There has been little to celebrate in Sheffield Wednesday’s 150th anniversary party, but Sean Clare could be a belated gift.
Saturday’s defeat to Aston Villa left Wednesday seven points off the Championship drop zone in a season when promotion to the Premier League was owner Dejphon Chansiri’s mandate.
But a crushing injury list, which has seen a dozen first-teamers face lengthy lay-offs – midfielder Ross Wallace the latest to suffer a season-ending knee injury last week – meant promotion was never a realistic target.
But out of the darkness the Owls have unearthed some talented youngsters from the club’s Under-23 ranks.
Burning brightest is midfielder Clare, who capped his Wednesday debut with a man-of-the-match display in a 2-0 win over Derby County earlier this month.
He followed that with his first goal in Wednesday colours and another highly accomplished performance against third-placed Villa on Saturday.
The 21-year-old has pace, loves to run at defenders with the ball, and on another day could have had a first-half hat-trick against Villa.
After spending the first half of the season on loan with League One side Gillingham, Clare is determined to seize his chance with the Owls locked in contract talks; his current deal expires in the summer.
“I am enjoying my time here,” said Clare, who made his Owls debut as a substitute in the Steel City derby at Bramall Lane last month. “I believe in myself, and believe I can go all the way. The Championship is the next level.”
Clare opened the scoring against Villa, in front of the Kop, but the Owls were punished for spurning a host of chances as the visitors grabbed victory with two late goals.
The scoreline was certainly harsh on Wednesday, but Clare believes their last three home games – beating Derby, drawing against Premier League side Swansea City in the FA Cup, and Saturday’s performance – prove even with a patched-up side, the Owls are still capable of producing results.
“It happens, we played really well, we all know that, so it makes the defeat even more disappointing,” said Clare.
“We have shown how well we can play against a really good side.
“We just need to regroup. We are a good bunch of lads, we will pick ourselves up and go again.
“I am very confident (Owls can pull to safety). We have seen, and the fans have seen, against two of probably the best teams in the league, we have shown we can dominate them.
“We just need to turn those performances into wins.”
The Owls got off to a great start when Clare netted in just his second start for the club.
George Boyd’s cross picked out striker Atdhe Nuhiu, who chested the ball into Clare’s path and the youngster stroked the ball beyond goalkeeper Sam Johnstone. “I’ve been here a couple of years now, I’ve watched a lot of games at Hillsborough, so to score is a fantastic feeling,” said Clare.
But, just like in defeat at Millwall four days earlier, the Owls were undone from a set-piece.
A free-kick from the right found John Terry unmarked, but Owls goalkeeper Joe Wildsmith produced a stunning double save. He blocked Terry’s original header then parried Scott Hogan’s follow-up. But with Wednesday’s players caught ball watching, Lewis Grabban was queuing up to tap the ball home.
This was the prelude for incessant Wednesday attacking, and the only real puzzle was how they only led 2-1 at half-time.
Boyd smashed a shot against the woodwork, the rebound hitting Johnstone on the back but somehow staying out.
Nuhiu and Lucas Joao both headed wide and Clare forced Johnstone into a full-length save before seeing another effort deflected wide.
Boyd then saw his claims for a penalty waved away by referee Neil Swarbrick, after the player looked to be clipped in the area by James Chester.
But Wednesday eventually got the goal their play deserved, Portuguese international Joao heading in Boyd’s corner in first-half stoppage-time.
Former Owl Glenn Whelan restored parity in the second half, heading in Robert Snodgrass’s teasing cross.
Wednesday’s failure to be clinical with their finishing was again evident in the second half.
Frederico Venancio headed against a post and Joao’s follow-up was blocked by goalkeeper Johnstone.
Wednesday’s cause was not helped by referee Swarbrick, with the afternoon’s foul count amazingly being 16-1 in favour of the visitors.
Terry seemed fortunate to escape a booking, if not a red card, when he lunged in on Nuhiu who was racing through on goal. But Premier League official Swarbrick opted not to even issue a caution to the former England captain.
Nuhiu picked himself off the floor and seemed to take his frustrations out on the ball as he hammered a low shot, which Johnstone did well to keep out.
But with three minutes remaining former Barnsley midfielder Conor Hourihane drilled the ball into Wildsmith’s bottom right-hand corner.
Deep into stoppage- time Snodgrass was blocked in the area by Daniel Pudil and the former Leeds United midfielder picked himself up to net the penalty.
Clare said: “I think throughout the game we played really well, we just need to tighten up a bit to get the wins that we need.
“I’ve been happy with my performances over the past two games, but the results are the most important thing.”