Stuart GRAY has warned his Sheffield Wednesday squad performances like Saturday’s miserable defeat to Bournemouth will see them struggle to get out of the Championship relegation zone.
The Owls could have climbed out of the bottom three with victory against the Cherries, but after impressive wins over Leicester City and Watford, the caretaker-manager witnessed a shocking display.
Bournemouth cruised to victory, courtesy of goals from Matt Ritchie and Lewis Grabban, to leave Jacques Maghoma’s late effort to provide a mere consolation and a scoreline which flattered the hosts.
“If we keep performing like that we will probably stay in the bottom three,” fumed Gray, who has been given the festive period to convince chairman Milan Mandaric he is the man to succeed Dave Jones. “But there are enough games to put it right, and enough teams around us.
“The disappointing thing was we had an opportunity to get out of the bottom three, that was the incentive we had.
“You have to work the goalkeeper. We got into great opportunities. In the first half, I thought our crossing was decent, but our decision-making and final ball in the box in the last 15 minutes was not good enough, not acceptable.
“We are a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde at the moment. We beat Leicester, beat Watford, and then suddenly we put in a performance like that. That’s the disappointing thing.
“I will be beating myself up trying to work out why.”
One of the key reasons why is Wednesday’s lack of cutting edge, which is a problem the Owls have had since being promoted back to the Championship in 2012.
A succession of temporary loans have masked a lack of permanent strikers on the books at Hillsborough.
With Connor Wickham – five goals in seven games on loan from Sunderland – missing on Saturday with a hamstring injury, it left Atdhe Nuhiu to provide the attacking threat.
That is a big task for a 24-year-old Austrian footballer still getting to grips with his first few months in English football.
With Wickham likely to return to the north-east next week when his loan expires, Gray, or whoever Mandaric chooses, will encounter many more miserable Saturdays unless Wednesday invest – or generate cash through transfer outgoings – and strengthen their forward line.
On Saturday, the Owls actually started well but wayward shooting from Maghoma and Jermaine Johnson failed to trouble visiting goalkeeper Lee Camp.
Cherries midfielder Ritchie showed how it was done when he was afforded acres of room to take aim before firing home a long-range effort which goalkeeper Damian Martinez got a hand to but failed to keep out.
Martinez denied Andrew Surman from a similar distance, but should have done better with Bournemouth’s second.
Once again, the impressive Harry Arter was left alone to pick out the scampering run of Grabban, who had ghosted in beyond an unsuspecting Miguel Llera.
The former Rotherham United striker then beat Martinez at his near post with a fierce drive.
“It was very disappointing,” admitted Gray. “I thought we started quite well. The only thing we hadn’t done, after three or four shots, we hadn’t worked the goalkeeper and hit the target.
“Then sloppy defending has just cost us. One straight ball has beaten the back four and we were chasing the game. It was a similar thing again, poor defending for the second goal.
“Bits of confidence then drain out of one or two players. I said to the players, ‘if you are not having the best of games, it still doesn’t stop you from running around, competing, closing down and putting a foot in’.”
Injured Nuhiu was forced off in the second half, joining the sidelined Wickham and Glenn Loovens (back), who also missed out on Saturday, meaning the Owls are without nine first-teamers through injury ahead of the Boxing Day trip to Blackburn Rovers.
Wednesday actually earned an unlikely lifeline when left-back Reda Johnson was pushed into the centre-forward role and Gray sacrificed his football ethos to go for the direct approach.
A goalmouth scramble then gifted attacking midfielder Maghoma an easy tap-in for his first goal since a summer move from Burton Albion.
Gray added: “We lost Atdhe so, in the end, I ended up playing Reda down the middle. The last 10 or 15 minutes was not the way I want to play football but we wanted to get the ball around Reda and we got a goal back from it.
“Suddenly we got into several good positions, but our final ball has let ourselves down.”
Wednesday hope to have Wickham and Loovens back for Thursday’s trip to Ewood Park, and will recall striker Chris Maguire from his loan spell at Coventry City.
“Hopefully, they (Wickham and Loovens) will be back for us for the Blackburn game,” said Gray, who gave a run-out to Swiss youngster Andelko Savic, the on-loan Sampdoria striker, as a late substitute.
“At this minute, we seem to gain one and lose two, we have lost Atdhe, who has popped his shoulder.
“The treatment room is very full, there’s probably seven or eight in there who would have been playing today. But that’s part and parcel of football.
“Hopefully, we will have Chris Maguire back. We are going to call him back on Christmas Day.
“In his first game at Coventry he scored two goals, two good free-kicks. We could probably have done with him out there (on Saturday) when we had a free-kick central to goal.”
Unfortunately, just like what the Owls had served up all afternoon, Llera’s set-piece from that opportunity sailed over the crossbar to leave Camp largely untroubled over the 90 minutes.