Steven Fletcher back to his best to bully Wigan Athletic into submission

STEVE BRUCE would have relished playing against Sheffield Wednesday striker Steven Fletcher.

Steven Fletcher celebrates his winning goal against Wigan.

The Scottish international netted the winner in Saturday’s victory over Wigan – as comprehensive as you can get in a 1-0 win – but he bullied the visiting defence into submission.

Fletcher, operating as a lone striker, won almost every header, was a focal point of the Owls attacks, and but for Wigan goalkeeper Jamie Jones would have had more than just his 25-yard winner to show for his afternoon toils.

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Former Manchester United defender Bruce – who takes over as Wednesday manager on February 1 – loved a tussle in his playing days, so would have enjoyed Fletcher’s shift.

Steven Fletcher and Keiren Westwood embrace after Sheffield Wednesday's victory over Wigan.

The 31-year-old certainly impressed Bruce’s No 2, Steve Agnew, the Owls caretaker manager hailing Fletcher as one of the best No 9s in the Championship.

In an era when the traditional, towering British centre forward is often nudged out by the more fashionable No 10, Fletcher is a welcome throwback.

He netted the winner on 62 minutes, racing clear – after slick passing between Barry Bannan and Adam Reach – before a lovely left-footed curling shot beat Jones.

“He was a real handful all afternoon,” said Agnew. “He was excellent. He won almost every header.

“If he performs like he did today, he is as good as there is in the league as a No 9. There’s not many like Fletch, back to goal, a threat in the air, terrific finisher.

“On the training round he is clinical. If he is in the right place, and the service is good, he will score goals. I think he has scored five this season, I would like to think he can reach double figures.”

After last year was ruined by injuries, Fletcher looks back to the form which once convinced Sunderland to pay £12m for his services.

“He was fantastic today,” agreed team-mate Michael Hector. “He won almost every header.

“With the goal, his finish, you could see the quality.

“He is a big player for us and that performance showed why.

“In training, we had a ‘young v old’ and he caused me a lot of problems.

“You want to train with players like him, good quality players, it’s the only way you are going to get better.

“He is aggressive, has skills, is strong, and you can see he has played in the Premier League. He has that quality.”

Fletcher was integral to most of Wednesday’s attacks on Saturday. His deflected shot created the corner from which Marco Matias nearly caught out Jones with a low cross.

And the Wigan stopper had to claw away Fletcher’s goal-bound shot, while the Owls had two penalty appeals waved away. Reach raced clear, but was brought down as Cheyenne Dunkley raced back to clear the ball – “it looked a penalty from where I was, I thought Adam got across him,” said Agnew – while there were suggestions of handball when Cedric Kipre blocked Fletcher’s fierce drive.

And yet for all the hosts’ chances, it was Wigan who came closest to scoring in the first half. Anthony Pilkington’s header from a corner zipped across goal, but Joe Garner was unable to make enough contact to force the ball over the line.

What followed was a one-sided second half, as Wednesday dominated.

Last-ditch defending blocked efforts from Reach and Fletcher, before the latter finally broke the deadlock. The only negative was Wednesday failed to kill the game off with a second goal.

Substitute Lucas Joao set George Boyd clear, but the midfielder was denied by a goalmouth block.

Goalkeeper Jones then twice came to his side’s rescue, prompting Wigan boss Paul Cook to say afterwards: “Jamie Jones was probably our best player this afternoon, and when your ‘keeper is your best player that normally tells a story about the game.”

First, Jones saved from Boyd, before diving at the feet of substitute Atdhe Nuhiu in a goalmouth scramble.

“I think we dominated from start to finish,” said on-loan Chelsea defender Hector. “It was a comfortable game for us.

“We would have liked to have scored more goals, but a clean sheet is a big bonus after last Saturday (losing 3-0 at Hull). Our performance, on and off the ball, was really good.”

The clean sheet was Wednesday’s fifth in eight games since Jos Luhukay was axed. Under the Dutchman, this Owls team had the unwanted record of the worst defence in the Championship.

But recalling several experienced players like goalkeeper Keiren Westwood, plus midfielders Sam Hutchinson and George Boyd – frozen out by Luhukay – Wednesday have looked a different team.

“I think the consistency in the back four has helped a lot,” said Hector, part of a settled back four now alongside Tom Lees, Liam Palmer and Morgan Fox. “Now we know our strengths and weaknesses, and can build on that. I think our performances have been a lot better.

“Keiren coming in, obviously he is more experienced, a fans’ favourite. He shouts a lot behind me – which is not nice – but sometimes you need it. It’s been a big boost to have him back, his experience has helped us a lot.

“With Sam (Hutchinson) coming back, the core of the team looks more solid now.”

Sheffield Wednesday: Westwood, Palmer, Lees, Hector, Fox, Hutchinson, Bannan, Reach, Matias (Joao 61), Boyd, Fletcher (Nuhiu 82). Unused substitutes: Dawson, Baker, Jones, Winnall, Thorniley.

Wigan Athletic: Jones, James, Dunkley, Kipre, Naismith, Pilkington (Jacobs 45), Evans, Morsy, Roberts (Grigg 67), Windass, Garner (McManaman 81). Unused substitutes: Walton, Byrne, Vaughan, Connolly.