2016-17: Sheffield Wednesday look to build on Wembley experience

Steven Fletcher, pictured on his debut against Alfreton
Steven Fletcher, pictured on his debut against Alfreton
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CARLOS CARVALHAL’S face told its own story at Wembley.

Ten minutes had passed since Sheffield Wednesday’s Premier League had been snuffed out by Bobby Madley blowing the final whistle and yet most, if not all, of the 40,000 strong travelling support were still inside the national stadium. Hull City’s victorious players were celebrating promotion with their own fans as ‘Happy Hour’, that infectious 1980s tune by The Housemartins, boomed out across the PA system. “What a good place to be...” sang Paul Heaton but, for Carvalhal, sharing the Wembley turf with the side that had just killed his and Wednesday’s dream was surely the last place he wanted to be.

Owls' Fernando Forestieri

Owls' Fernando Forestieri

Despite that, the 50-year-old, together with his equally crest-fallen team, was determined to thank the hordes from Sheffield who had provided such marvellous backing. Those Wednesdayites had, along with Mohamed Diame’s stunning winner, been the story of the first all-Yorkshire Championship play-off final and, as dejected as Carvalhal looked, there was also no mistaking the sense of pride on his face at being part of such a memorable chapter in the history of the rebuilt national stadium.

Wednesday might have missed out but this was still a club very much on the up. Carvalhal knew that and so did everyone else inside Wembley who witnessed such a show of unstinting support that Hull chief Steve Bruce admitted afterwards that he feared it might just nudge the Owls over the line. It is why, within hours of that play-off final defeat, Wednesday’s head coach had already started planning for his second season at Hillsborough.

“We started a new season the day after Wembley,” admitted the Portuguese. “We have been preparing for it and trying to bring in players who will improve the team.

“We did absolutely fantastic so we must remember the positive things and stay together. We can’t say we will forget Wembley because it was a special day. We can’t forget those emotional moments after the final whistle. They will be with us forever.

“It was an emotional moment between the team and the fans. We understand that we must play with heart all the time and remember that day.”

Wednesday are a club transformed since chairman Dejphon Chansiri first walked into Hillsborough after buying the club from Milan Mandaric early in 2015. A pledge to bring Premier League football back to S6 by 2017, the club’s 150th anniversary, has been backed up by deeds with the Thai businessman bankrolling an impressive overhaul of the squad.

Last season, the Owls fell short but key gaps have been plugged by the arrival of goal-scoring midfielder Almen Abdi and striker Steven Fletcher. Daniel Pudil, so impressive on loan, has also been captured permanently and if Carvalhal can add another left-back and a centre-half then Wednesday will have a fighting chance of going one better this time around and justify the expectation that surrounds the club.

“When you talk about expectations,” added Carvalhal, “everyone knows we must be very, very strong. We did something fantastic last season and we want to continue our work. But it is a very hard competition with hard competitors.

“Some of them will be more ready than us but it doesn’t mean we can’t beat them on the pitch. We want all the people to go to Hillsborough and like the good football that we play. I think everyone will enjoy this season.”

Carvalhal, as he proved last season, is not one for making bold promises or statements. Pressed on where Wednesday will finish, he often reverts to general platitudes.

“Everybody knows we will give our best on the pitch,” he said just last week. “We will give the maximum in all the games. We will try to win the maximum points that we can and afterwards we will see where that takes us.”

Similar enquiries as to whether last May’s play-off final defeat was his hardest moment in football, Carvalhal replied: “The hardest moment would have been if we had finished seventh or eighth and stayed out of the play-offs, and gone on our holidays and watched the final on TV. That would have been hard for us.

“Everything last season was positive. I can’t see any negatives. We changed the philosophy, playing a completely different style. Sometimes, when you change the philosophy, you need three or four years but we changed it in months. We chose the players very well and the players were great.

“We have changed a lot of things in the club. People like to go to Hillsborough. They like what we are seeing.”

That much is true. Wednesday fans quickly bought into Carvalhal’s way of doing things in his first season. After a slow start that had the Owls sitting 19th in mid-September, the Portuguese created a side that was pleasing on the eye and strong on home soil.

Only Rotherham United won at Hillsborough after the opening weeks of the season and Wednesday qualified for the play-offs with four weeks remaining. Brighton & Hove Albion were then dispatched in the semi-finals, thanks in the main to a dominant first leg, before those dreams of a Premier League return were ended at Wembley.

That loss to Hull hit Carvalhal hard but a pick-me-up came via Portugal’s triumph in Euro 2016 and he feels the unexpected triumph by Fernando Santos’s side is something that Wednesday can draw inspiration from in the coming months.

“I watched the final with my staff in a pub here,” he added.

“We celebrated together after the game. You can’t imagine our party that day (when France were beaten in the final). We didn’t drink but we celebrated. We hugged and screamed. We then went to sleep as we had training in the morning.

“We are very proud of what we achieved. It was a big victory and a very important one for my country. We needed it.

“It was fantastic, not just for the fans and the country as a whole, but also the economy and the confidence of the nation. It was amazing.

“It is a good example to us that we must be together. Even if opponents are stronger than us, we must believe we can achieve something special by sticking together and fighting.”

As for the new season, which starts on Sunday with the visit of Aston Villa, the Owls chief added: “We are ready.

“I don’t like to create too many expectations. But what we can promise is we will work hard, fight a lot and play with the fans in our hearts. We will try to play quality football because we want the fans to enjoy what they are looking at. That is very important and I don’t think the fans will forget the fantastic moment we had last season. Hillsborough was a paradise because we lost just two games in three competitions.

“We have had a very good pre-season, both in the way that we played and how we corrected mistakes. We feel that our worst game was against Alfreton Town, because it was the first one. We have improved game by game and against Port Vale (last Sunday) we did very well. We are ready for the competition.”