A new year, a new start and for Sheffield Wednesday that can only be good news after they climbed out of the Championship relegation zone after an unbeaten festive period.
The Owls followed up two successive away draws with a comprehensive 2-0 win over a disappointing Blackpool side to bolster Stuart Gray’s chances of taking the manager’s job full-time.
Second-half goals from Connor Wickham – his seventh in nine games on loan from Sunderland – and Chris Maguire saw the Owls leapfrog neighbours Doncaster Rovers and Millwall to the delight of the majority of the 19,447 inside a rain-sodden Hillsborough.
Gray said: “I was disappointed with our first-half performance. We didn’t play at a high enough intensity. We dominated the second half, which was good. We were on the front foot and moved the ball early.
“If anything, we should have had more goals but the pleasing thing was the 2-0 win and the three points. I’m pleased that we kept a clean sheet and created a number of chances.”
Gray actually started with one of the most attacking starting XIs seen at Hillsborough this season. Wickham and Atdhe Nuhiu teamed up together in attack, while occupying the flanks were Maguire and Jacques Maghoma, the latter bringing the first save out of visiting goalkeeper Matt Gilks when his low effort from 20 yards out was easy pickings.
Maghoma turned provider to pick out Wickham after a driving run down the left, but the England Under-21 striker saw defender Jack Robinson block his goal-bound effort.
Blackpool were offering little in attack, Barry Ferguson firing over the crossbar from a 25-yard free kick.
Maguire, back from a loan spell at Coventry City, came close to opening the scoring. Reda Johnson’s cross was helped into Maguire’s path by Wickham, but the striker-cum-winger dragged his low shot wide of the post.
It had been a low-key opening half hour, the rain sweeping across Hillsborough – the game survived a 1.30pm pitch inspection – and maybe a few sore heads from the previous night’s celebrations. But the hosts survived an amazing let-off when goalkeeper Chris Kirkland first denied Dan Gosling and, when Reda Johnson’s clearance smacked into Tyler Blackett, the ball fizzed goalwards only to hit the post and bounce to safety.
Centre-half Glenn Loovens tried to inject some pace into the game, carrying the ball into the opposition box after a one-two from Wickham, but just as he was about to shoot the back-tracking Blackpool defender Craig Cathcart managed to knock him off balance and the chance was gone.
And the impressive Cathcart was on hand moments later to take the ball off Wickham’s head from an inviting right-wing cross.
The Owls took the lead five minutes after the break. Reda Johnson’s cross fell behind Wickham, who managed to drag the ball into his path before blasting home, taking a deflection off Robinson on the way in.
And it was 2-0 on 58 minutes. Wickham this time turned provider, finding space inside the box and his low cross found Nuhiu and Maguire jostling each other to convert, with the latter getting the final touch.
“I enjoyed the second goal because there were two players fighting for it,” said Gray.
“Chris Maguire has come back in and done well in the last two games. He’s set his standards now and he’s got to keep them high.”
Wednesday were now looking comfortable and keeping possession well. From one sustained spell, Maghoma jinked his way inside the box only to be denied by Gilks, who then had to be alert to hold on to Roger Johnson’s close-range flick from the resulting corner.
There was even chance for Michail Antonio – out injured for six weeks with a knee problem – to have a late run out as a substitute for the last couple of minutes, Maguire getting a standing ovation on his exit.
The Owls should have added gloss to the scoreline in the four th minute of stoppage time, but substitute Jermaine Johnson hammered a 20-yard shot straight at Gilks, before Wickham surprised everyone when he blasted off target from 10 yards out.
Sheffield Wednesday: Kirkland, Palmer, Roger Johnson, Loovens, Reda Johnson, Lee, Semedo, Maguire (Antonio 89), Maghoma, Wickham, Nuhui (Jermaine Johnson 76). Unused substitutes: McCabe, Helan, Mattock, Martinez, Llera.
Blackpool: Gilks, Bishop, MacKenzie, Cathcart, Robinson, Ince, Ferguson, Gosling, Martinez (Chopra 58), Blackett (Delfouneso 64), Fuller (Davies 77). Unused substitutes: Warner, Eccleston, Barkhuizen, Harris.
Referee: D Whitestone (Northamptonshire).