ON the eve of Barnsley’s second visit to Wembley in as many months towards the end of last season, Sam Winnall joined his team-mates in watching the Championship play-off final at the team’s London hotel.
Sheffield Wednesday were taking on Hull City in an all-Yorkshire encounter and the Reds players, already familiar with playing at the national stadium following their Johnstone’s Paint Trophy triumph over Oxford, were keen to get a taster of what they could expect when facing Millwall 24 hours later in the League One promotion decider.
Come the final whistle, Mohamed Diame’s spectacular winner had dashed the Owls’ dreams of a top-flight return after 16 years away but, for Winnall, the abiding memory was of the tremendous backing provided by the travelling Hillsborough faithful.
A little under seven months later, Winnall is now playing in front of those same supporters following last week’s £500,000 move from Oakwell and he could not be happier.
“Sheffield Wednesday came really close,” recalled the 25-year-old when asked by The Yorkshire Post about his memories of that May 28 loss for the Owls. “I watched the play-off final in the hotel, as we were due to play there the next day.
“A bit of magic from Diame proved the difference. But what I really remember was the atmosphere and noise. You could tell, even watching it on television, that the Wednesday support was incredible. There wasn’t an empty seat in the Sheffield Wednesday end and that is something that drew me to come here when the chance came up.
“All the Barnsley lads were chatting afterwards about the fans and the noise. As a footballer, you want to play in front of big crowds. It is great to now be here doing that.”
Winnall may not have been able to mark his Wednesday debut with a goal, unlike previous league bows for both Shrewsbury Town and Hereford United, but the new arrival did make a telling impact after being brought off the bench at the start of the second half by Carlos Carvalhal.
In the opening 45 minutes, the Owls had been distinctly second best to a Huddersfield side whose control of possession had been matched by their ability to hassle and harry the hosts out of their stride. The upshot had been Town creating almost all the limited openings, the best Carvalhal’s men could muster being a header from Steven Fletcher that cleared the crossbar by at least 15 yards.
An inability to retain possession amid a swarm of yellow and black shirts had been Wednesday’s downfall but that all changed once Winnall had replaced Fletcher at the interval.
Suddenly, the ball was sticking up front and that meant the Owls midfield were able to get forward in sufficient numbers to finally put pressure on the visitors.
It took the Owls just nine minutes to capitalise, Ross Wallace breaking the deadlock with a stunning 30-yard shot that was flying past Terriers goalkeeper Danny Ward from the moment it left the Scot’s boot.
Hillsborough, so frustrated in a first half that had seen Kieren Westwood save brilliantly from Chris Lowe and Michael Hefele guilty of heading an excellent chance wide, was transformed.
The locals sensed a sixth win in nine league outings was in the offing and their optimism was to prove justified, even though a switch of tactics by Wagner did lead to Town creating two late chances.
First, Hefele, pushed up front from his usual centre-back position to add height to the attack, fired into the side-netting as Mark Hudson screamed for a pass.
Then, after Hefele had turned creator with a flick-on that released Hudson, the Town captain – also employed as a makeshift frontman in those latter stages – produced a finish worthy of a centre-half as his shot ballooned high and wide with just Westwood to beat.
By then, Huddersfield had been reduced to 10 men following a late lunge from Jack Payne that saw his studs crash into the ankle of Sam Hutchinson and referee Graham Scott reaching for his red card.
Town’s misery was then completed in stoppage time by their nemesis. Fernando Forestieri, fresh from signing a new contract at Hillsborough, tapped in from close range after Callum McManaman had fired goalwards to take his personal tally against Huddersfield to five goals in eight games and ensure a winning start to life in S6 for Winnall.
“I came here because it is such a big club and so well supported,” added the new arrival from Barnsley. “The club also has a fantastic chance of going up. We are in the play-offs at the moment and I believe the club can get to the Premier league.
“The aim has to be promotion, one way or another – either through the play-offs or automatic. We have to aim high and believe in ourselves and, potentially, the top two is still on. Brighton lost at Preston so, of course, the potential is there to make a challenge. I just want to do my very best to help the team get there.”