AS STARTS to a new year go, this was rather more palatable than the serving that Sheffield Wednesday dished up on home soil 365 days earlier.
Back on January 1, 2018, Lee Bullen was forced to pick up the pieces following a quite atrocious 3-0 home defeat to Burton Albion, with the pained expression of the distraught Owls caretaker manager there for all to see when addressing the press afterwards.
This time around, Bullen, in his latest game in interim charge, was able to reflect upon events with considerably more pride, even if there was frustration at the scoreline.
It was a game which Wednesday dominated, only for a combination of inspired goalkeeping from veteran keeper Lee Camp –some of it unorthodox – and some errant finishing denying three deserved points.
The performance of the former Rotherham United custodian – labelled as ‘the best player on the pitch’ by Birmingham manager Garry Monk – was summed up by two instinctive late blocks to thwart Atdhe Nuhiu as Wednesday laid siege and Blues creaked, only to somehow escape with a point.
Wednesdayites who gathered together in the club’s biggest crowd of the season – 29,462 – may have rued the scoreline, but they were far from short-changed in terms of the entertainment levels following an assertive and fluid attacking performance from the Owls, who extended their unbeaten sequence under Bullen to four matches.
When the baton is handed over shortly, most likely to Steve Bruce, there will be plenty for the new Wednesday chief to work with – with confidence levels getting healthily replenished.
A splendid 18th-minute opener from Steven Fletcher, who led the line superbly, bore the hallmark of quality, with a fine contribution from George Boyd being another selling point.
Barry Bannan and Sam Hutchinson were among others who displayed assertion and conviction, with it all the more galling that one momentary slip early in the second half was punished when former Sheffield United striker Che Adams levelled.
Creditably, Wednesday dusted themselves down and produced an enterprising and forceful riposte without quite managing to deliver the knock-out blow.
After a quiet opening, Wednesday summoned up energy and purpose to deliver some warming fare in front of a healthy holiday crowd.
The confidence which the Owls displayed in stand-out performances at the Hawthorns and Riverside Stadium was exhibited at home and their reward arrived in the shape of Fletcher’s excellent opener, a fine hooked finish after Tom Lees nodded on Bannan’s free-kick.
The hosts impressed with some neat passing exchanges and clever movement allied to a strong work ethic, while there were few alarms at the back in another welcome development.
A picture-book move which saw Camp deny Marco Matias at his near post following a superb reverse pass from Bannan proved a highlight, as did Fletcher’s strike, finished with aplomb on the turn.
Ahead of Fletcher’s opener, defender Michael Hector passed up a good opportunity from close range following Bannan’s inswinging corner, with subdued Birmingham’s sole chance of note coming just before the break when Lukas Jutkiewicz fired wide from distance.
More of the same would have been the interval message from Bullen after seeing Wednesday dominate the majority of the first half, with the questions all belonging to jaded Blues, who looked nothing like a play-off candidates on the evidence of the opening 45 minutes.
The visitors plainly needed something and it arrived with their first telling opportunity on 48 minutes when Adams coolly steered the ball past goalkeeper Keiren Westwood after the Owls rearguard erred for the first time – with the striker latching onto Jutkiewicz’s header following a punt forward from Michael Morrison.
The leveller briefly winded the hosts before they got back on-message in front of the Kop.
Camp showed agility to turn away a fierce angled half-volley from Adam Reach before producing a splendid reaction save to deny Marco Matias as the chances started to stack up.
The Wednesday pressure was sustained, with the increasingly busy Camp keeping out Fletcher’s downward header before blocking an angled low shot from the Owls frontman.
A late free-kick from Craig Gardner almost yielded a smash-and-grab winner for Blues before Nuhiu was denied twice by Camp amid fierce late pressure, with Reach’s follow-up flashing agonisingly wide.
It was that sort of day for Wednesday.
Sheffield Wednesday: Westwood; Palmer, Lees, Hector, Fox; Boyd (Winnall 89), Bannan, Hutchinson, Reach; Matias, Fletcher (Nuhiu 89). Substitutes unused: Dawson, Pelupessy, Baker, Pudil, Penney.
Birmingham City: Camp; Harding, Morrison, Dean, Colin; G Gardner (C Gardner 63), Kieftenbeld; Maghoma (Mahoney 45), Jota, Adams; Jutkiewicz. Substitutes unused: Trueman, Scarr, Dacres-Copley, Lubala, Lakin.
Referee: A Woolmer (Northants).