last two games and his ratio of a goal every 65 minutes is better than anyone in the division while Bannan has been beyond brilliant as a midfield puller of strings. 

Jos Luhukay with Cameron Dawson

Jos Luhukay with Cameron Dawson

If the Wee Scottish Man, Bannan, scorer of that stunning volley against Millwall, signed his new three-year contract in the same way he plays, he will have controlled his pen perfectly before skipping away from the dotted line and firing his signature right into the top corner.

A switch from three centre-halves to a straight back four has also helped.

Luhukay, back pressed against the wall as he answered questions, had the look of a cornered man at Griffin Park. The discontent was building. Unlike his team that August 19 day, he came out fighting, and since then the Owls have built from their ground zero.

The boss's demeanour was very different when he was talking to reporters pitchside at the Madejski Stadium last Saturday and was informed about Wednesday's best Championship opening in 28 years. He even allowed himself a smile.

Whether the Academy kids last the course remains to be seen. Talent this callow doesn't alway remain consistent, but Thorniley looks solid and competitive in central defence and Matt Penney, the pick of the prospects so far, has hardly put a step wrong at left-back. 

Fraser Preston has been given some game-time and shown signs of real promise as an attacking midfielder while Ash Baker, called up by Wales Under-21s, is keeping the pressure on right-back Liam Palmer. 

Young keeper Cameron Dawson was picked ahead of Westwood and has done nothing to make Luhukay doubt his decision.

Last month also saw the lifting of the club's transfer embargo and a couple of deadline-day loan signings in Chelsea centre-half Michael Hector and young Spurs midfielder Josh Onomah have added to the Owls' options.

Centre-forward Gary Hooper closes in on a return from a long-term injury, with fellow striker Sam Winnall not too far behind, although repeated little setbacks in midfield man Kieran Lee's comeback are a cause for concern.

Arguably August's most important aspect, greater even than fresh deals for Bannan and Joao and the end of the block on signings, was the response to Brentford.

Midfielder Adam Reach, spared participating in the no-show when he limped out of the warm-up with a knee problem, recognises the potential significance of events in West London.

"We are probably not going to get as low again as the performance against Brentford," he acknowledged. "That just wasn't good enough. 

"What we said to each other was: 'Look, maybe we have to go back to basics a little bit and just get the wins no matter what.'"

It would be a pleasing irony if the worst day of the season also becomes the one when Wednesday began the process of lasting improvement.

Out of that calamity has come character. Playing the Potters may go a long way to showing whether Wednesday also have the class.

It's a good time to be facing a team weighed down by heavy expectation and still adjusting to a new manager and life at a lower level. They have won only once in six league attempts.

Stoke have yet to discover a way forward with Gary Rowett at the helm. 

The Owls, under Luhukay, might just have found theirs.

League stats:

P6 W3 D1 L2 F9 A9 Pts 10 Pos 11th

Players used: 20

Scorers: Lucas Joao 3, Fernando Forestieiri 2, Atdhe Nuhiu 1, Barry Bannan 1, Tom Lees 1, Adam Reach 1

Starters in every game: Cameron Dawson, Tom Lees, Joey Pelupessy, Barry Bannan