Sheffield Wednesday power into League One play-offs after a milestone afternoon against Cheltenham

IT started out as a day of milestones for Sheffield Wednesday captain Barry Bannan and fellow stalwart Sam Hutchinson.

It ended with more milestones and more importantly the sight of the Owls surging into the League One play-offs - and with a bit of late swagger to boot.

The game finished 4-1, two weeks on from the Owls six-goal drubbing of Cambridge United, but the scoreline did not quite tell the whole story.

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Cheltenham, who took an early lead through former Doncaster Rovers striker Alfie May which was soon cancelled out by an unlikely source in Massimo Luongo, were game and well in the match until capitulating late on.

Hillsborough, home of Sheffield Wednesday.Hillsborough, home of Sheffield Wednesday.
Hillsborough, home of Sheffield Wednesday.

Lee Gregory ended his goal drought stretching back to mid-December with a splendid 58th-minute drive. It was not the precursor to comfort for the Owls, quite the opposite.

Bailey Peacock-Farrell made a huge save and the Robins also struck the bar before the relief came by virtue of a thumping volley from Jack Hunt to make the game safe with his first ever goal in his two spells with Wednesday.

Further gloss arrived when George Byers netted his sixth goal of the campaign as Wednesday leapfrogged above Sunderland into sixth spot.

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On his 300th appearance, it should have been no surprise that Bannan was at the heartbeat of most things good for Wednesday - for the umpteenth time in his proud association with the club.

But an indication of the sort of half that the hosts had arrived on a couple of occasions when he remonstrated with his team-mates for a lack of movement, with some of the hosts’ passing being sloppy and untidy.

The game started in the worst possible way imaginable when May - sold by Darren Moore in his time at Rovers - returned to haunt his former manager by firing Cheltenham ahead after just four minutes on the Robins’ first ever visit to S6.

It came after an error in possession from Luongo - thankfully he would quickly atone.

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The Aussie was dispossessed by one-time Hull City player Elliott Bonds, who played the ball intelligently forward to May, whose movement posed issues for Wednesday’s backline.

The in-form striker cut inside down the right channel and needed no hesitation in firing off a fierce shot, which took a significant deflection off Jordan Storey before sailing over Bailey Peacock-Farrell - for his 20th league goal of the campaign and 23rd in all competitions.

Mercifully, Wednesday dusted themselves quickly and levelled just three minutes later.

That Bannan played an assist had an air of inevitability about it on this day of all days.

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The Scot’s right-wing corner was flicked on by Harlee Dean - handed his first start since the Morecambe game - with Luongo showing great ingenuity to hook the ball past Cheltenham keeper Owen Evans from close range to register his first goal at Hillsborough in almost two and a half years.

It should have been the platform for Wednesday to settle, but their final ball regularly let them down on an admittedly bobbly surface at regular junctures of a patchy first half.

One good chance came after Bannan instigated a neat short free-kick routine when Marvin Johnson’s drive was blocked by Evans.

Johnson became a more productive outlet as the half wore on with one cross picking out Lee Gregory, but his close control let him down when in front of goal.

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Luongo, clearly with the taste for it, also could not direct a header goalwards after being found by Johnson, while an offside flag prevented embarrassment for Mendez-Laing when he fired wide after being sent clear by a beautiful pass from Bannan.

Attacking the Kop end, the majority of the second-half pressure came from Wednesday. But they struggled to find a way through.

A half-chance saw Byers head over following Mendez-Laing’s corner before Gregory soothed home nerves with a cracking low strike from distance. How Wednesday needed that with good work arriving from Bannan and Byers in the build-up.

At the other end, they also required a fantastic block from Peacock-Farrell to preserve their lead.

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Wednesday were unhinged down their right with Ellis Chapman and May combining to set substitute George Lloyd - just a couple of minutes after entering the fray - from point-blank range, only for the ultra-alert Peacock-Farrell to provide a big contribution in the context of the game and save the day.

It was the precursor to a threatening spell from the Robins to test the hosts’ resolve and nerve.

Soon after, Bonds saw his rising drive shudder the woodwork with Peacock-Farrell rooted to the spot. Thankfully, Lloyd’s follow-up header was straight at him.

Play swung to the other end with Gregory and Byers failing to turn in Hunt’s centre before a fine last-ditch challenge from Dean prevented danger man May from getting a shot on goal.

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Charlie Raglan then saw his header sail just over as the hosts started to look edgy and vulnerable at the back all of a sudden.

Wednesday held firm and ended the game with a flourish and swagger, with Hunt blasting home on the volley after being left unchecked from Johnson’s cross before Cheltenham’s defence were again absent without leave to enable Byers to tuck away a fourth after being sent clear.

Sheffield Wednesday: Peacock-Farrell; Storey (Iorfa 83), Dean, S Hutchinson; Hunt, Bannan, Luongo, Byers, Johnson; Gregory (Paterson 89), Mendez-Laing (Sow 65). Substitutes unused: Wildsmith, Dunkley, Dele-Bashiru, Kamberi.

Cheltenham Town: Evans; Raglan (Sercombe 75), Pollock, Boyle; Long, Bonds, Chapman (Etete 78), Wright, R Hutchinson; Blair (Lloyd 62), May. Substitutes unused: Flinders, Freestone, Thomas, A Williams.

Referee: T Robinson (West Sussex).

Attendance: 21,925.

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