Sheffield Wednesday head into English football’s final fixture of 2014 knowing they have come a long way in the last 12 months.
The Owls ended 2013 sitting in the bottom three of the Championship with a paltry 19 points from 22 games.
But under Stuart Gray – who succeeded the axed Dave Jones just over a year ago – Wednesday enjoyed a fine second half of the season.
They eventually finished in 16th spot with 53 points, collecting 34 points – 10 wins, and four draws – from New Year’s Day onwards. A similar points tally between now and the end of the season would see Wednesday – who have 31 points ahead of tonight’s trip to Wigan Athletic – close to the projected play-offs. Brighton finished sixth last year with 72 points.
Victory at the DW Stadium tonight would see the Owls close to just six points off the play-offs and defender Tom Lees – a summer signing from Leeds United – believes the club can finally start looking upwards.
“We’ve made a lot of progress,” said defender Lees. “The club, as a whole, is totally different from what I imagined Sheffield Wednesday would be like.
“The style of play is different and so is the personnel. We will try and replicate that form Wednesday showed at the back end of last season.
“If we win on Tuesday, that will put us firmly in the top half. It’s really tight. It can go both ways, whether you are looking up or down.
“If we win, we are six points off the play-offs. You can’t write anybody off. I’m sure there are teams below us who will be thinking they can get in the play-offs.
“It’s important you maintain that consistency. It’s no good going on a run of winning games and having a massive downfall like we have seen with a lot of teams this season.
“There is no one really this season who has taken the league by the scruff of the neck and run away with it.
“That’s the case in the play-offs, mid-table. Teams like Birmingham and Bolton are starting to look up.
“You’ve got to be consistent because if you go a few weeks without picking up points, you can be down there.
“It works the other way too. If we can string a few wins together, you can be right in the mix.
“If we can stay around that top 10 for as long as possible, come the end of the season, there’s only going to be four or five points in it, so that’s got to be the aim.”
Tonight the Owls face a Wigan team who occupy one of the three relegation places in the Championship.
The hosts are a team brimming with Premier League experience, and 24-year-old Lees is all too aware Wednesday will need to be at the top of their game tonight. Before their last trip, a shock 4-0 thrashing at Fulham, Wednesday had the best away record in the Championship.
“Wigan are a team who would probably say they are under-achieving with the squad they’ve got,” he said.
“They have some great players in their squad. I think it is a matter of time before the players gel and fulfil the potential they’ve got.
“If you were to look at a team on paper, you would probably put it up there as one of the strongest teams in the league but for some reason it has not been clicking for them. They won on Boxing Day so they will be full of confidence so we need to make sure we get off to a good start.
“They’ve got the potential to be a really good team. They have good attacking players and good players at the back. They’ve got a lot of experienced Premier League players so if they get it right they can be a real force.
“We’ve got to focus on what we are good at and if we can put them under pressure. They’ve only won one game. We need to get them under pressure again in front of their home crowd and stop them playing their nice football.”
Wigan v Wednesday is one of just three Championship games tonight – the final fixtures for the Football League in 2014 – and Lees admits the 48 hours extra rest has been welcome, with all their rivals having played Sunday.
He said: ”It’s definitely helped. It looked a tough slog for the players turning it around in one day.
“Luckily enough, we were at home watching in front of the TV. You’ve got to appreciate that is a real big ask.
“To have an extra few days is great and we have prepared properly for this game. We will be putting that extra energy that we’ve got into our performance.”
The Owls are waiting on the fitness of captain Glenn Loovens (hamstring) and midfielder Lewis McGugan (illness). Gray said: “Glenn will be touch and go. Glenn was very close to playing against Blackpool. He trained today but he felt it slightly so we will just review it tomorrow.”
Last six: Wigan DLLLLW Sheffield Wednesday DWWLLW.
Referee: D Whitestone (Northants).
Last time: Wigan 1 Sheffield Wednesday 0, March 12 2014, Championship.