From the Walking Dead to walking tall: An encouraging afternoon with Sheffield Wednesday
Delivered forlornly to a few hundred cardboard cut outs, the half-volume strain of Jeff Beck was perhaps not the tub-thumping soundtrack to a new dawn at Sheffield Wednesday that one might have hoped for.
Played between a minute’s silence for those so tragically lost in the ongoing coronavirus crisis and as players took the knee to show solidarity in the ongoing fight for racial equality, it was apologetic almost, a little bit haunting, and served as a reminder of just how unsettling a situation the world – and football – finds itself in.
A brief walk through Hillsborough itself perhaps even more so. The shops, pubs and food outlets usually bristling with the excitement of a money-making matchday stood silent, for those still closed, every passing second another inch pushed along the plank towards an unthinkable future.
And then to the stadium; to temperature checks, to masks and to team news and a warm-up; and to that new dawn for Sheffield Wednesday.
A switch in system, the one photographed on whiteboards during training sessions at the stadium over the last couple of weeks, brought new faces into the side; seven changes in total from the one that lost so spectacularly at Brentford at the beginning of March.
And for the most part, it was a switch that worked. Connor Wickham’s injury-time equaliser earned Wednesday a point, the very least they deserved from a match they had the better of for long periods.
Those who had beer glasses filled to half-way on Saturday might well focus on the moments that saw the frailties of a 3-5-2 system unlocked – one of which saw livewire Joe Lolley score what looked for a long time as if it was going to be the winner on 69 minutes – as the visitors found space in behind the attack-minded Owls wing-backs.
But on a strange, melancholy afternoon, Wednesday players seemed liberated by the break, the freshness, a return to action unshackled by the pressures of an expectant home crowd, and played some nice football.
“It was a great header,” Monk said on Wickham’s dramatic equaliser, “I thought he worked tirelessly.
“The plan was to have Connor and Jordan [Rhodes] start the game but then we obviously had Fletch and Alessio to come on, but when Fletch had to come off Connor had to complete the 90 minutes.
“He deserved his goal and I thought the whole team did. A lot of what we saw today was stuff we’d been working on, so I was really pleased, I thought we were unfortunate to not have taken the lead.
“After their goal you could see we were a bit deflated because we knew we should have been winning but you saw in the last 10 minutes it was all us, we were pushing and pushing and pushing. Even when we scored the equaliser we pushed again.
“Overall it was a pleasing performance.”
Pleasing sounds about right, encouraging more so. It was a long way from brilliant, an equally long way from Brentford.
And a huge part of that improvement is down to personnel. Monk has his critics, but the decision to instil a new way of playing in just three weeks of ‘mini pre-season’ was brave and has started brightly.
Before the suspension, throughout that foreboding, never-ending post-Christmas trudge down the Championship table, he chopped and changed in the Owls’ scramble for a return to form. But he was hamstrung. They all were. The Sheffield Wednesday squad looked and played like a cast of extras from The Walking Dead; tired, injured, soulless.
For the majority of Saturday, under the South Yorkshire sun and with the benefit of three months rest, family time and exercise bikes, they were walking tall.
The fit-again midfield trio of Barry Bannan, Kieran Lee and Massimo Luongo were largely excellent without being individually excellent, the legs of the latter two allowing Bannan to weedle his way into spaces he would more regularly find closed in in the slog of a midfield two.
The three, in the first half particularly, moved the ball more quickly and with more confidence than ever before in 2020, committing Forest players to the middle before spinning it out to the lively wing pairing of Kadeem Harris and Jacob Murphy, who revelled in empty space just metres from empty seats.
The inclusion of Rhodes was another brave move and one that few would have seen coming. While he failed to showcase the Midas touch that saw him take home the matchball at the City Ground in December, he worked hard alongside Wickham in holding up the ball and taking up useful positions as others bombed on.
Joe Wildsmith was impressive between the sticks, replacing Cameron Dawson in the first usurping of what could be a ding-dong battle for years to come, and commanded his box with huge authority, his screams echoing endlessly from stand to stand with little to drown it out.
There’s yet again the obvious question of whether Wednesday were clinical enough without Fletcher on the pitch – his 90-second cameo coming at the cost of a muscle injury – and it’s a concern Monk acknowledged. The extent of that knock is unknown and it may well be that the Scot has played his last game for the club. Fernando Forestieri, too.
But in this angry, weary world it might well be pertinent to take the vast positives out of the return to football at Hillsborough this weekend. It was hopeful, smart, encouraging.
Sheffield Wednesday are on their way. Not there, of course, but somewhere. Maybe. We’ll find out more at Bristol City.