Sheffield Wednesday back in the promotion hunt

WHEN talk turns to Cheltenham, staying power and lasting the course is the name of the game.

Pretty much the same can be said about a neck-and-neck play-off race and not just equine matters with March, of course, being the month when the West Country town hosts its famous racing festival – the glorious climax of the National Hunt season.

Speaking of Hunt, Saturday was a day when Sheffield Wednesday’s wing-back cleared his own hurdle, by way of his first-ever goal in his 146th appearance for the club, which spans two spells.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

His emphatic volley at the far post from Marvin Johnson’s cross to make it 3-1 in front of the Kop finally broke the will of opponents Cheltenham. Just for good measure, George Byers added a late fourth as Wednesday continued their goals bonanza at S6.

Happy Owls scorers George Byers and Jack Hunt. Picture: Steve Ellis

No-one has scored more goals than the Owls on home soil this year – it’s now 26 in 10 matches. No other side has also now taken more points in front of their own spectators in England’s top-four tiers this season, with Wednesday’s total up to an outstanding 44 from 20 games.

The sun was out on one of those gorgeous late-season days when promotion talk can fill the air. Wednesday are far from there yet, but they now find themselves in the play-off spots and have a lot going for them and not just their home form.

Eighteen different Owls players have now found the net for them this term. Some observers might opine at the unsettled nature of the Owls line-up in this campaign, yet no-one can deny that Darren Moore’s squad are not all chipping in regarding the scoring stakes.

This game, ultimately, was not just about goals.

Equalising goal from Owls midfielder Massimo Luongo. Picture: Steve Ellis

The heavy lifting is being shared in other key aspects and while the afternoon ended in comfort for Wednesday, it could easily have gone the other way.

After Lee Gregory had clinically ended his scoring drought with his first goal in nine matches since December 11 to put the Owls 2-1 ahead, Cheltenham – on their first ever trip to Hillsborough – threatened to spoil the afternoon.

Bailey Peacock-Farrell, with little to do on the day in truth, made a brilliant block to deny substitute George Lloyd after the hosts had been undressed.

He was not alone in his resistance.

.Jack Hunt scores the third goal. Picture: Steve Ellis

The Robins went desperately close to levelling again when Elliott Bonds’s strike shuddered the upright, with Lloyd’s follow-up header straight at Peacock-Farrell.

The returning Harlee Dean, strong in the second half, then produced a telling last-ditch block to deny dangerman Alfie May. It was as good as a goal.

Wednesday went onto run away with it.

But Dean and Peacock-Farrell’s contributions might just be remembered in May if Moore’s side do secure a top-six finish.

Hunt said: “We had that little bit of luck with Bailey’s fantastic save and Harlee’s great block. I thought he was brilliant coming back into the team. Then it was bang, bang and the game was over.”

On his own milestone goal on an uplifting afternoon when rapturous pre-match applause greeted captain Barry Bannan on his 300th Owls appearance with Sam Hutchinson also stepping out for the 200th time in the blue and white, the defender continued: “It is a fantastic feeling.

“It has been coming and I have been getting the opportunities in the right places, but not been taking my chances. This gets that weight off my back.

“I have been getting some stick, but up until the Accrington game, I have not really thought about it too much.

“I am happy Marvin got the assist as he has been putting the ball in some nice areas for me.

“I got a few goals at Bristol and can’t put my finger on why I haven’t here. I have been getting in the right places.

“I did one similar in training on Tuesday and it was a bit of a joke on the sidelines. A few of the staff said they fancied me to score today. My family were close in the corner [of the South Stand] as well and it meant a lot to me. I wear my heart on the pitch every time I play.”

As for the play-offs, Hunt believes he is overdue some fortune.

“For me, I have not got the best play-off record. In three times at Huddersfield, I have got promoted once and have not been promoted here,” he added.

“But if we can get there, I fancy us versus anyone.

“I think it is more disappointing we aren’t closer to the top two.”

On a day when most felt the Owls had to win, it started badly when May – sold by Moore in his time at Doncaster Rovers – notched his 23rd strike of a prolific season.

May only joined the Robins 26 months ago, but he is already the club’s third-highest scorer in the Football League.

He was played in by Bonds, who profited on Massimo Luongo’s mistake with the striker’s rising near-post drive taking a deflection off Jordan Storey.

Luongo soon atoned with a rare goal, his first at Hillsborough in almost two-and-a-half years. It was that sort of day, with the midfielder acrobatically hooking home after Dean’s flick on from Bannan’s inswinging corner.

Wednesday’s final ball and option let them down for the rest of the first half. They persevered and got their rewards.

Gregory’s deadly drive after Bannan made a nuisance of himself from Byers’s lofted pass was just reward for a tireless display.

Wednesday had their scares, but ultimately finished at a canter. Don’t back against them.