FLETCHER FIRES OWLS TO GLORY

Sloppy Mag­pies mauled by the for­mer Black Cat

The Football League Paper - - CHAMPIONSHIP - By Chris Dunlavy

GUTSY Sh­effield Wed­nes­day re­claimed their place in the top six thanks to a win­ner from for­mer Sun­der­land striker Steven Fletcher.

The 30-year-old, signed from New­cas­tle’s bit­ter ri­vals on a free trans­fer last sum­mer, scored a spec­tac­u­lar header af­ter Tom Lees had given the Owls a de­served sec­ond-half lead.

Jonjo Shelvey’s late strike came too late for the off-colour ti­tle favourites, who drop to sec­ond fol­low­ing Brighton’s vic­tory over QPR on Fri­day.

Wed­nes­day had kicked off in sev­enth place with the play-off place de­manded of Car­los Car­val­hal in se­ri­ous jeop­ardy af­ter a run of one win in five games. But the un­der-pres­sure Por­tuguese saw his play­ers re­spond in style.

“We played against the best team in the com­pe­ti­tion but we won and we de­served to win,” said Car­val­hal, whose side com­pleted a league dou­ble over New­cas­tle.

“On the break, we cre­ated three or four clear chances to score. Ev­ery­body will agree with me that we were the best team on the pitch.

“Af­ter we lost at Barns­ley, I said the qual­ity would im­prove and I said this week that we would be at a high stan­dard. To­day, we were near our best.

“Be­fore the game I said to the play­ers, ‘We are Sh­effield Wed­nes­day’. By that I mean we are a big club, who should stand face-to-face with ev­ery club in this league, even New­cas­tle. That is ex­actly what we did.”

Car­val­hal has bit­terly lamented the ab­sence of Gary Hooper this sea­son. The for­mer Celtic for­ward, foil to Fernando Forestieri and scorer of 13 goals last sea­son, has man­aged just 19 ap­pear­ances in an in­jury-blighted cam­paign.

On this ev­i­dence, the gripes are jus­ti­fied. Though he waste­fully smashed a golden chance against the bar, Hooper crafted two won­der­ful early open­ings for strike part­ner Steven Fletcher.

Teed up six yards out, the Scot first hacked em­bar­rass­ingly wide of an open goal, then suf­fered a brave goalline block from Karl Dar­low. Chan­cel Mbe­mba, mugged by Hooper on his own by­line, was the most re­lieved man in Hills­bor­ough.

With the spar­ingly used David Jones pro­vid­ing vi­tal bal­last in the mid­dle, this was like watch­ing the Wed­nes­day of 2015-16 – quick on the break, pace on the flanks, full-backs bomb­ing on and pep­per­ing the box.

With the ex­cep­tion of Shelvey’s spec­tac­u­lar ef­fort from half­way, tipped onto the bar by Kieren West­wood, the home side bossed a first half that also saw New­cas­tle lose top-scorer Dwight Gayle to yet an­other ham­string in­jury.

Aided, no doubt, by a half-time livener from Rafael Ben­itez, the Mag­pies briefly fizzed into ac­tion. Thrice Shelvey stung the palms of West­wood, the best with a dip­ping free-kick. Ay­oze Perez, again pe­riph­eral, wafted a limp shot goal­wards.

The goal Wed­nes­day had threat­ened fi­nally ar­rived when Ross Wal­lace swung a sump­tu­ous free-kick onto the fore­head of Lees, who deftly guided his ef­fort be­yond Dar­low.

Fletcher then atoned for his ear­lier profli­gacy by loop­ing a sen­sa­tional long-range header into the far cor­ner for his ninth goal of the sea­son.

Car­val­hal’s men spent the fi­nal quar­ter in cruise con­trol. Shelvey’s goal, a smartly dis­patched re­bound af­ter West­wood had par­ried from Alek­san­dar Mitro­vic, jarred them to life. The kitchen sink was duly lobbed in a fran­tic in­jury-time scram­ble, but the Owls de­servedly held on.

“Very dis­ap­point­ing,” said a down­beat Ben­itez. “We didn’t do what we have to do. We made too many mis­takes. We started badly and even when we were on top of them, we made a silly foul that al­lowed them to go ahead. Then it was all up­hill.”

PIC­TURE: Ac­tion Images

FLY­ING HIGH: Steven Fletcher cel­e­brates scor­ing Wed­nes­day’s sec­ond

LATE PRES­SURE: Shelvey scores, left, and Mitro­vic has an ac­ro­batic ef­fort on goal

CRUNCH: New­cas­tle’s Ay­oze Perez at­tempts to hurdle an Owl

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