SHEFFIELD Wednesday’s head coach Carlos Carvalhal turned fifty on Friday – but the present that he will have craved more than any other did not come his way.
Instead of a milestone win to guild his celebrations, the Portuguese had to settle for a point, with Wednesday having not quite yet come of age in the promotion reckoning.
But there is plenty of time yet.
A clear statement by way of a victory over a top-six Championship rival has still to be ticked off on Wednesday’s ‘to-do list’ this season.
But given a campaign which has seen the Owls move in an upward trajectory since early season, and with plenty to look forward to in the new year for the first time in several years, any criticism would be churlish.
The fact that they limited Derby to next to nothing in the first half and ensured an at times uncomfortable afternoon for the divisional form team were achievements in themselves.
Particularly given the fact that Paul Clement’s Rams came into the game on the back of a juggernaut run of just one defeat in their previous 13 matches – with a haul of 10 wins incorporating dominant victories over the Yorkshire trio of Hull City, Huddersfield Town and Rotherham United.
Wednesday’s run without a win against their East Midlands rivals has now extended to 15 matches – Irish band Westlife were at No 1 in the charts with You Raise Me Up on the last occasion that the hosts beat the Rams, at Hillsborough back on Bonfire Night 2005.
But the Owls’ desire to be elevated into the play-off positions remains a very achievable aim this season, with the smart money being placed on new arrivals at Hillsborough in the January transfer window.
Making a statement by way of a seminal victory over a divisional big-hitter is having to wait.
But Wednesday are ticking along nicely, with their progress since going down to a Championship heavyweight in Middlesbrough on August 29 having been substantive – that 3-1 loss to Boro being the last time that their colours were lowered at S6.
In front of the Sky cameras, yesterday’s spectacle promised plenty with two of the division’s undoubted autumnal success stories in the Owls and Rams locking horns.
A tasty little subplot also saw two players nominated for the PFA Fans’ Championship Player of the Month for November in Lucas Joao and Andi Weimann line up against each other.
But on a day when quality and devilment in the final third were fairly hard to detect, there was little polish from either potential game-changers with Weimann in particular having a non-descript afternoon alongside another expensive summer recruit in Tom Ince.
Derby went closest to bagging a scarcely-deserved victory when a late free-kick thunderbolt from ex-Leeds United midfield grafter Bradley Johnson shuddered the crossbar, but Rams’ head coach Clement was in no mood for ‘if only’ afterwards.
His after-match assertions suggested that his side’s performance, especially in the first half, had left him wholly nonplussed, while his counterpart Carvahal had more reasons to be chirper, even without the win.
Carvalhal made six changes to his starting line-up, with the big news seeing Barry Bannan return in midfield – against a side where he spent a loan spell earlier in his career – after three games out with a knee problem.
In a cagey first-half where tactical shape ruled in the most part, the intent and endeavour came from the Owls, without overly threatening the Rams, for whom former Wednesday goalkeeper Lee Grant started for just the third time this season, with Scott Carson suffering from a back problem.
The sole moment of menace arrived 15 minutes in with Grant showing excellent agility to acrobatically palm over a sweetly-struck, dipping half-volley from Ross Wallace.
Bannan and Fernando Forestieri also fired over from distance with all the probing football arriving from the hosts, with Derby producing a subdued performance and looking nothing like a side in rude health.
On the restart, the Rams – who came out early and were maybe cajoled to do better by a few choice words from Clement – moved things up a notch, without every being wholly convincing.
Wednesday’s performance was a little more patchy, offensively, after the interval, but their discipline and team shape were certainly impressive with the fact that Ince or Weimann could not get into the game at all – and were both substituted – emblematic of what was a tactically sound performance from the hosts.
Derby’s main attacking threat came from Johnson, who headed a good chance over early in the second half and saw a snapshot turned away by Kieren Westwood on 67 minutes, the first time that the Irishman was called into action in the whole game.
But Westwood could do little about Johnson’s stinging 81st-minute free-kick which smacked against the woodwork after he was penalised for handling a backpass from Glenn Loovens.
Soon after, Loovens threatened to have a more telling impact at the other end, but headed wide when well placed after an inswinging corner from Wallace, who also fired a well-struck shot not too far over.
But a point had to suffice.
Offering his thoughts on the stalemate, Wallace – who went as close as anyone for the Owls – said: “I was fairly satisfied and happy, although disappointed a little bit. I thought we played some good stuff and edged it.
“They had a couple of chances at the end. But overall, with the way we played, I thought we dominated midfield and they couldn’t get to grips with the way we played.
“I thought we played well and it was just disappointing that we didn’t nick it in the end.”
Sheffield Wednesday: Westwood, Palmer, Hutchinson, Loovens, Pudil, Wallace, Lee, Lopez, Bannan, Forestieri, Lucas Joao (Hooper 76). Unused substitutes: Semedo, Nuhiu, McGugan, Wiggins, Sougou, Wildsmith.
Derby County: Grant, Christie, Keogh, Shackell, Warnock (Baird 64), Butterfield, Thorne, Johnson, Ince (Russell 63), Martin, Weimann (Bent 76). Unused substitutes: Hendrick, Pearce, Shotton, Mitchell.
Referee: G Scott (Oxfordshire).