It says plenty about Keiren Westwood that he hardly got his gloves dirty on Saturday but helped solve Sheffield Wednesday’s leaky defence.
Rated as the best goalkeeper in the Championship before Jos Luhukay arrived at Hillsbororough in January, the Dutchman stubbornly refused to play Westwood this season.
Not even having the worst defence in the Championship – having conceded 40 goals in 22 games, and just two clean sheets – tempted Luhukay to take rookie Cameron Dawson out of the firing line.
But 24 hours after Luhukay’s exit, caretaker manager Lee Bullen picked Westwood for his first senior game of football since December 9 last year. Come the final whistle on Saturday, there was a collective sigh of “I told you so” from the 22,000 Owls supporters inside the stadium.
Michael Hector’s second-half header earned Wednesday a welcome three points, but it was the return of Westwood – and the sight of out-of-favour midfield duo Sam Hutchinson and George Boyd making their first outings since August – which lifted the dark clouds which have gathered over Hillsborough this season.
It was like Westwood – the returning hero greeted before kick-off by huge cheers and applause from home fans – had never been away, bossing the defenders in front of him, prowling around his penalty area.
Westwood’s organisation seemed to instil new confidence into Wednesday’s hesitant defence, meaning the goalkeeper had little to do all game.
When 10-man Preston did put late pressure on Wednesday’s goal, deep into stoppage time, out roared Westwood through a hoarde of bodies with a thumping punch that Sheffield boxer Kell Brook would have been proud of.
“It was a perfect goalkeeping performance because he had little to do,” said Bullen.
“Give credit to the defenders in front, it’s not often we have been able to say that about the Sheffield Wednesday defensive unit this year.
“For me, it was that punch right at the end with that long throw coming in that summed it up.
“It was like ‘I’m not losing a goal today’. What a fantastic punch. That epitomised his performance because he didn’t have a great deal to do.
“What you get with Keiren is organisation of the back four. Credit to the lad for coming in after not playing in 12 months,” added Bullen, who had visited Dawson at his family home on Friday evening to inform the rookie that Westwood would be starting.
The goalkeeper – out of contract in the summer and linked with a January move – admitted he feared his Owls career was over.
Westwood said: “What a surreal 24 hours. I honestly thought I would never pull on the SWFC jersey again.
“Whatever happens in the next month or over the course of the season, I will never forget the reception I received today by the fans.
“If I could personally thank everybody individually I would. Thanks to Bully for throwing me in, it wasn’t a pretty game, but we deserved the victory. I thought the lads in front of me were magnificent.”
The decision to recall Westwood was totally vindicated, and just like the return of entrance music Waterfront by Simple Minds, helped bring back the missing feelgood factor inside Hillsborough after a miserable run of just one win in 10 games.
There was little between the teams until Preston midfielder Ben Pearson was shown a straight red card, after catching Marco Matias with a high boot.
“I thought it was a rash challenge,” said Bullen.
“I think the ball was there to be won, but the lad (Pearson) was a bit late.”
Wednesday scented a chance, and twice Adam Reach delivered super crosses which came closing to breaking the stalemate.
First, he picked out Steven Fletcher, only for the striker’s header to be tipped wide by Declan Rudd.
But the North End goalkeeper was helpless when striker Lucas Joao powered in a header, from Reach’s right-wing cross, only for the ball to rebound to safety off the post.
Rudd was having an excellent game and produced a stunning one-handed save to thwart Matias from close-range – following Fletcher’s back-post header – to divert the ball for a corner.
But the goalkeeper was finally beaten when Josh Onomah’s cross was headed in by Michael Hector – the two loan players combining to great success.
“I’m buzzing to get my first goal for the club, and, hopefully, now we can kick on and get some positive results this Christmas,” said on-loan Chelsea defender Hector.
“It was always going to be a physical game, but we handled it well.
“We knew we had to be patient and the chance would come. Their keeper had a great game and on another day we might have scored three or four.”
That they did not was down to Rudd, who also palmed away Fletcher’s long-range drive.
Despite a few nervous moments after conceding several late free-kicks, the Owls held out for a welcome three points.
Sheffield Wednesday: Westwood, Palmer, Lees, Hector, Fox, Onomah (Hutchinson 81), Pelupessy, Reach, Matias (Boyd 88), Joao, Fletcher (Nuhiu 80). Unused substitutes: Dawson, Thorniley, Baker, Pudil.
Preston North End: Rudd, Fisher, Huntington, Davies, Hughes, Gallagher (Burke 79), Pearson, Nmecha (Ledson 74), Johnson, Barkhuizen, Moult (Browne 48). Unused substitutes: Storey, Woods, Maxwell, Walker.
Referee: D Coote (Northants).