Sheffield Wednesday v Birmingham City: Wildsmith quick to share credit for Owls’ defensive improvement

Sheffield Wednesday goalkeeper Joe Wildsmith reacts smartly to deny Middlesbrough's Stewart Downing (Picture: Steve Ellis).
Sheffield Wednesday goalkeeper Joe Wildsmith reacts smartly to deny Middlesbrough's Stewart Downing (Picture: Steve Ellis).
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Injuries have decimated, Sheffield Wednesday’s season but the Owls’ future looks to be in safe hands with rookie goalkeeper Joe Wildsmith.

The 22-year-old had only played a few games since coming through the Middlewood Road academy in 2013.

But since Republic of Ireland international Keiren Westwood joined the Owls’ lengthy injury list – which runs into double figures – two months ago, Wildsmith has shone in his absence.

He has kept successive clean sheets in his last four outings to help steady the ship since the exit of head coach Carlos Carvalhal.

Those performances – including league shut-outs at Sheffield United and Middlesbrough – earned the boyhood Owls supporter the club’s player of the month award for January.

But it was his display at Bramall Lane in the Steel City derby – with divided loyalties in the Wildsmith family, that includes both Owls and Blades – which is etched in his memory.

“It’s what I have dreamed about since being a kid,” said Wildsmith.

“Being at school, having banter with the kids, United and Wednesday fans. That’s what I have grown up with. Even with my family it’s split.

“Especially the United match, that was the big one. I had uncles in the Bramall Lane end, but I enjoyed every bit of it.”

The game stands out for one amazing save from Wildsmith, when the goalkeeper somehow got his hand to Clayton Donadlson’s header to tip the ball over the crossbar.

It seemed the entire Kop at Bramall Lane was trying to suck the ball into the goal, but Wildsmith stood defiant.

“That save (in the derby) meant a lot to me,” admitted Wildsmith. “The whole atmosphere, being at Bramall Lane, at their Kop end, just made it a little bit special.

“But that is what I am there to do, make saves.

“Playing games for the first time on a regular basis has been a new challenge for me.

“But it’s given me a lot of confidence and hopefully it will continue. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but if it does continue I am here – I have a five-year contract – and it bodes well for my future.”

The biggest compliment anyone can pay Wildsmith is that, unlike the rest of the missing Owls stars, the loss of Westwood has not been too taxing.

Over the years, the goalkeeper had shown glimpses of his quality, mainly in cup outings with stellar displays against the likes of Premier League opposition in Arsenal and Newcastle United.

But since Westwood’s enforced lay-off, Wildsmith has been first-choice for the last two months – his longest run of first-team football.

“When I first started in December there were a couple of mistakes,” he admitted. “But as the games have gone on, I have felt my confidence has got a lot better.

“Getting regular games helps you. It’s the most (consecutive) games I have played in my career.

“It’s been different for me, on a personal note, but I think it’s improved me as a player to get regular games.

“I am just happy to be playing games.

“You try and save every shot, it’s part of being a goalkeeper. You put the effort in every day in training to get better.

“The hard work gets put in out there (on the training ground) and for me, I have been lucky it’s been shown out on the pitch.

“It’s great to get the accolades for the saves, but it’s the pressure I put on myself anyway to make those saves.”

Since Jos Luhukay arrived at Hillsborough last month as manager, he has welded together the Owls’ defence.

Employing three centre-halves, Wednesday have conceded just once in six games – and even that was an own goal.

Wildsmith is quick to pay tribute to his team-mates for Wednesday’s new-found resilience.

“It’s great for me to be in a team that is defending very well at the minute,” said the former England Under-21 player.

“The goalkeeper always gets highlighted for clean sheets, but I would like to say it’s a team effort.

“Every player, whether it’s the strikers coming back to defend at corners, getting their head on the ball, is making my job a lot easier.

“I don’t want it to be all about me, just because we have had a lot of clean sheets. I want to mention the team because we all work hard for that clean sheet every game.”

Wildsmith also believes a change in tactics, from 4-4-2 favoured by Carvalhal to 3-5-2 under Luhukay, has helped the Owls.

“You have got three centre-halves in front of you, which makes my life a lot easier,” he said. “We then have two wing-backs who are defensively minded as well.

“That’s going to help the defensive side of the team, and I think that’s shown in the last six games when we have conceded just one goal.

“Changes have been made in those teams, too, it just shows the structure of the team is there and everyone knows their role.”

While the Owls have stopped the opposition scoring, they have seen goals dry up at the other end too. They failed to score in any of their four Championship games last month – prompting some social media jibes of a ‘dry January’ from Blades fans – and Luhukay now needs to find the right balance, between defence and attack.

Wildsmith, though, believes the goals will come, hopefully starting with today’s Championship visit of Birmingham City.

He said: “The goals have dried up, but that doesn’t stop the lads from working hard.

“Although the defensive side of the team is working, it’s also a transition time for the attacking side. They are working on how they need to move and play in this formation. That will come in time.”