Why Gary Hooper can be key to Sheffield Wednesday’s top-six chances

Sheffield Wednesday's Gary Hooper: Continues on the comeback trail today.
Sheffield Wednesday's Gary Hooper: Continues on the comeback trail today.
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SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY manager Steve Bruce believes that Gary Hooper could prove a trump card in the Owls’ stirring push for the Championship play-offs.

Form side Wednesday have propelled themselves into firm top-six contention following an eye-catching unbeaten run, with Bruce yet to sample defeat in his 10-match spell in charge at Hillsborough.

Since the sacking of Jos Luhukay in mid-December just the top two of Norwich City and Sheffield United have taken more points than the Owls, whose haul of 31 points in their last 16 games has seen them jump eight places from 18th to 10th.

As it stands Wednesday are just two points behind the side occupying the final play-off spot in Aston Villa and three adrift of faltering Middlesbrough, who reside in fifth position.

The growing feelgood factor at Hillsborough could be further enhanced today with Hooper scheduled to play in a behind-closed-doors game against Scunthorpe United at the Owls’ Middlewood training complex.

If all goes well, Hooper – who proved a catalyst for the Owls’ play-off qualification in an impressive run of form at the end of the 2016-17 campaign – will feature for an hour as he builds his match fitness.

The former Celtic and Norwich striker, who has not featured at first-team level since December, 2017, played for 45 minutes in last week’s Under-23s win over Crystal Palace and is aiming to take a further step in his comeback today.

Bruce is not discounting Hooper from providing a potentially key contribution, even if it comes from off the substitutes’ bench, in the run-in.

On the prospects of Hooper playing a telling cameo this Spring, Bruce said: “Absolutely. We all know he is a very, very good player at this level.

“If he can add to us, even if I have to bring him off, we have seen how important that substitutes are. Subs are a big part of the thinking now that is for sure. If he can be part of it that is fantastic news for everybody.

“If we needed a goal with 20 minutes to go he could give us something.

“We are hoping that we cannot rule out Hooper. He is ticking along quite nicely at the moment.

“It is a big couple of weeks now for him. We have arranged a game behind closed doors game here on Tuesday for all the players that have not been playing at all.

“At the moment, in terms of game time, he has not played a lot, but he is putting the mileage in with the training sessions he is doing, so fingers crossed.”

Wednesday will return to action after the international break with a trip to Stoke City on Saturday week, the first part of a tough run of fixtures that sees them visit leaders Norwich, third-placed Leeds United and fellow play-off contenders Preston.

Bruce’s side also face stiff home examinations against sides with similar promotion aspirations to their own in sixth-placed Villa, Nottingham Forest and Bristol City.

Given the momentum being generated by Wednesday, who have not been beaten in the league in 10 matches at Hillsborough since a 2-1 reverse to Derby County on November 24, midfielder Adam Reach insists that he and his team-mates will be embracing their run of fixtures.

He also believes that many rival sides will view a fixture with the Owls with a certain amount of trepidation with Wednesday not having been beaten in 11 league games.

Reach said: “If you want to get in the top six you have to deserve it and beat those teams in and around you, so if we end up in the play-offs from here then we will have thoroughly deserved it.

“They will be tough games, but we are in good form and I think everyone fears us a little bit.

“We know how tough it will be to reach those play-offs, but we are looking forward to it really.

“People may not have said we would be just outside the play-offs a couple of months ago, but that is the Championship for you.

“We said we would quietly go about it and see where it gets us, but there is still a long way to go and there are some tough games coming up.”

Sam Winnall could further boost his own fitness levels in today’s training ground game, with Bruce admitting that it will be some time before he regains full match sharpness.

The ex-Barnsley forward started his first Owls’ game since August, 2017 in Saturday’s 4-2 victory over visiting Blackburn Rovers following two contributions from the bench in the previous two matches against Bolton Wanderers and Derby, where he spent a spell last season on loan.

He lasted 55 minutes before being replaced by Marco Matias.

Bruce said: “Winnall had a wonderful cameo at Bolton and there was a bit of me asking, ‘do I leave him as substitute?’

“He also had a wonderful 30 minutes at Derby, but you could see on Saturday that it is going to take a bit of time.”

Wednesday will monitor Barry Bannan, who has withdrawn from the Scotland squad with an injury issue after being picked for their Euro 2020 qualifiers against Kazakhstan and San Marino, during the international break.

The Airdrie-born schemer, outstanding on Saturday, had returned to the Scots’ squad for the first time in 18 months.