Sheffield Wednesday 0 Derby County 0: Irvine on Owls stalemate

ALAN IRVINE is renowned for his organisational skills and three clean sheets in their last five games illustrates Sheffield Wednesday's mean defence.

After their humiliating 5-0 collapse at Reading, captain Darren Purse has been restored to the heart of the Owls defence and his leadership has been key.

The former Cardiff City player's early withdrawal in the second half against Derby, then, was cause for concern for Irvine ahead of Wednesday night's visit of Watford to Hillsborough.

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"Darren Purse has been feeling his hamstring since the Preston game and he hadn't trained until yesterday," said Irvine.

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"He says that he doesn't think that he has pulled his hamstring but he feels he has just come off in time as it was a problem he felt could lead to a proper hamstring injury.

"We have hopes that he will be available for Wednesday," he added.

Why Wednesday have become so hard to beat this month is their compact midfield.

Even when Tom Soares was bombing forward, big centre-forward Leon Clarke was dropping back into a wide berth in midfield to keep Wednesday's four-man formation.

But without the pace of injured Jermaine Johnson, the Owls lack midfield drive and it is a balancing act between defence and attack for Irvine as he has eight games left over six weeks to reach his 53-point target.

Saturday's third successive draw means that total can be achieved with four wins and a draw.

"I won't rest easy until we get to the 53 points we are aiming for," said the manager.

The visit of city rivals Sheffield United apart, the other three Hillsborough games are all against teams in the lower half of the Championship – Watford, Bristol City and Crystal Palace – although Irvine will hope to avoid needing a win against the latter on the final day of the season to secure safety.

Wednesday's four remaining away games are at Coventry City, Queens Park Rangers, Middlesbrough and Cardiff City.

If, however, Wednesday are relegated on Sunday, May 2, then Michael Tonge may just have guaranteed himself cult hero status in the other half of the Steel City.

Forget the 234 league starts he made in the red and white stripes of Sheffield United, or the Hillsborough goal he scored in 2006 which gave the Blades a famous Championship double over their neighbours.

His latest hand, or should that be head, in changing the fortunes of the Owls could have a far longer lasting effect.

For he was the talking point long after the final whistle on Saturday which left the Owls teetering on the relegation zone. Only Crystal Palace's 10-point punishment for going into administration keeps Wednesday out of the bottom three.

Irvine's side failed to muster a goal in this important encounter due to Tonge.

The 26-year-old, who left Bramall Lane two seasons ago for a move to Stoke City and is on loan at the Rams, is renowned for his attacking prowess like the 25-yard free-kick which Owls goalkeeper Lee Grant did well to tip away.

But it was on his own goalline where he made what could be such a telling contribution.

Darren Potter's free-kick was met by the head of Mark Beevers and his looping effort looked to have broken a stalemate produced by the form of Grant and Stephen Bywater.

But as the ball dropped below the bar and seemingly into an empty net, Tonge popped up to get his head on the ball and somehow navigate it away from goal.

Cue heads in hands from the thousands of Owls fans who had stopped their taunts of Tonge long enough to try and suck the ball into the back of the net in front of the Kop.

Bywater had been unbeatable, thwarting Tommy Miller and Soares in the first half, yet when Beevers did get the ball past him, Tonge was the unlikely hero.

Not that Bywater kept the goalkeeping plaudits to himself. Former Rams custodian Grant was also in fine fettle, keeping out headers from Chris Porter and Rob Hulse, another former Blades player.

Irvine was left to rue the lack of cutting edge at his disposal. Missing the injured Johnson, whose pace and power can unlock packed midfields, and Luke Varney – ineligible due to the deal which brought him on loan from the Rams – Irvine was stripped of attacking options.

Francis Jeffers was introduced as a substitute for Clarke on the hour, and the former England striker looked like he was at least fit after a stop-start career at Wednesday due to injuries.

The striker, whom Irvine worked with during their time at Everton, could even have scored a dramatic winner but failed to get direction on his header.

"We had two big incidents for either side, Lee Grant's save in the first half and then Michael Tonge's clearance from right under the crossbar was fantastic defending," said the Owls manager.

"I feel that we desperately need some wins and this was not a foregone conclusion by any means but I thought we certainly had enough good chances to win the game.

"Derby had their share of it in the first half but in the second half I thought we dominated in terms of possession.

"We had some good chances in dangerous territory but we didn't take them and that's disappointing.

"The plus side is that we didn't concede again and if we can keep that up we have a very good chance between now and the end of the season.

"We had some good chances today and you have to take them when you get them. You are not going to get lots of chances in these games because they are so tight, you're not going to get double figures in terms of decent goal-scoring chances. When you get two or three you've got to be able to take them."

If Wednesday are relegated this season, though, do not expect the inquest into this match to centre on spurned chances by Miller, Soares or Jeffers.

Instead, it will be that man Tonge and a moment which may well just define a season of disappointment.

Sheffield Wednesday: Grant, Nolan, Beevers, Purse (Hinds 57), Spurr, Soares, O'Connor (Esajas 83), Potter, Miller, Clarke (Jeffers 62), Tudgay. Unused substitutes: O'Donnell, Simek, Palmer, Gray.

Derby County: Bywater, McEvevely, Green, Hulse (Davies 86), Porter, Barker, Pearson, Tonge, Hunt (Leacock 80), Anderson, Sunu (Savage 78). Unused substitutes: Martin, Buxton, Moxey, Martin.

Referee: J Linington (Isle of Wight).

MATCH FOCUS

Hero: Lee Grant

There were two top Championship goalkeepers on display at Hillsborough and it was a close call between Wednesday's former Rams stopper Grant and current Derby No 1 Stephen Bywater.

Villain: Michael Tonge

The former Sheffield United midfield star robbed Wednesday of a deserved second-half winner when he tracked back and headed Mark Beevers's header off his own line.

Key moment

1st minute: Wednesday's Tommy Miller fails to score in a one-on-one with goalkeeper Stephen Bywater.

Ref watch

James Linington: Could have shown red to Rob Hulse after an off-the-ball clash which left Richard Hinds flattened.

Verdict

Derby sat back for a point in the second half, but Wednesday were desperate for a win. Need Jermaine Johnson back quickly.

Next game

Sheff Weds v Watford, Championship, Wednesday, 7.45.

Quote of the day

I thought we dominated the second half in terms of possession and territory, had some good chances but didn't take them and that's disappointing.

– Owls chief Alan Irvine.

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