GARY HOOPER enjoys the unique distinction of having scored in not only the top six tiers of English football, but also the Scottish Premier League and the Champions League.
Yesterday, he proved once again to be the man for the important occasion after netting twice to ease the pressure on Sheffield Wednesday head coach Carlos Caravlhal.
But for the crossbar and a last-ditch save from Felix Wiedwald, Hooper would have gone home with the match ball, but what mattered most from an Owls’ perspective was that a truly horrible week had ended on a high.
Losing the Steel City derby so emphatically to Chris Wilder’s United had hit the club hard. Not only had the manner of the loss left confidence levels on the floor, but speculation had started to mount on whether defeat in another high-profile fixture would prompt chairman Dejphon Chansiri, back in the country for the visit of Leeds United, to wield the axe and spend the international break searching for Carvalhal’s successor.
By the final whistle, such talk had ended with Wednesday producing arguably their most impressive display for the best part of 18 months.
With Barry Bannan providing a master class in midfield play and Ross Wallace’s delivery bordering on unplayable at times, Leeds were totally overrun and fortunate to escape with just a three-goal losing margin.
Few sporting black emerged with any credit. Okay, Samuel Saiz caught the eye in the early stages and Pierre-Michel Lasogga struck a post, but this was a performance so limp that head coach Thomas Christiansen was decrying his side as “soft” after slipping to a third consecutive defeat on the road.
As for Carvalhal, his understated reaction to victory – there was no fist-pumping or attempt to milk the applause on the touchline when Andrew Madley brought proceedings to an end – hardly hinted at the satisfaction he clearly felt when speaking to the press.
Having five days earlier crumpled and punched a £20 note to illustrate his view that the derby loss had not inflicted any lasting damage on his players, the Portuguese was again waving a £20 note around – though this time to suggest his side’s performance had been worth five of them.
In a county not renowned for throwing its money around, that might have been pushing things a tad, but there was little doubt such a committed and free-flowing performance had made a mockery of the gloom that had descended on Hillsborough in the immediate aftermath of losing to the Blades. It was also a very public ‘thank you’ from the players after Carvalhal had insisted on shouldering all the blame for the derby debacle.
Hooper’s first-half double came via typically clinical finishing from a striker who has scored goals wherever he has played, be it with Grays in Conference South or Celtic in the Champions League.
Both owed much to intuition and his happy knack of being in the right place at the right time, first from a Tom Lees knockdown and then when latching on to a Steven Fletcher header.
Seventeen minutes separated Hooper’s two goals and such was Wednesday’s dominance during that spell Leeds could not have complained if half-time had arrived with these two old Yorkshire foes separated by at least double that margin.
Kieran Lee did get the ball in the net on the half-hour only for the ‘goal’ to be wrongly ruled out by a linesman’s flag, the midfielder having been a yard onside when Bannan threaded through the pass.
That was a big let-off for United, who were also fortunate to benefit from an early contender for miss of the season by Fletcher as the Scottish international somehow headed wide from three yards when picked out by the excellent Wallace.
Another of those right-wing deliveries from Wallace left Joost van Aken tantalisingly close to applying the final touch during an onslaught that left Leeds delighted to hear the half-time whistle blow.
Hopes of a possible turnaround, however, proved wide of the mark as Wednesday continued to play with panache after the break.
Hooper had two early chances to claim the match ball for the first time since netting a hat-trick in Norwich City colours against Blackpool in February, 2015. The first came via an improvised flicked effort from a cross from Adam Reach that flew just wide.
Then, after Bannan had opened up the Leeds defence with yet another well-timed pass, Hooper’s shot was beaten away by Felix Wiedwald.
Later, the Owls striker hit the crossbar and Bannan a post before Lee capped a comprehensive victory by drilling in from 20 yards following an abysmal attempted clearance from Eunan O’Kane.
Leeds had their chances. Pierre-Michel Lasogga struck a post after an awful blunder by van Aken, while Pontus Jansson had a header cleared off the line by Lee.
Samuel Saiz also wasted two gilt-edged opportunities when the visitors trailed 2-0, first curling a shot wide from 15 yards and then being denied by a near post save from Joe Wildsmith.
Had either of these chances been converted then the afternoon may well have panned out differently.
In truth, though, Leeds did not deserve anything after such a wretchedly poor defensive display and there is plenty of work to do for Christiansen to rectify matters.