An avalanche of statistics indicate Stuart Gray is the architect of an early-season renaissance at Sheffield Wednesday.
Unbeaten after three successive clean sheets – it took the Owls until November last season to win a match – and taking four points from a possible six against two of last season’s Championship play-off sides, Brighton and Derby County.
Last season, the Rams took six points off Wednesday, yet on Saturday it was the hosts who were left wondering how they did not win after peppering Lee Grant’s goal with 21 shots.
Chris Maguire went closest when he thumped a free-kick against the crossbar, and Atdhe Nuhiu should have done better than fire straight at former Owl Grant in a purple patch for Wednesday before half-time.
Yet statistics can be deceiving, so the words of former England coach Steve McClaren, now in charge at Derby, will make satisfying reading for Owls supporters who have endured a summer of frustration with the club’s elongated takeover saga.
“Sheffield Wednesday are a far better team than last season, I don’t think many teams will come here and collect points,” was the verdict of McClaren, whose Rams side went so close to obtaining Premier League football only to lose in dramatic style to QPR in the play-off final.
“I think they’re tough opponents and I think, first half, we got a taste of it.
“We were on the back foot, we stopped playing football and, credit to Sheffield Wednesday, their game plan was good and they put us under pressure and they probably felt at half-time they should have gone at least one goal up.”
Striker Stevie May nearly marked his Owls debut in style, deflecting Kieran Lee’s shot goalwards only to find a relieved Grant.
Jacques Maghoma – having his best game in an Owls shirt and filling the attacking void left by Michail Antonio’s departure – was also causing Derby problems down the left.
The former Burton play-maker went close to breaking the stalemate, after good work from the tireless Nuhiu, but smashed the ball into the side-netting.
The crossbar denied Maguire before former Leeds United defender Tom Lees – who has struck an instant defensive partnership with fellow centre-back Glenn Loovens – saw his header cleared off the line by Chris Martin.
Derby looked dangerous on the break, Craig Forsyth being halted by Lees before Rams substitute Johnny Russell twice went close.
But he was thwarted both times by goalkeeper Keiren Westwood – a summer signing from Sunderland – who showed his top-flight class.
First he seemed to get his finger-tips to Russell’s low effort before a stunning block when one-on-one with the Rams substitute after he broke the offside trap.
At the other end, Owls substitute Gary Madine looked impressive in a 20-minute run-out, going close with a glancing header, and Sam Hutchinson was outstanding in midfield for the hosts with some lung-bursting runs.
But a draw was a fair result and left goalkeeper Westwood satisfied with an opening week which also saw Wednesday defeat Notts County in the Capital One Cup.
“It was a good performance and we pushed them back a lot,” said the Republic of Ireland stopper.
“We have given a real good account of ourselves for two weeks in a row against top-six sides.
“We can be really proud and take a lot of confidence from that. It shows us where we can be.
“We knocked the ball around lovely and if we could have nicked a goal just when we were on top we could have seen it out.
“It was an end-to-end game the last 20 minutes.
“There’s a really good work ethic, we are all working together. I have seen that from the moment I came in (to Hillsborough).
“We went to Slovenia (in pre-season) and the team spirit was great, the lads get on well and we are working for each other.”
Wednesday looked relegation certainties when Dave Jones departed last year, but Gray’s coaching skills and man-management brought a change in the Owls’ fortunes.
After successive campaigns in which they have been looking over their shoulders, many inside Hillsborough’s 25,186 crowd will have had seeds of optimism planted for the coming months.
Tomorrow, Wednesday welcome in-form Millwall to Hillsborough – the Lions have won both their opening Championship games – but Westwood is hopeful his new team can continue to surprise.
“There’s a long way to go – we are two games in – and we won’t get carried away, but we have had a great start,” said Westwood.
“I don’t think many people would have thought we would have won at Brighton, so we have upset a few coupons there, and a few people would have predicted Derby would have turned us over on our own patch.
“But we have shown we are a tough side and will keep going.
“I am really enjoying it, it’s good to be playing again.”