HEAD COACH Carlos Carvalhal has revealed his Sheffield Wednesday players thought he was “crazy” when he predicted they would reach the Championship play-offs.
That was pre-season last summer, after the little-known coach was handed the task of taking over from the axed Stuart Gray at Hillsborough.
Backed by wealthy new owner Dejphon Chansiri, the Portuguese coach inherited a squad that judged success simply by avoiding relegation back to League One.
Ten months later, and the Owls host Brighton & Hove Albion tonight in the play-off semi-final first leg knowing they potentially stand three games away from ending a 16-year exile from the Premier League.
It is a remarkable transformation for a team who were tipped to be relegated this season by some pundits.
“Since the first day talking to the players, I believed we would reach the play-offs,” said Carvalhal.
“They looked shocked, at me talking about promotion, they were looking at me thinking, ‘maybe this guy is crazy’.
“We would bring players in –they didn’t know that then – but I remember this conversation.
“I had this expectation, even though I didn’t know everything about the Championship.
“But I knew what we had at that moment, what we bring in the future, and what we could do together, to play like a team.
“That’s why I told them I believed we would be in the play-offs, but after this I never talked about the play-offs again. It’s only now I remember what I said at the start of the season.”
New players arrived in the shape of strikers Fernando Forestieri and Gary Hooper, midfielders Ross Wallace and Barry Bannan, and full-backs Jack Hunt and Daniel Pudil.
Sat 19th after the first seven games, the Owls’ players early scepticism seemed justified, but Carvalhal has orchestrated a stunning turnaround in the club’s on-field fortunes.
The head coach insists they deserve their chance in the play-offs for a season of hard graft.
“In the beginning nobody expected us to go to the play-offs,” he recalled. “Now it’s easy to talk about Sheffield Wednesday, or during the season when the players were doing well.
“Some of the players are having their best season of their careers, and some weren’t playing before.
“Now it’s easy to say we are playing good football, and have a good team, but it’s something we have built.
“We didn’t buy this off the shelf at the shop – a team who plays good football – it’s something we have built. We weren’t favourites for the play-offs in the beginning, but we have improved throughout the season.
“We arrive here without any pressure and complete underdogs. Other teams, at this moment, have done better than us.”
Carvalhal has never visited Wembley, but refuses to look beyond the two games with Brighton, who finished in third spot, 15 points better off than sixth-placed Wednesday.
“I can’t talk about the future, what we might achieve (at Wembley) because I don’t know what will happen,” he said.
“But what we have achieved so far is absolutely amazing. Collect 16 or 17 new players, a new team, new coach, first year in the country, and create what we have created.
“At this moment I am completely happy, it’s why I am smiling, because we are completely happy with what we have achieved.
“But the season hasn’t finished yet and we have a new challenge now and we will try and do our best.
“Everything that happened in the past is not important. Now we have a new (mini) Championship.
“We are very positive, in good shape, and smiling because we have achieved something as outsiders this season.
“Our team are complete underdogs in the semi-finals, but we are looking forward to the game.”
Wednesday’s only previous experience of the play-offs was success in 2005. Then they beat Brentford in the semi-finals, before knocking out Hartlepool United in the final at Cardiff.
Carvalhal – who will not inform his players of the starting line-up until today – believes his team have excelled in the big games this season.
They knocked out Premier League opposition, in Newcastle United and Arsenal, in the League Cup, while their last home game saw the Owls beat Cardiff City 3-0 to clinch a play-off spot.
“We have had this experience during the season, games which have decided things,” he said. “And all the time, our team has never given up.
“We have a strong personality, we have stood up and said ‘we are here, we want to play good football, and are afraid of nothing’.
“You remember Newcastle, Arsenal, even Stoke City – I wish I could have played that game with a full squad – the league games against Cardiff, Brighton and even Burnley and Derby.
“Only Middlesbrough did we lose both games, all the other teams we gave a very positive answer. This means that our team thrives on this sort of game, it’s a challenge which we like.
“It could be a very good night at Hillsborough.”
‘I want Owls deal’: Page 25.