There was to be no belated birthday present for Carlos Carvalhal.
Although the charismatic Portuguese boss can take plenty of heart from Wednesday’s encouraging performance against Derby County, the team’s wait for a win over a top-six side goes on.
For the Owls, there is currently no team more troublesome in English football than the Rams. It has been nine long, painful years since Wednesday triumphed over Derby. Indeed, the Rams have now not tasted defeat on their last eight trips to Hillsborough and are unbeaten in the last 15 meetings.
Sunday’s televised clash was the fifth time the Owls have fired blanks in their last six matches on home soil versus Derby. The Rams really are Wednesday’s bogey side.
But Carvalhal’s men, boasting six changes from the side who lost at Stoke City last week, produced their most complete team display since stunning Premier League giants Arsenal in October. His patched up side competed well against a side who had won 10 of their previous 13 Championship fixtures and richly deserved their point.
Carvalhal, who celebrated his 50th birthday on Friday, said: “We lost two points. I’m not happy about the score because I think we deserved to win but I am absolutely happy with the quality of the game and what we did. We played better than the opponent.
“I am not saying we are better than Derby but today I think we had more quality on the pitch. I am very happy about the spirit and vibe of the team. We are together.”
The former Sporting Lisbon and Besiktas chief shuffled his pack, recalling Keiren Westwood, Liam Palmer, Daniel Pudil, Alex Lopez, Barry Bannan and Fernando Forestieri. Out dropped Joe Wildsmith, Jack Hunt, Rhoys Wiggins, Tom Lees, Modou Sougou and Gary Hooper.
Some of the alterations were part of Carvalhal’s squad rotation policy but Hunt and Lees missed out due to calf and hamstring injuries respectively, culminating in Carvalhal rejigging his back four. Versatile player Sam Hutchinson, who collected his 11th caution of the campaign, filled in at centre-back and delivered an assured performance to help the Owls keep their first clean sheet in over a month.
“Sam played there when he was at Chelsea,” said Carvalhal. “He did absolutely fantastic. He has similar characteristics to Tom Lees. He is quick, very good in the air and aggressive.
“Glenn Loovens was good too so I am happy about that.”
After a cagey opening, Wednesday created the first meaningful opportunity when Palmer, named the man of the match, burst down the right flank and whipped in a teasing centre into the penalty area which narrowly evaded Lucas Joao.
Ross Wallace then forced Lee Grant, a late replacement for Scott Carson, into action, seeing his spectacular 25-yard volley acrobatically tipped over by the Owls old boy after neat build up play involving Joao and Palmer. Despite some enterprising, attractive football, it was Wednesday’s only shot on target.
On an emotional afternoon, both sets of fans stood up in the 18th minute to join in a mass round of applause to mark the life of Wednesdayite Caroline Everest, who died last month. Everest, aged 18, died on a night out in Sheffield city centre last month. Westwood and Lopez also honoured the memory of the teenager by joining in with the clapping.
Wednesday stifled Derby, who have made their best start to a league season in 67 years, restricting them to few sights at goal.
George Thorne, their conductor in the middle of the park, summed up the Rams’ frustration, picking up the first of six yellow cards after scything down Forestieri.
The majority of the Owls’ efforts came from distance, with Derby keeping them, for the most part, at arms length. Bannan, back after a three-match lay-off due to a knee problem, fired over after winning a header on half-way before Forestieri also failed to trouble Grant.
The Rams’ much vaunted forwards received little service and struggled to impose their will. Chris Martin cut a frustrated figure up front. In front of the Sky cameras, Paul Clement’s side struggled to cope with the intensity and tempo of Wednesday’s play.
Things got a little bit spicy and threatened to get out of control just after the half hour mark when Lopez, making his first start since September 19, clattered Johnson on the half-way line.
“We showed good quality and played with full energy in the first half,” said Carvalhal. “We deserved to be leading.”
You got the impression Derby would raise their game after the re-start and Bradley Johnson, who bagged a double against the Owls when on Norwich’s books last season, glanced Jacob Butterfield’s inviting set piece over.
Although Derby were much better, they did not have things all their own way and Pudil dragged wide when well-placed after Joao and Lee had created havoc.
Mid-way through the second half, the Rams finally tested the reflexes of Westwood, with Johnson’s left foot drive from outside the penalty area easily turned away.
Wednesday enjoyed plenty of possession but found Derby hard to break down in the final third. Wallace cut in from the right and unleashed a rasping shot which flew agonisingly over as they pressed hard for the breakthrough.
With 10 minutes left, Carvalhal’s charges survived a big scare after Westwood was adjudged to have handled Loovens’ back pass. Referee Graham Scott awarded an indirect free-kick which substitute Johnny Russell squared to Johnson, who rifled a powerful shot straight onto the crossbar.
Loovens nearly atoned for his earlier error in the dying minutes, climbing above the outstanding Jason Shackell to send a downward header narrowly wide as the Owls missed an opportunity to break into the top-six.
It seems only fitting to let the birthday boy have the final say on this goalless draw.
Carvalhal said: “Derby are the strongest team in the Championship but we did very well.”
Owls: Westwood 7; Palmer 7, Hutchinson 7, Loovens 7, Pudil 7; Wallace 8, Lee 7, Lopez 7, Bannan 7; Forestieri 7, Joao 7 (Hooper 76). Substitutes: Wildsmith, Semedo, Nuhiu, McGugan, Wiggins, Sougou.
Derby: Grant 7; Christie 7, Keogh 8, Shackell 8, Warnock 6 (Baird 63, 6); Butterfield 6, Thorne 6, Johnson 7; Ince 6 (Russell 63, 6), Martin 6, Weimann 6 (Bent 76). Substitutes: Mitchell, Hendrick, Pearce, Shotton.
Referee: Graham Scott (Oxfordshire).