HILLSBOROUGH may have felt a pretty lonely place for Jos Luhukay of late, but the enemy territory of Bramall Lane is an abode which possesses its own charms for the Sheffield Wednesday head coach.
Some 301 days on from the last Steel City derby stalemate at Bramall Lane in his first game in charge, this latest instalment and identical result under the TV cameras will have felt like a moral victory to Wednesday and their embattled Dutch leader.
Impassioned in his pre-match press briefing he may have been, amid talk that his position could be under threat if Wednesday’s alarming four-match losing streak was not quickly arrested, but Luhukay plainly needed his players to man up and deliver a telling response of unity and collective desire. Which they did.
From a pure footballing perspective, the visitors were subjugated for significant spells by a home side who almost exclusively displayed any polish on show before gradually fading away after the break.
But Wednesday – whose central defensive trio of Tom Lees, Michael Hector and Jordan Thorniley were on message all evening – dug deep and their reward was not just a derby point that they would have grasped with both hands before the start of the game, but also a milestone first Championship clean sheet of the season.
After a shambolic rearguard performance in their chaotic 4-0 home drubbing by Norwich last Saturday – in which Luhukay was not immune from criticism – it was no mean feat.
That said, the Owls – who failed to muster one worthwhile effort on target all night – required a big piece of fortune, courtesy of a decisive 15th-minute penalty save from goalkeeper Cameron Dawson.
The Sheffielder guessed right to keep out David McGodrick’s tame low effort following a short run-up, throwing himself to his left to make a one-handed save and it proved the key moment on derby night.
For the hosts, mindful that victory would have seen them move to the Championship summit, there was a similar sense of frustration akin to their emotions in January when they failed to part the Wednesday wall and ran out of ideas.
There was no doubting as to which set of supporters were happier at the game’s conclusion, with Wednesdayites heralding a richly-received result.
Given Wednesday’s horrendous home result six days earlier, few with any conviction could have accurately predicted their starting line-up, which has lacked continuity all season.
True to form, Luhukay was again not sparing in his changes, with Ash Baker and Fox among four players brought in.
United might have made three changes themselves, but their line-up bore a wholly settled look in marked comparison and that much was evident during a forceful first half .
Luhukay’s devout hope was that his side would display as much tactical discipline and resolve as they did at S2 in January.
That was sorely tested to the limit in the first half and while Wednesday emerged unscathed at the interval without any concessions with their three-man central defence working overtime, the traffic was decidedly one-way and the visitors pushed their luck at times.
Some desperate last-ditch defending saved the day on occasions, with the visitors also counting their blessings when Dawson made his vital early penalty save.
It was a half characterised by United’s purposeful and slick build-up play, orchestrated skilfully by passmasters Ollie Norwood and John Fleck on a surface conducive to quick-paced passing football.
Wednesday, meanwhile, were restricted to the odd morsel on the counter, with their best moment coming early on when Morgan Fox arrived late in the six-yard box following Joel Pelupessy’s inswinging corner, only to fire over under pressure from McGoldrick.
The pair soon took centre stage again when Fox was penalised for clumsily bringing down Duffy, only for McGoldrick to pass up the penalty gift when Dawson – who had earlier turned away a piledriver from Fleck – made a dramatic save.
Creditably, United refused to be cowed by the setback, with Norwood firing a curler wide and the attentive Hector diverting Duffy’s goalbound curler wide, but the away goal was not breached by the interval – a minor triumph in the circumstances.
For United, the onus was on maintaining their intensity levels and pressure in the hope that something would eventually give – with Wednesday pinning their hopes on the hosts gradually running out of gas.
Those in red and white kept probing, but Dawson was protected well enough, with the keeper forced into little meaningful work.
A gather from McGoldrick’s strike from distance early in the second period was fairly standard and as the half wore on, Wednesday were entitled to feel a touch more emboldened, with the Blades losing their vim from the opening half.
A perfectly executed saving challenge from Thorniley on McGoldrick summed up Wednesday’s defensive aptitude and intent, with Wilder soon calling upon Leon Clarke in his bid to conjure a precious opener.
It was not the prelude to a grandstand finale, although United did have a couple of dangerous stoppage-time moments with Billy Sharp heading over and Dawson saving Norwood’s free-kick – the last action of the game.
Sheffield United: Henderson; Basham, Egan, O’Connell; Freeman, Norwood, Fleck, Stevens, Duffy; McGoldrick (Clarke 75), Sharp. Substitutes unused: Baldock, Coutts, Stearman, Johnson, Moore, Washington.
Sheffield Wednesday: Dawson; Lees, Hector, Thorniley; Baker, Bannan, Pelupessy, Penney (Matias 79), Fox; Reach, Fletcher. Substitutes unused: Palmer, Onomah, Nuhiu, Joao, Wildsmith, Pudil.
Referee: A Madley (West Yorkshire).