Lockdown helped Sheffield Wednesday striker get back firing on all cylinders

Eight seems to be a recurring number for Sheffield Wednesday after the Championship kicked off after a three-month lockdown.

Foiled: Nottingham Forest's Brice Samba saves at the feet of Sheffield Wednesday's Connor Wickham. Picture: Martin Rickett/PA

For with just eight games remaining, Garry Monk’s side are sat exactly in the middle of the table, an eight-point gap buffering them from both the bottom three and the play-offs.

But if the season is on a knife-edge, then Connor Wickham –Wednesday’s on-loan striker who netted a late equaliser against Nottingham Forest on Saturday – believes the Owls must look upwards.

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“We can’t just accept that we want to stay in the league,” said Wickham. “We have to look up at the teams above, it’s only three or four wins.

Silent supporters: Cardboard cutouts of Sheffield Wednesday fans in the stands. Picture: PA

“We have to look at the best possible option and that’s getting into the play-offs. If we play like we did (against Forest), then nine times out of 10 we will win.”

The Owls could have wrapped up victory – Massimo Luongo, Jordan Rhodes, Wickham and Kieran Lee all had good chances –before Joe Lolley gave fifth-placed Forest the lead on 69 minutes.

So Wickham’s stoppage-time header was just reward on the Owls return to action behind closed doors at Hillsborough.

It was the striker’s first goal in his third loan spell at S6, and Wickham has not been sitting idle during the three-month lay-off.

Point rescued: Sheffield Wednesday's Connor Wickham celebrates scoring against Nottingham Forest. Picture: PA

“It was quite a relief,” said Wickham, on his first goal since arriving from Crystal Palace in January. “Not just on a personal level, but for the team.

“It was an important goal in terms of what we deserved from the game. It was the least we should have got, considering the chances we had and the opportunities we were given.

“Overall, we can take a lot of positives but the three points would have been better.

“It was an important game being the first match back and we showed some very good moments. Hopefully, it will put us in good stead for next week.

“Maybe the break has done us good. We have come back, the last four weeks, and everyone has worked incredibly hard and we have put ourselves in a good position. We are in a good place physically, we just need the games now.

“Physically, I feel like a completely different person. I have lost quite a bit of weight in the time that we have had off, I have worked hard.

“Our fitness levels were put to the test (on returning). At the time it’s hard, but it’s days like today when you can see physically we are a well-worked team.”

Wednesday dominated for long spells and created the best of the chances.

Luongo saw his shot deflected wide, before volleying over from long-range, and Wickham was thwarted with a back-post header by defender Tobias Figueiredo.

Rhodes – whose only previous goals this season came in a first-half hat-trick against the same opponents at the City Ground in December – just failed to latch on to Barry Bannan’s defence-splitting pass, as goalkeeper Brice Samba dived at the striker’s feet.

Joe Lolley was Forest’s most likely outlet for a goal, and the former Huddersfield Town forward fired over the crossbar from a 25-yard free-kick.

But the Owls should have taken the lead on 58 minutes.

First, Rhodes headed against the post, from Jacob Murphy’s cross, before Lee – with the goal seemingly at his mercy – saw his follow-up booted off the line by Joe Worrall.

The Owls midfielder was left holding his head in his hands and Forest made the most of their lucky escape.

A swift counter-attack down the right flank exposed the Owls’ weakness in playing wing-backs, and Lolley held off several defenders before firing beyond a stranded Joe Wildsmith – starting his first league game since April, 2018.

Not even the introduction of top scorer Steven Fletcher from the bench could inspire Wednesday – who made seven changes from their last outing, a 5-0 defeat at Brentford 105 days previously – the substitute had to be substituted after just six minutes with a suspected hamstring injury.

But Wickham was rewarded for his afternoon’s graft in the ‘93rd minute’, as he headed in from Alessio Da Cruz’s corner to salvage a point for the Owls and praise from Monk.

“He has come back fit and sharper than before,” said the Owls chief. “When Connor came in, he hadn’t been playing many games or many minutes. He has had a difficult the last couple of years in terms of fitness.

“I knew when we brought him in that he wasn’t at his sharpest but what he has done with the lockdown period is work on his fitness. He has come back a lot fitter and sharper and we have seen that training in the last three weeks in training and he deserved his goal today. He worked tirelessly. I thought it was an excellent performance and he got a deserved goal.”

On the injury to Scotland international Fletcher, Monk explained: “I think it was his hamstring but we have to assess him. It was disappointing because I brought Fletch and Alessio (Da Cruz) on for fresh legs.”

Sheffield Wednesday: Wildsmith, Palmer, Iorfa, Borner, Murphy (Odubajo 68), Bannan, Lee (Reach 74), Luongo (Hunt 83), Harris, Rhodes (Fletcher 68, Da Cruz 74), Wickam. Unused substitutes: Dawson, Fox, Pelupessy, Lees.

Nottingham Forest: Samba, Cash, Figueiredo, Worrall, Ribeiro, Yates, Johnson (Semedo 62), Lolley, Silva (Bostock 85), Ameobi (da Costa Joia 62), Grabban (Diakhaby 90). Unused substitutes: Carvalho, Smith, Jenkinson, Dawson, Mighten.

Referee: R Jones (Merseyside).

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