NOT since Bradford City marked their centenary with the unwanted ‘double’ of relegation and a second stint in administration had an anniversary season been threatening to go as badly awry as this one for Sheffield Wednesday.
Without a win since Boxing Day and having to look even further back to Halloween for the last time an outing at Hillsborough had yielded three points, the Owls went into last night’s clash seemingly sinking deeper and deeper into trouble.
The pre-season target to make it third time lucky in the quest to reach the Premier League under Carlos Carvalhal had disappeared long ago, as had the Portuguese.
Instead, a creeping fear of relegation had replaced the optimism of last summer. The prospect of tackling high-flying Derby County did little to lift the gloom that had descended on S6 in this, Wednesday’s 150th season.
Lucas Joao, however, had other ideas. His two precise finishes were not only enough to bag Jos Luhukay a first league win at the sixth attempt, but also change the entire mood surrounding the club.
Suddenly, Saturday’s reunion with Carvalhal in the FA Cup is to be embraced and not feared.
Joao was far from the only hero with Adam Reach and full debutant Sean Clare also excelling, as did Joe Wildsmith during a second half in which Derby threw everything at the hosts.
Matej Vydra and Andreas Weimann were both denied by the Owls goalkeeper, who even in stoppage-time refused to be beaten as he acrobatically tipped a delightful chip from Weimann over the crossbar.
That Luhukay’s men withstood this attacking barrage from one of the Championship’s most dangerous sides only added to the satisfaction of the locals in the 24,180 crowd as the memory of a difficult few weeks was firmly banished.
So, too, was the desperate statistic of Wednesday’s previous league win on home soil, against Millwall, having come just a few days after the clocks last changed.
Seven opportunities to claim those elusive three points in front of their own fans had been and gone since then, cranking up the pressure on the Owls in the process.
Not that this was apparent last night. Sure, Derby had chances in an entertaining contest with Weimann also heading just wide in the first half from an inviting Chris Baird cross.
Then came that spell of pressure after the restart that saw Wildsmith perform heroics in the home goal.
But, overall, Wednesday were full value for the points with the quality of the opening goal on 18 minutes being typical of the attacking verve displayed by the hosts.
A raking pass from Adam Reach started the move, his pinpoint accuracy meaning the ball landed on the toe of Jack Hunt deep inside the Rams’ penalty area.
He killed the ball in an instant and then rolled a pass that was simply begging Joao to convert. The Portuguese did just that, stroking the ball beyond Scott Carson from 15 yards.
Hunt then wasted a great opportunity to double his side’s lead after Carson had nonsensically raced out of his area and into the full back wide on the right flank.
A first-time effort on goal, even from that far out, was the best option but Hunt dithered. Carson, still on his backside, quickly made amends for his early rashness by stretching a leg out to nudge the ball over the touchline to safety.
It was a let-off for Derby but one they failed to capitalise on thanks to another predatory finish from Joao after the restart.
Just two minutes of the second half had elapsed when the ball found its way to Joao, a marginal figure at Hillsborough for much of Carvalhal’s reign despite costing £3m.
A quick step inside Bradley Johnson’s challenge was then followed by a thumping drive from 25 yards that gave Carson no chance.
Derby’s recent stranglehold on this fixture was at an end, Wednesday having claimed only their second victory in 20 meetings.
More importantly in terms of the season’s prospects, these three points have lessened the chances of the Owls following Bradford’s lead from 2004 by suffering the indignity of relegation in what should be a year of celebration.
Sheffield Wednesday: Wildsmith; Venancio, Loovens (Thorniley 85), Pudil; Hunt (Palmer 77), Pelupessy, Clare, Reach, Boyd; Joao, Rhodes (Nuhiu 85). Unused substitutes: Dawson, Jones, Fox, Stobbs.
Derby County: Carson; Baird, Keogh, Davies, Forsyth; Huddlestone, Ledley (Anya 74); Weimann, Vydra (K Palmer 82), Johnson; Nugent (Jerome 82). Unused substitutes: Roos, Lawrence, Wisdom, Pearce.
Referee: D Coote (Nottinghamshire).
Results and tables: Page 22.