Persistence paid off for Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough.
For most of the game against Bristol City, it had been looking like one of those days for the Owls – a couple of penalty appeals turned down, a few goalbound efforts headed away, a decent Daniel Bentley save. There was no question the hosts were the better team but even they had not done a huge amount to heat up a lukewarm game.
Wednesday, though, plugged away and Barry Bannan’s 83rd minute penalty was a fair reward for him and his team, who dominated without ever really hitting top gear against a disappointing and unambitious Robins side who could have gone above them in the table with victory.
It would have been nice to put on a show for the television viewers, but far more important to Garry Monk’s men is that they head into Christmas third in the Championship.
The pack chasing West Bromwich Albion and Leeds United is so congested that the Owls are only two wins ahead of 13th-placed Millwall. It would be nice to plump up a bit of a cushion with the possibility of a Football League points deduction looming, but they go into their Boxing Day trip to Stoke City knowing they are doing what they have to.
If football, not finances, decides the final table, they look in good shape for the play-offs, but automatic promotion feels a step too far.
Early kick-offs can often be disappointingly subdued affairs and this televised noon match was no exception, even if it briefly threatened to be.
The first 12 seconds were lively, Callum O’Dowda played in after a move brilliantly started by former Owl Jack Hunt’s pass, but he pulled his shot wide.
For the Robins, and for the spectacle, it would be a false dawn.
Wednesday were without top-scorer Steven Fletcher, which meant a recall for Atdhe Nuhiu, but the hulking striker was not quite able to link up with Jordan Rhodes. Twice in the opening quarter of an hour Nuhiu flicked the ball on just out of the Scotland international’s reach.
Fresh from a hat-trick in his previous appearance, Rhodes was only on the periphery of this game, and was substituted for Sam Winnall before it was decided.
When Massimo Luongo passed the ball backwards under little pressure from deep inside Bristol City’s half, the home fans groaned their frustration. The match was a quarter of the way through, and Wednesday were still struggling to get into their stride.
One player whose passing was excellent was Luongo’s central midfield partner Bannan, and as Wednesday grew into the game his switches of play were behind their best moves.
Liam Palmer had ghosted in at the back post from a 23rd-minute corner but his volley hit Ashley Williams on the line.
The best chance of the first half came from its finest pass, Bannan releasing Adam Reach in the 28th minute. The winger’s touch was on the heavy side, driving him wide into an angle where he could only screw the ball back into the side netting.
Reach, whose form has revitalised in recent weeks, was the hosts’ main outlet but as Palmer switched from right-back to left after the departure of a groggy-looking Morgan Fox, the focus temporarily went with him, though probably not for that reason in truth.
Bentley was at least tested twice in quick succession in the 34th minute as first Kadeem Harris, then Palmer cut inside. He beat away the first effort, then saved the second.
The second half was almost all Wednesday, but as they banged away at the door, you were never 100 per cent certain they were going to get the outcome they wanted.
When an early Bannan corner was pulled back to Reach, lurking with intent at the back of the penalty area, he was unable to keep his shot down, Harris disappointingly hit a free-kick won for a foul on Nuhiu into the defensive wall but forced a save from the rebound.
When Williams cleared a Harris cross out to Reach, Bentley was quickly off his line to block the shot. Nuhiu was unable to head Palmer’s lofted centre on target.
Bannan’s volley threatened to give a brilliant run down the line by Iorfa the finish it deserved, but Tomas Kalas headed away.
A couple of counter-attacks kept Wednesday honest, most notably when Palmer nodded off the line from Hunt.
The home fans were baying for a penalty when Rhodes went to ground with Williams at his back in the 63rd minute, and again 13 minutes later when Kalas appeared to grapple with him as he went for a third header.
The third penalty shout was arguably the least convincing, but perhaps the weight of pressure told on referee Tony Harrington. It was certainly an unwise tackle by Kalas, coming in from behind as Nuhiu was just leaving the penalty area as he chased a Winnall flick-on.
Bannan, who a minute earlier had forced the save of the game when the Robins goalkeeper touched his curling free-kick around the post, coolly slotted the spot kick.
It was job done by the Owls – no more, no less.
Sheffield Wednesday: Dawson; Palmer, Iorfa, Lees, Fox (Borner 30); Reach, Luongo (Pelupessy 90), Bannan, Harris; Nuhiu, Rhodes (Winnall 71).
Unused substitutes: Westwood, Lee, Murphy, Odubajo.
Bristol City: Bentley; Kalas, Williams, Moore; Hunt (Eliasson 60), Brownhill, Smith, O'Dowda, Rowe (Semenyo 84); Diedhiou, Weimann (Palmer 60).
Unused substitutes: Nagy, Wright, Rodri, Massengo,.
Referee: Tony Harrington (Teesside).