Sheffield Wednesday v Watford: Joe Mattock is hoping to finally kick-start his Sheffield Wednesday career after a disappointing two-year stay at Hillsborough.
The 23-year-old arrived at newly-promoted Wednesday in 2012 on a free transfer after leaving West Bromwich Albion with a rich pedigree.
The Baggies paid £1.2m for the left-back from home-town club Leicester City but the England youth international has struggled at Hillsborough.
Mattock played just 10 games last season, but since Stuart Gray succeeded Dave Jones as manager, the defender has been given his chance with regular left-back Reda Johnson sidelined through injury.
Niggling injuries have also plagued Mattock but after returning for Tuesday’s 1-0 win over Brighton – the fourth successive Hillsborough victory for Wednesday – the left-back hopes he can play the final eight games of the season and boost his chances of a prominent role next season under Gray.
“It’s been a tough couple of years,” admitted Mattock. “I have been saying to friends and family I just want to see the rest of the season out playing all the games.
“I enjoy it here. It’s been tough, but, at the same time, I have enjoyed it. It’s been eventful.
“Last year when we avoided the drop was good and this year we had a bad start, but now we are playing well it feels a lot better,” said Mattock, who is contracted to the Owls until 2015.
Mattock, who is competing for the left-back spot with Johnson and Frenchman Jeremy Helan, revealed he has been forced to take more care of his body to stay match-fit.
“Let’s hope the injuries are behind me,” he said. “It’s been little niggles because I haven’t played a good run of games in the last couple of years and when I do play a few games it’s tough on my legs.
“I just have to keep looking after myself. It’s more maintenance, keep checking in with the physics, getting massages, ice baths.
“When I was a bit younger I wasn’t so bothered about getting in ice baths, that sort of stuff, but now I have to do all that and keep my body right.
“The competition works. We have Reda and Jeremy, who has done terrific and has some good left-back attributes, and that pushes me on.”
For a team which won just once in their opening 17 games – the Owls were six points adrift of safety when Gray took over in December – Wednesday are close to safety with 48 points.
And while nobody at Hillsborough will admit to being safe just yet – Peterborough were relegated with 54 points last year in a freak season – Mattock is finally enjoying life at the in-form Owls.
“It wasn’t nice in the bad spell, but we have really kicked on,” he said. “It just felt like everything went against us and we couldn’t do anything about it.
“We had to dig deep and sometimes that’s what you have to do. Results started to go our own way.
“Now we are playing really well, very positively, and a lot of chances are being created. Hopefully, we can keep that up.
“We want teams coming to Hillsborough, wary that we are going to come out on top.
“We are not definitely safe yet. There’s a big gap, but you can never say never. We just need to focus on playing well. Getting beyond 50 points would be a positive sign.”
It is a safety-first approach which is echoed by head coach Gray, who points to the unpredictable Championship, where relegation-threatened Barnsley beat Reading away and Yeovil held high-flying Leicester City in midweek.
While the play-offs are virtually out of reach, Gray wants Wednesday to target finishing as Yorkshire’s highest-placed club in the Football League.
“There’s 24 more points to play for. I don’t want the players to become complacent,” said Gray.
“On the back of a disappointing start to the season, when you think where we were – one win 17 games – we have to get as high up the league as possible.
“There’s also Yorkshire bragging rights. The only team above us from Yorkshire is Hull City. One day we can get past them, that’s all our dreams.
“The challenge for the players now is stay in the team. If you don’t play well, you are out of the team. You want that competition.”
After agreeing long-term deals with Caolan Lavery and Liam Palmer in the last week, Gray hopes he can blood some of Wednesday’s promising youngsters – like Jack Stobbs and Taylor McKenzie – once Championship safety is secured.
“I would love to be able to sit here now and say that in certain games I can bring in the youngsters to give them some valuable experience,” said Gray. “That’s why we are letting players go out on loan.
“I think the Under-21 football is okay but they are all playing the same age group and need to be playing Saturday afternoon, when it means something, crowds turning up and putting a bit of pressure on.
“Players like Liam Palmer at Tranmere, Caolan Lavery going to Plymouth, they get valuable experience and come back better players,” said Gray, who refused to single out any upcoming prospects.
“I don’t want to put pressure on any individual players but I am a hands-on guy who sees training every day, see the Under-18s and Under-21s play, so I know who is knocking on the door.
“It’s a big step up but it would be nice whether it’s sat on the bench, coming off the bench to gain experience, or even travelling away for an overnight stay to see what’s needed.
“It’s just part of their development of their careers.”
Gray hopes some of the Middlewood Road youngsters can stake their claim for a first-team squad place and save him money in the summer recruitment drive.
“We are looking at areas we can recruit and fill and just hoping that maybe we have got some of the those players in-house,” he said.
“Once we are mathematically safe, maybe I can try one or two.”