IT IS common practice in football to put defeat quickly out of the mind and move onto the next game – but Sheffield Wednesday have had 10 days to dwell on their loss to Bolton Wanderers.
It was a reverse that not only halted their gathering momentum, but one that served as a reality check on their growing promotion ambitions.
Three wins beforehand had hoisted the Owls from lower mid-table into the fringes of the play-off picture.
Suddenly, a meandering season had been given real purpose as Wednesday moved to within four points of the top six.
But after conceding two early goals on a cut-up pitch, and seeing a man sent off and a late ‘equaliser’ controversially ruled out, the optimism was quickly sucked out of Hillsborough.
With no fixture on Saturday due to their third-round FA Cup exit at the start of the month – when they led champions Manchester City away but fell to a dramatic late goal – Stuart Gray and his men have had a long time to let the wounds of the Bolton defeat fester.
The memories of what might have been coloured their thoughts at their Middlewood training base yesterday as the Owls looked ahead to tonight’s visit of Birmingham City.
“We lost because of our ourselves, and this is a chance to put it right,” said Atdhe Nuhiu, who described the defeat as a “mistake” but not a “scandal”.
“The most important thing is we want to get over that Bolton disappointment,” offered Gray, who has seen that four-point deficit to the top six extend to 10 since they kicked off against Bolton.
“We were definitely robbed of an equalising goal, but we’ve got to get on with it and we’ve got to accept it and put in a professional performance against Birmingham.
“The most important thing is we’re in touching distance, but what we can’t do is let that gap become too big, because we’re at the business end of the season when you’ve got to put points on in threes.
“This Championship is so wide open. Who’d have thought Bournemouth would have been beaten at Leeds? Three of the top four teams have been beaten recently.
“Nobody’s pulling away, nobody’s romping it, so you look at the distance between the top and sixth position and the gap isn’t huge, it’s just a case of putting a consistent run together.”
That one defeat to Bolton encapsulates just how difficult it is for a team to make up a points deficit at this stage of the season.
Wednesday lost no ground in terms of position, but they fell so far off the pace points-wise that they have to win two games just to have any chance of hauling back the six points lost.
Still, it is a far better predicament than 12 months ago, when – with Gray having finally been given the job on a permanent basis after an impressive but lengthy audition – staving off relegation was the order of the day.
A sign of how far they have come, Gray believes, is the fact that two of his star players – Keiren Westwood and Tom Lees – are attracting interest from Premier League clubs in the final days of the January transfer window.
Gray said no enquiries had been made about a goalkeeper and a defender who have proven lynchpins in Wednesday’s solid campaign.
“I don’t worry about what might happen,” said Gray. “The one good thing is I’m being asked that question, that means they must be playing well and that we’re doing well.
“This time last year nobody would have been asking those questions so it just shows how far we have come as a football club.”
The acquisition of Westwood and Lees on free transfers are two of the shrewdest pieces of business Gray has conducted in his time at Hillsborough.
He hopes the next is the loan signing of Manchester United striker Will Keane, a talented 22-year-old who is set to debut tonight.
“Technically he’s very gifted and he’s decided to get off his backside and come and ply his trade for Sheffield Wednesday,” said Gray, of a striker who found goals hard to come by in previous loan spells at QPR and Wigan.
“He’s been getting over a serious injury, but he’s ready now. He will get goals for us and he’ll create goals and he’s got that winning mentality.
“We’re giving him an opportunity to come here and get his career going; Connor Wickham did it and Ross Barkley before that. The same for Will and Lewis Baker (on loan from Chelsea).”
Gray added that he is still hopeful of bringing Watford’s Lewis McGugan back to the club on loan and confirmed that there had been interest from Blackpool in Chris Kirkland, but that he wants the goalkeeper to stay for now.
Last six games: Sheffield Wednesday LWWLWL; Birmingham City LWWWDL.
Referee: T Kettle (Leicestershire).
Last time: Sheffield Wednesday 4 Birmingham City 1; March 15, 2014; Championship.