WHEN Sheffield Wednesday travelled to Manchester City in late September, they did so on the back of an encouraging run that had yielded 15 points from the opening eight games.
It was enough to leave the Owls sitting sixth in the Championship and, if not exactly confident of pulling off the shock of the Capital One Cup third round, at least hopeful of giving the reigning Premier League champions a game.
For 45 minutes, Stuart Gray’s men did exactly that – half-time arriving with the score goalless and the visitors having fluffed the best chance when Gary Madine headed wide despite being unmarked in front of goal.
The second half, though, was a different story with Frank Lampard beginning and ending a scoring rout that saw Chris Kirkland forced to pick the ball out of his net seven times.
After such a chastening defeat, Wednesday could have been forgiven for not wanting to set eyes on City for a very, very long time.
Thanks to the vagaries of Cup draws, however, Gray’s men have been handed a return assignment to the Etihad on Sunday and the hope, of course, is that lightning does not strike twice.
“It is the Cup and there is always a shock,” said the club’s head coach. “I love the FA Cup and the pleasing thing is we will have another good following. The support we got at Wigan was fantastic from the first minute to the 95th and the lads are very fortunate to play in front of those fans
“A tie at Manchester City is something to look forward to. We go there full of confidence after back-to-back victories. We are looking forward to it and I am hoping to do better than we did last time.”
Wednesday will head to Manchester on the back of an excellent festive season – Tuesday’s 1-0 win at Wigan Athletic followed a Boxing Day victory by the same scoreline at home to Blackpool – and a decent run that has yielded 14 points from eight games.
The latter, of course, is not too dissimilar to the run that preceded September’s Cup hammering but Gray was at the Etihad recently on a scouting mission to pick up ideas as to how City can be stopped.
“I went to see City play against Burnley,” he said about a fixture that saw the Clarets come from two goals down to rescue a point from a 2-2 draw. “It could have been 6-0 at half-time.
“Whether a bit of complacency came in, I don’t know. But Burnley (managed to) hit back.”
Asked if there were any weaknesses to be gleaned from Sunday’s visit to the Etihad, Gray replied: “At the moment, they haven’t got a centre-forward. (James) Milner played up front. No, they are a quality side but we go there full of confidence.”
That “confidence” Gray speaks of in the Owls ranks is understandable, thanks to a solid performance in the first half of the season.
After Atdhe Niuhu’s 77th-minute winner ensured 2014 would end on a high with victory at the DW Stadium, Wednesday sit six points adrift of the top six and 11 points clear of the dropzone.
For a team who began the year in the bottom three, that represents a remarkable turnaround and one that Gray deserves huge credit for bringing about.
To help maintain that progress, the Owls head coach would like to retain loanee Lewis McGugan following his return to parent club Watford.
Gray said: “We are desperate to keep him. We want to keep good players. He showed on a difficult pitch at Wigan what qualities he has.
“The boy’s range of passing, short and long, was good. He also broke from midfield and I would imagine he is disappointed not to be on the scoresheet for us.
“I am desperate to extend his loan. But the most important thing is it is down to Watford.
“Lewis is enjoying his football, and getting plenty of minutes. His match fitness is up to full steam. The problem you do have is once the window opens, he is in the shop window and someone might put a bid in that is acceptable to Watford. But he is enjoying his football.
“He only lives 30 minutes down the road (in the Nottingham area). But, importantly, he is getting better every game and having more influence on the game.
“Credit to the boy, he ran himself into the ground (against Wigan).”
Joe Mattock is an early doubt for the Owls at City with a groin problem, but Glenn Loovens (hamstring) will be fine.
Meanwhile, Wigan striker Grant Holt is facing up to a year out after suffering suspected cruciate knee ligament damage in the final game of his loan spell at Huddersfield Town.
The 33-year-old, who made 15 appearances for the Terriers and scored two goals, had been due to be given a chance by new manager Malky Mackay after previously being frozen out at the DW Stadium by Uwe Rosler.
Mackay said: “Grant came off on Saturday after a pretty innocuous challenge. It is going to keep him out for nine to 12 months.”