SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY will this week look to secure the return of striker Gary Hooper to spearhead their Premier League promotion challenge.
The 27-year-old forward capped off his three-month loan from Norwich City with two goals to beat Leeds United in Saturday’s Yorkshire derby at Hillsborough.
Victory pushed Wednesday - who have won all four games at the start of 2016 - into the Championship play-offs.
Hooper’s six goals in his last six games for Wednesday have been key, but the striker returned to parent club Norwich City yesterday after his loan expired.
The Canaries are understood to want £3.5m for the former Celtic forward, but matching his Premier League wages could be a stumbling block. Owls boss Carlos Carvalhal is eager to re-sign Hooper, having already tied down five other players who have helped Wednesday break into the top six.
Last week Jack Hunt, Glenn Loovens, Barry Bannan, Sam Hutchinson and Atdhe Nuhiu all penned long-term deals
Now Wednesday owner Dejphon Chansiri – head coach Carvalhal does not get involved in contract matters – will turn his attentions to securing the return of Hooper, before Saturday’s trip to Reading.
Carvalhal said: “He was my first choice since the beginning and I’m sure he’s happy here.
“He’s scoring goals because he’s enjoying the way we’re playing.
“We win games without Gary, we win games without Fernando (Forestieri), we win games without (Barry) Bannan.
“Of course, if you said to me if I want Hooper, Fernando, Bannan, I’d prefer them all to stay, we’d be stronger. These are my wishes, but the negotiation part is out of my hands. I’m an optimist about the situation because the player likes to be here and enjoys the way that we play.”
Saturday’s derby win means the Owls trail second-placed Hull City – 6-0 winners over Charlton on Saturday – by eight points, with 19 games remaining.
Their success has been forged on an impressive Hillsborough record, unbeaten in their last 13 home games, since defeat by Middlesbrough in August 2015.
Midfielder Hutchinson believes the Owls’ passing style suits the vast Hillsborough pitch, and is the reason behind their change in fortunes at home.
“(Hillsborough) it’s a fortress,” said the former Chelsea midfielder. “Before we started the season, I think that was one of the plans that Carlos brought in.
“The fans have helped, and we have a style of play that helps playing on a bigger pitch. We like to move the ball quickly, there’s more space at Hillsborough, so teams struggle to deal with how we play.
“I don’t think we have played as well as we did before Christmas, but we have won. That’s a sign of us getting stronger. I think we can play better, but we are still winning games. We are grinding results out at the moment.”
That was when Hooper twice pounced, to punish Leeds for not taking their first-half chances.
The game ended in controversy when a United ‘goal’ was chalked off, after referee Anthony Taylor allowed United to take a free-kick despite Wednesday being in the middle of making a substitution.
Owls striker Fernando Forestieri was being given a standing ovation by home fans in the 23,909 crowd, walking towards the dug-outs, when Liam Cooper netted. The official ordered the set-piece to be retaken, after realising his gaffe when consulting with the fourth official.
The decision left United boss Steve Evans seething.
“The free-kick is given, the referee signals that he’s going to allow a substitution,” said Evans. “Forestieri got his deckchair out and took four days to come off. The referee in my opinion overruled that and said we’ll restart play. He clearly whistled to restart play. I’ve been to see him and he accepts that. He shouts to my players ‘play’. We score, he gives the goal.
“He says in law he’s got it right because it should be disallowed. I’ve never seen that, ever.
“He’s a Premier League referee who’s stepped down to take charge of a big derby. He should be with the Under-9s on a park pitch in his next game because you cannot make a mistake of that magnitude.
“I can pallet Wednesday taking advantage of our two mistakes. I can’t pallet our goal being chalked off today. ”