MIGUEL Llera has expressed his gratitude to manager Stuart Gray for saving his Sheffield Wednesday career after falling largely out of favour under predecessor Dave Jones.
The Spanish centre-half will be at the heart of the Owls’ rearguard again tonight as they host Championship high-fliers Derby County.
It will be his fifth consecutive game and, given he played just seven times all season before Jones was sacked at the start of December, it is proving an encouraging run.
Under new head coach Gray’s guidance they had enjoyed an 11-game unbeaten run before losing 3-0 at home to Wigan a week ago.
That renaissance has lifted the South Yorkshire club away from the relegation zone and Llera has, undoubtedly, played his part.
The veteran defender is equally pleased given he was told, by Jones, he could leave Hillsborough last summer, just weeks after signing a new one-year deal.
Llera says Gray has instilled greater confidence in the Owls’ players to ignite their campaign and they have plenty of belief they can quickly return to winning ways this evening even though Derby are chasing promotion.
“The main difference is the confidence in the players,” he said.
“A lot of players didn’t play too much at the beginning of the season, but are now giving magnificent performances.
“Each player feels more important with Stuart coming along.
“I was one of those players struggling in the first part of the season. For me, it was so hard because after signing the gaffer then invited me to leave the club in the last week of the transfer window.
“I was a little bit disappointed as, after signing for one year more, one and a half months later I was invited to do that.
“I decided to play for the team. I think I did well last season and if this club is in the Championship it’s because I’d done well then. People forget what you do too quickly.
“The next six months was pretty hard for me, but now I have the chance to be playing consistently and just try to do my best and play as much as possible to try and get a new deal again.
“I was always waiting and training well, though. Now, with Stuart, I’m playing a little bit more and I can thank him but it’s because I’ve trained hard – he’s not given me anything for free.”
Despite the importance of tonight’s game it is impossible to talk to anyone in Sheffield footballing circles at the moment without mentioning a potential Steel City FA Cup quarter-final tie being on the horizon.
If they defeat Charlton Athletic – one of Llera’s former clubs – next Monday night they will head to Bramall Lane next month with the rivals meeting in the famous competition for the first time since 1993 when the Owls won 2-1 at Wembley before losing to Arsenal in the final.
However, the 34-year-old insisted: “It’s wrong if we are thinking about the derby. I understand everyone getting excited and, of course, we want to get there for the fans and the city as it will be good to get a derby in the FA Cup.
“But we’ve got three games to get through to do that and the most important is Derby (tonight).
“Then we’ll think about Huddersfield on Saturday and then, for the right to that derby, we have to beat Charlton on Monday.
“If we think about it now we’ll struggle in all three. But it’s more for the fans and media than us; nobody in the changing room is thinking about that.
“If we want to arrive at that game then we need to be playing well (today) and Saturday first.
“The last two months have been magnificent for us. We’re now away from the relegation zone, but we need to keep that going and make that gap between us and the bottom even bigger.
“The most important thing for this club is playing in the Championship next season.”
Wednesday, currently 17th, nine points above Charlton in the relegation zone, are acutely aware they have to get back to winning ways quickly after seeing their unbeaten run ruthlessly ended.
That sequence started with a win over current leaders Leicester and recently included a 2-0 success at high-flying Reading.
“We have to now think about 12 games unbeaten,” said Llera, who joined from Blackpool in 2011.
“Our desire is to get points and if we can beat a side like Reading away like we did then we know we can win on Tuesday.
“For us, the 11-game run served to improve confidence. We can play face-to-face against the team at the top of the league and know we can do that against Derby.
“We realise it will be difficult as they are one of the best teams and already compete like a team with a magnificent goalkeeper and two very good centre-backs.
“It will be a very tight game for us, but we’re looking forward to it.”
Defender Lewis Buxton – out since the loss at Blackpool that cost Jones his job – returned to full training yesterday.
Last six games: Sheffield Wednesday DWDWWL, Derby County LWDWDW.
Last time: Sheffield Wednesday 2 Derby County 2; February 9, 2013; Championship.
Referee: Darren Bond (Lancashire).
Sheffield Wednesday’s home fixture with Queens Park Rangers has been rearranged for Tuesday, March 18 (7.45).