THESE are deeply worrying times for Sheffield Wednesday.
A season that began with the Owls harbouring hopes of a third successive promotion tilt is rapidly deteriorating into a campaign where reaching the traditional survival mark of 50 points is increasingly the overriding priority.
This was a particularly nasty New Year hangover for managerless Wednesday, with Lee Bullen’s first home match in temporary charge turning into a nightmare as the hosts suffered a third successive Hillsborough league defeat for the first time since November 2012.
It was a shambolic performance bereft of quality with the conviction almost exclusively arriving from the visitors, who secured their third successive away league victory in far more comfort than they would have envisaged.
The Brewers could even afford to spurn an early penalty, but they need not have worried with Owls’ flaky defence in charitable mood throughout the game.
The apologists may point to a raft of injuries to several high-profile Wednesday players, but the lack of collective fight on show by those wearing blue and white was alarming and will have deeply hurt Bullen, a man who cares passionately for the club.
Any graft and heart shown was by Burton with home supporters in the main stand showing a classy touch by applauding the visitors off the pitch at the final whistle, as Nigel Clough’s unbeaten managerial run against the Owls stretched to nine matches.
Any hope that chairman Dejphon Chansiri might have had with regard to Bullen buying him a bit of precious time in his search for a new manager was obliterated by the manner of the hosts’ wretched performance.
Wednesday require inspiration, leadership and direction pretty quickly or else a fraught campaign will soon get a whole lot worse.
Supporters showed what they made of it all towards the end, with a chorus of ‘You’re not fit to wear the shirt’ directed towards the home players from sections of the North Stand.
On a hugely difficult afternoon, a candid Bullen, fresh from watching the Owls completely outplayed in Saturday’s loss at Brentford, said: “A performance and result like that is embarrassing and totally unacceptable for the football club.
“Let’s not beat around the bush. We are six points above the relegation area and, with performances like that, you can see it going that way instead of that way (a play-off push).
“It was just so painful.”
Heading into the game with a miserable record of one victory in their previous nine matches, Wednesday looked every inch a confidence-sapped side in a desperately poor opening half, which saw Burton deservedly lead at the break.
Let’s not beat around the bush. We are six points above the relegation area and, with performances like that, you can see it going that way instead of that way (a play-off push). It was just so painful.Sheffield Wednesday caretaker coach, Lee Bullen
Overrun at times in midfield and laboured in possession, the Owls were second best to a Brewers side who displayed more tenacity, aggression and appetite.
Perhaps the only crumb of comfort for the Owls was the fact that they were only looking at a single-goal deficit at the break after the visitors missed a seventh-minute penalty.
Lucas Akins was the guilty party with Joe Wildsmith guessing correctly to dive to his left and keep out his weak spot-kick – his second penalty save in successive home games – after a foul from Jacob Butterfield on Will Miller, with the midfielder compounding his initial error after being dispossessed.
The Owls again laid out the welcome mat to enable Burton to forge into the lead eight minutes before the break. Tom Flanagan cut inside and waltzed past a succession of lame challenges before prodding the ball past Wildsmith for only the second league goal of his Burton career.
Wednesday’s best moment of a lamentable half arrived just before the break when a point-blank header from Jordan Rhodes was directed straight at the under-employed Stephen Bywater.
Boos at the half-time interval were thoroughly understandable and things got worse on 50 minutes.
Wednesday were sliced apart on the counter-attack with Akins bursting away before sending Lloyd Dyer clear on goal and the veteran winger kept his composure before steering the ball past the advancing Wildsmith.
Atdhe Nuhiu was immediately thrown into the fray and while his introduction did pep up the hosts, it could not yield a quick riposte, despite a brief spell of concerted pressure.
After John Brayford fired wide, the Owls finally began to take the game to the visitors, with Bywater parrying Rhodes’s sharp header before Adam Reach’s deflected strike looped narrowly over.
Nuhiu fired into the side-netting from a tight angle before testing the reactions of Bywater at his near post.
Another goal came, but for the visitors with the Owlsrearguard again undressed as Akins teed up Tom Naylor for a late third which was by no means flattering.
Sheffield Wednesday: Wildsmith; Hunt (Palmer 63), Venâncio, Loovens (Pudil 45), Fox; Butterfield (Nuhiu 52), Jones; Wallace, Reach, Joao; Rhodes. Unused substitutes: Dawson, Matias, Baker, Abdi.
Burton Albion: Bywater; Brayford, McFadzean, Buxton, Turner, Flanagan; Miller (Allen 70); Naylor, Murphy (Scannell 90), Dyer (Sbarra 90); Akins. Unused substitutes: Ripley, Akpan, Warnock, Sordell.
Referee: D England (South Yorkshire).