Sheffield Wednesday v Derby County: Owls still have points to prove in Championship

Look at the Championship table and you might conclude that barring an almighty midweek FA Cup shock at Manchester City, 12th-placed Sheffield Wednesday’s season is all but over.

Owls' Fernando Forestieri with Garry Monk. Pic Steve Ellis

Whether you think that or not, change is afoot at Hillsborough this summer, and the challenge for Garry Monk’s players is ensuring they are not left behind. There will be personal reasons for the players to ensure they follow Wednesday’s 1-0 victory over Charlton Athletic with another good performance at home to Derby County this afternoon.

This summer will be Monk’s first as Owls manager, and whether he likes it or not – after the mid-season downturn which brought harsh criticism of his players’ attitudes, he probably will – an overhaul is inevitable.

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Even if the club escapes a points deduction over the sale of Hillsborough, which could yet add unwanted meaning to a campaign which currently has them 11 points above the relegation zone, eight behind the play-offs, the fact they had to do it just to comply with the Football League’s profit and sustainability rules shows the need for greater prudence.

Morgan Fox, Sam Hutchinson, Joey Pelupessy, Kieran Lee, Fernando Forestieri, Jordan Rhodes, Steven Fletcher, Sam Winnall and Atdhe Nuhiu, who have a combined 174 Championship appearances this season, are out of contract.

January signings Josh Windass, Connor Wickham and Alessio Da Cruz came on loan, and Josh Murphy has been borrowed from Newcastle United.

The Owls have opened talks about extending Fox and Fletcher’s stays but Keiren Westwood, who signed a new two-year contract shortly before Monk’s arrival, is being frozen out, like Hutchinson and Rhodes.

The futures of others hang in the balance.

Forestieri was outstanding against the Addicks but a sixth consecutive start today would mark his longest run since early 2017.

Given Monk is the Owls’ fourth permanent manager – in addition to lengthy caretaker stints from Lee Bullen and Steve Agnew – in that time, the Italian cannot excuse it away.

“The only thing he lacked on Wednesday was a goal or two,” says Monk of a player who has appeared at No 9, 10 and left wing-back during the sequence.

“It’s the same as everyone, they need to perform and show the attitude and everything we know they can do consistently.

“Fernando’s getting his run of games and he’s done very well since he’s come back from injury. He’s had a stop-start season with his suspension at the start, then an injury, but he’s come back with a really good attitude. He was very unlucky in front of goal on Tuesday, he had some great opportunities.”

With 13-goal Fletcher so crucial – it was even more obvious when he was out of the side with a knee injury than in his impact from the bench at Birmingham City and against Charlton on his return – just getting time on the pitch is a challenge for Forestieri. Nuhiu played a slightly clumsy-looking but important part in Fletcher’s midweek stoppage-time winner, and Wickham has not been loaned from Crystal Palace to make up the numbers.

Monk is looking for a settled partnership, not to use his options to chop and change.

Also worth considering is the fact that Wednesday’s is the Championship’s second-oldest squad in terms of average age, after Cardiff City. Monk’s determination to keep 32-year-old Fletcher – who wants to stay – shows the importance he places on experience properly used. If Fletcher showed his value on the field in the last two games, he apparently demonstrated it behind the scenes when injured, rallying the team.

It is, after all, a 34-year-old former England captain who looked like he had headed into semi-retirement when he left for Major League Soccer in the summer of 2018 who will have featured prominently in the team meeting about Derby.

Like Wayne Rooney, Fletcher’s attitude is a refreshing throwback.

“We all talk about the lack of leadership,” argues Monk. “It’s much less in changing rooms and what you need is your senior players to be that voice from within as well as young players but the senior players are the most important, the most experienced, and you need that leadership from within.

“We’ve held lots of meetings and talks and stuff like that to try and get through not just the difficult moments but to try and maintain good runs. It’s all part of the work we do.

“Players like Barry (Bannan) and Fletch are massively important with the experience they have and their standing in the changing room, it’s important they use that influence in the right way and they’ve understood that and grown into it.

“Leadership can’t just come from myself or the staff. There’s more of a reluctance towards that now, a culture in changing rooms where everyone wants to be liked all the time.

“To get the best out of you and me, we have to be able to fall out.”

Monk is very much about the next game rather than looking too far ahead.

Having ended a seven-match winless streak on Wednesday, his main focus is picking the right team to follow it up.

“We have an opportunity to build some momentum off the back of these two performances,” he says.

“A lot of the elements of both those games were very much back to what we were before and it’s now the fight to maintain that and try and build some momentum. We need to put unbeaten runs together.

“We’ve started with two, we felt we should have won both games but before that it wasn’t about winning, winning, winning, it was about picking up regular points and that’s what got us to third. It wasn’t winning eight, nine, 10 wins in a row, we were putting consistent runs of points together.

“We need to use those two performances as a springboard.”