Sheffield Wednesday’s slide continues as experienced duo left out in the cold for Reading defeat

When Garry Monk returned to Sheffield Wednesday in September he walked into Hillsborough with his eyes wide open.

Back in the fray: Recalled Owlswinger Kadeem Harris runs at the Reading defence . Picture: Steve Ellis

The former Owls player identified the issues facing the Championship club – from its off-field financial problems to freshening up an ageing, stagnating squad.

They were always going to be the long-term goals, but Monk – even at the tender managerial age of 40, after abrupt exits at Leeds United and Middlesbrough – knows from bitter experience that football has little appetite for anything other than the here and now.

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That is why Monk faced questions about his own future at Hillsborough, following a 3-0 home defeat to Reading – a club who had not tasted victory in their previous six league games.

Sending off for Owls youngster Osaze Urhoghide. (Picture: Steve Ellis)

It extended Wednesday’s own sorry sequence to just one win in 10 games. From third spot on Christmas Day, the Owls today sit 12th in the Championship, nine points adrift of the play-offs, and yet to score a goal at Hillsborough in 2020.

Many will have sympathy for Monk, deservedly so, but the bottom line is Wednesday are not getting the results their squad merits. It has the ability as their rise to third in the table before Christmas underlined.

Several players are injured – like top scorer Steven Fletcher – but Monk’s refusal to play key players Keiren Westwood and Sam Hutchinson is a head-scratching issue.

On pure footballing ability both Westwood – the Republic of Ireland international – and midfield enforcer Hutchinson would be in the starting XI.

But, while Monk has refused to confirm reports the duo have played their last games for the Owls, actions speak louder than words.

When the manager changes tactics and personnel on a game-by-game basis to try and cure Wednesday’s tailspin – on Saturday he ditched the experiment of playing three centre-backs, and dropped captain Tom Lees, midfielder Barry Bannan and loan duo Connor Wickham and Josh Windass, after just two games – the experience of Westwood and Hutchinson is left sitting in the stands.

Asked if the duo’s Hillsborough days were numbered, Monk replied: “At the end of the day, I have been in changing rooms for 25 years and I know what a successful environment looks like.

“I have to make decisions for various reasons, that I think will help that environment, and that goes for the whole squad.

“What I will say, is that every single player knows where he stands.”

But would not their experience be vital to curb this slide down the Championship?

“I don’t think that would help, we have already tried it,” explained Monk. “That’s not helped.

“It’s a case of not being at the level that you need, that fight-for-your-life mentality, that need to win and strive for something a bit more. The effort is there, I thought the effort was there today, but I am talking about that extra level of tenacity, which has been lacking in this period.”

The logical conclusion is their exclusion is due to off-field issues. The pair are two of the loudest characters in the Owls changing room, and it is not the first time they have been frozen out.

Previous head coach Jos Luhukay also ostracised Westwood and Hutchinson, a decision which contributed to his exit 13 months ago.

Westwood has not played since November, but a spate of recent errors from Dawson – and it has to be stressed he is not alone when it comes to mistakes – has increased the pressure for change.

Hutchinson last played in the FA Cup win at QPR on January 24, and the Owls have failed to win any of the five subsequent games.

Wednesday were actually the better team in the opening 20 minutes on Saturday. Recalled winger Kadeem Harris was set free down the left flank by Fernando Forestieri, and when his shot was parried by Rafael Cabral, Alessio Da Cruz was unable to tuck away the loose ball.

Monk’s reaction to a limp 1-0 defeat at relegation strugglers Luton Town in midweek was to make four changes.

But Reading’s opening goal once again highlighted the lack of defensive cover in Wednesday’s midfield since Hutchinson’s exile.

Ovie Ejaria was allowed far too much space to thread a pass between centre-back pairing Julian Borner and Dominic Iorfa, and Yakou Meite nipped in to fire beyond a stranded Dawson.

Having failed to score at Hillsborough in 2020, Wednesday offered little in attack.

Monk brought on Bannan at half-time, but three minutes into the second half, right-back Osaze Urhoghide was harshly sent off after picking up his second yellow card.

It was quickly turning into another Hillsborough horror show –like last month’s 5-0 loss to Blackburn Rovers – and when Andy Yiadom’s long-range effort took a deflection off George Puscas, it crept beyond Dawson.

If the Owls goalkeeper was at fault for that goal, he saved a certain third, when denying Ejaria in a one-on-one.

But the Royals did make it 3-0 in stoppage-time, Iorfa tripping Sam Baldock and the Reading substitute tucking away the resulting penalty.

Monk’s dilemma now is how can he plug the gaps and rescue Wednesday’s season.