Away from home against the Championship’s elite, Sheffield Wednesday rarely disappoint.
Their track record under Carlos Carvalhal speaks volumes.
En route to securing a second successive top-six finish last season, the Owls produced a tactical masterclass at Huddersfield Town last October and again at Newcastle United on Boxing Day.
If they had been more decisive in both boxes, Wednesday could easily have triumphed on the road against Reading and Brighton and Hove Albion too.
Only a late Scott Malone strike at Craven Cottage denied them all three points on their previous visit to West London.
It is pretty rare the Owls don’t turn up and perform when they go head to head with the division’s big boys.
And away assignments don’t come much tougher than Fulham. Slavisa Jokanovic’s men are a technically accomplished side packed full of elegant, gifted footballers. Teen starlet Ryan Sessegnon is destined for big things, Tom Cairney is a quality midfield operator and Sone Aluko is a big threat with his pace and power.
Wednesday rode their luck a little in the first half at Craven Cottage on Saturday. After Gary Hooper headed over David Jones’ cross, Aluko (2). Stefan Johansen and Kevin McDonald wasted opportunities to put Fulham ahead.
The Cottagers lacked a cutting edge in front of goal and the Owls improved their offensive play after the break. It was left to Steven Fletcher’s to deliver capital punishment in the 64th minute after a lovely, free-flowing move.
Jokanovic said: “We played against one of the most experienced teams in the Championship, who know how to compete at this level.”
It was no surprise Barry Bannan played a major role in Fletcher’s winner. His job changed as Wednesday ditched the midfield diamond and reverted to an orthodox 4-4-2 formation but he was a real driving force once again in the centre. He freed Adam Reach down the left and the utility ace expertly pulled the ball back for Fletcher to sweetly volley home left-footed into the bottom corner. A cracking finish following great build-up play.
Fletcher said: “I just remember Adam getting played down the line. I was screaming for the cut back but he actually didn’t hear me! He just thought it was the right ball. I caught it sweet on the volley.
“It felt nice when it came off my foot so I knew it was going to be close to hitting the back of the net.”
Fletcher, one of three changes made by Carvalhal, grew in stature as the contest wore on. The striker headed narrowly wide in the first period and had a goal chalked off for offside in the second after David Button turned away Bannan’s rasping low drive. After getting on the scoresheet, Fletcher could have grabbed a second to give Wednesday some much-needed breathing space but was foiled at close range by Button.
Sessegnon dragged wide when well-placed and substitute Neeskens Kebano forced Keiren Westwood into a decent stop at his near post but Fulham found the Owls compact and difficult to break down. Daniel Pudil, deputising at centre-back for the injured Glenn Loovens, put in an assured display and left-back Morgan Fox acquitted himself well on his first outing this term.
Fletcher said: “We know our quality. We know we can give any team in this league a game if we play to our best ability.
“We played very well. They [Fulham] overload the middle of the park and at the start it got to us but the gaffer then switched it up and we took the game to them and we had the best chances.”
Jokanovic felt Fulham created the better opportunities. He possibly might have had a point, but Wednesday took the one that mattered.
It is no coincidence the Owls have won their last seven matches in all competitions when Hooper and Fletcher have been paired together up front. There is a great chemistry between the two.
Hooper is an intelligent player. He likes to drop deep to link the midfield and attack, which opens up the space for Fletcher to exploit.
“We have a good friendship off the field and that does help,” said Fletcher, who has notched seven goals in his last 11 outings. “We have a good understanding with each other.
“Gary is a great, underrated player. You don’t really understand his qualities until you actually see him in training and games. He’s brilliant for us so it is a pleasure to play with him.”
THREE CRUCIAL POINTS
Some wins are bigger than others and beating a top side such as Fulham, who qualified for the play-offs last time around, ought to lift everybody connected with Wednesday. The Cottagers are a strong team and will be challenging in the upper echelons of the league but the Owls got the better of them.
It was a disciplined, professional, solid away performance. Given Wednesday fielded a makeshift back four, Carvalhal should be delighted the side recorded a clean sheet. Westwood made only one save of real note. His defence and midfield gave him good protection.
Fletcher said: “We know if we don’t concede we will score goals. It’s a tough league this year, especially with the teams who came down. They want to bounce straight back up. It will be tough for the automatics and play-offs so we will just keep our heads down, work hard and get points on the board.”
Was it perfect? No. Are there more gears the Owls can go up? Absolutely. There is still more to come from the team but that’s four unbeaten now.
And Wednesday will be happy there is another two more away days to come this week.