MICHAIL ANTONIO may have celebrated his 24th birthday last Friday, but the Sheffield Wednesday winger is awaiting the present he craves the most.
Namely his cherished return to competitive action with the Owls, with the former Reading speed merchant desperate to end a miserable injury-hit campaign with a welcome flourish.
The Londoner has seen more of the club’s treatment room at their Middlewood training ground than he would care to remember over the past year. While it’s not exactly being a total write-off, it has been one to consign to the back of his mind and forget.
Separate groin, knee and ankle injuries have sidelined Antonio since March of last year, clipping the wings of the flier and robbing the Owls of arguably their most potent weapon when at his best.
But while Wednesday fans have yet to see anything like Antonio’s best this season, head coach Stuart Gray is hoping he can provide the spark to ignite a testing run to the end of the season – and finish a fraught campaign with a bang.
Antonio, top-scorer for the Owls last term, returned to training this week after recovering from his latest setback when he damaged ankle ligaments in the White Rose derby win at Huddersfield Town on February 22, which turned out to be more serious than first thought.
Gray will assess Antonio ahead of tomorrow night’s televised clash with champions-elect Leicester City – with the player anxious to get back into action.
Gray said: “His season has been so stop-start and he has so much enthusiasm and adrenaline running that he is desperate to get out there. He has been a big, big loss.
“We just need freshening up a little bit and hopefully Antonio can come in and give us that little spark we want
“In the game against Huddersfield when he picked up his injury, we just felt it was a contact and it would be just a day or so. But it has been much longer and we have been frustrated and he has because we want our better players on the pitch.
“He is lacking match sharpness, but has been training for four days fully with no reaction. Again, it’s that intensity he has to get up to.
“But he’s a naturally fit boy anyway and one thing I do know is that he will be a big asset for us.”
Dead rubbers may be frequent this time of the footballing season for sides not in immediate relegation danger or challenging near the business end of the table, but live issues are at stake for hundreds of players across the land.
While Antonio’s brief is to end a largely bereft season on an uplifting note, for veteran Owls midfielder David Prutton, it’s about potentially earning a long-term deal at new employers, with his contract up in June and the former Leeds player expected to leave for pastures new.
The 32-year-old left the Owls to join Coventry City on loan for the rest of the season ahead of the emergency loan deadline at 5pm last Thursday, with Gray giving him every chance to put himself in the shop window to boost his chances ahead of the summer stampede for players.
Gray, who says midfield enforcer Sam Hutchinson is ‘touch and go’ for tomorrow’s clash at the Kingpower Stadium, said: “Prutts was out a long time with injury and needed that sharpness and I have a few centre midfielders who can play that role.
“Rather than stuck here twiddling his thumbs, I thought he’d be better off playing football.
“He wants to put himself in the shop window and like any footballer, he wants to train Monday to Friday and play on a Saturday.
“I can’t guarantee him games and we had a couple of clubs enquire about him and at the end of the day, it was Prutts’s decision. I wasn’t trying to force him out,” he said.
Gray was otherwise engaged last Saturday, a prior appointment at his son’s wedding in Brighton – an agreement put in place when he joined the club as a coach under former Owls boss Dave Jones in December 2012.
In his absence, Wednesday were on the wrong end of a heavy 4-1 home defeat to Watford, representing the only downer on a special day for the father-of-the-groom.
Gray, who received updates of the scores from Hillsborough during the wedding reception -–which started at 2.45pm – later watched a recording sent to him of the game and admits that the viewing represented a shock to the system.
Gray, who professed to be unsure whether his absence was a factor in the defeat, with the team prepared fully before he left, said: “I had people showing me the signs of the score and what time it was and things, so I knew what the results were and then watched it after the game with the analysts who sent it to me.
“I was just shocked to see us concede four goals in the manner we did.
“We had two or three players, who have been our strength defensively, who were a bit disappointing on the day. The goals we conceded were disappointing, although we had chances.”