MICHAIL ANTONIO knows what it is like to score at Wembley in a cup final, but the Sheffield Wednesday winger is aiming for targets closer to home.
As the Owls prepare to meet Charlton Athletic today – standing just 180 minutes from a possible FA Cup semi-final date at Wembley – Antonio is happy just to be back playing.
The 23-year-old former Reading winger entered something of a twilight zone at Hillsborough when he injured his knee in the 2-1 home defeat to Huddersfield Town on November 23.
When he made his return to first-team duty – apart from a brief New Year’s Day comeback which saw him break down injured again – in last weekend’s 2-0 win at Reading, everything had changed.
He departed with Dave Jones managing a struggling Owls side destined for relegation, only to return two months later with Stuart Gray the new head coach and on an 11-game unbeaten run.
Now, after two substitute appearances, Antonio is pushing for a starting role today and even looking to retain the top goalscorer status he achieved last season.
Connor Wickham leads the way with eight goals but, having returned to parent club Sunderland, Chris Maguire is in the driving seat with six.
Antonio only has three strikes to his name, but with at least 18 more games remaining this season – more if they do not lose today – the winger has thrown down the gauntlet.
“Last season, I managed to finish top goal scorer. Now it’s Connor, with eight, ahead but I am looking to be top again,” said Antonio.
“Chris (Maguire) is in the lead. Connor has gone so I can’t really compete with him, but I am looking to come back and take it.
“In football, when you get opportunities you do need to take them. Like on Tuesday, against Wigan, we had two great opportunities where Benik (Afobe) and Atdhe (Nuhiu) both went through, but they both missed.
“Twenty seconds later, Wigan got one opportunity and scored. The amazing thing was that in the first half they had one opportunity but managed to get two goals. One was from a corner where the ball went straight in and the other was a great finish by Nicky Maynard.”
Antonio’s previous Wembley appearance came in the 2010 JP Trophy final while on loan at Southampton. He scored in a 4-1 win over Carlisle United and it is a moment the winger treasures.
“Playing at Wembley was amazing, there were 74,000 people there,” he recalled. “The noise was amazing, the pitch, just the whole experience.
“For us to win, and for me to get a goal was amazing.
“I cannot forget the goal. It runs through my head constantly.
“Ricky Lambert headed it on, I ran in behind, chested it down and left-foot volleyed it into the bottom corner.”
A goal today against Charlton might not achieve the same nostalgia value, but it would seal Antonio’s comeback after two frustrating months sidelined.
“I have come through quite well, I have not had any reaction,” he said. “I have not felt it at all, so I am feeling positive.
“It’s been difficult, no one wants to be injured. You get back thinking you’re well and then do it again. It’s frustrating, mentally, too, but now I am back and, hopefully, I can stay fit.
“Every footballer wants to be involved. There would be days when I was in the gym, on the bike, and I would see the boys training. I just wanted to be out there.
“You know in the end you will be there, it’s just the waiting.
“Since I have been out the team has picked up and it is looking very positive. We have managed to put a little gap between us and the relegation zone. We don’t need to look back anymore, we just need to look forward.”
Antonio’s return came at former club Reading and he showed he had lost none of his flamboyant skills with some showboating with the Owls leading 2-0. Antonio beat three Reading defenders several times while retaining the ball near the corner flag.
“I don’t even know what was going through my head at the time, we were 2-0 up,” he smiled. “It was just a bit of banter really.
“I had to leave something there. I didn’t manage to start the game, or get a goal, so I had to leave something to make sure they remembered me.”
After overcoming potential banana skins in beating Macclesfield and Rochdale in earlier rounds, Wednesday have a chance of reaching the quarter-finals for the first time since 1997.
Antonio said: “It would be a massive achievement. I have been to Wembley once and, hopefully, can go there again.
“I have never been in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, neither has the gaffer, or any of the boys except for (Glenn) Loovens, who managed to get to a final.”
Asked if the Owls’ centre-half –who was in the Cardiff City team which beat Barnsley and reached the FA Cup final in 2008 – had mentioned that achievement in the dressing room, Antonio smiled: “Yes, loads of times.
“He’s been there, had that experience, so you take as much advice as you can get.
“You could say we have had the easier draws with lower league teams, but those (kind of) teams have beaten Premier League and Championship teams.
“Anything can happen. We could have gone there and lost, but we managed to stay professional and get the victories.”
Wednesday’s Cup progress has coincided with Gray’s appointment as Jones’s successor and Antonio revealed the players are enjoying a more relaxed dressing-room atmosphere.
“I look at performances in 2014 and we are third in the league,” he said. “There’s a confidence in the squad, we all believe in each other and feel we have the ability to do wonders in this league.
“I liked Dave Jones, but since he has gone and Stuart Gray has picked up, everything has just clicked. Everything is more relaxed.
“People like Chris Maguire have been starting games and getting goals, doing wonders with a fresh start.”
Owls boss Gray yesterday completed a hat-trick of loan signings, who are eligible to play in today’s Cup game.
With on-loan Adedeji Oshilaja cup-tied, Gray agreed a deal with Chelsea defender Sam Hutchinson on a month’s contract .
Joining midfielder Gary Gardner – who signed earlier in the week from Aston Villa – and Hutchinson is Blackburn Rovers striker Leon Best, who has had two previous loan spells at Wednesday.