OWLS FLYING TOWARDS THAT PROMISED LAND
Bullen: Mental strength won it
GUTSY Sheffield Wednesday came from behind to edge out mid-table Derby and, in doing so, edged themselves ever closer to a play-off place with just two matches of the regular season remaining.
Steven Fletcher and Gary Hooper provided the firepower for the Owls, who are now a healthy five points clear of seventh-placed Leeds after the Elland Road outfit’s stunning loss at Burton.
The Owls look to be heading for the end-of-season shoot-outs in good form having secured a fifth straight win in front of almost 30,000 at Hillsborough.
Assistant boss Lee Bullen praised the character and strength in the squad, something that will no doubt be called upon if they are to reach the promised land of the Premier League.
“We’re relieved after that,” he said. “We were in control for the majority of the game – in fact Derby rarely looked dangerous at all – but it’s the result that counts.
“It wasn’t really much of a game to write home about, but we got there in the end.
“We needed to step it up a gear or two for the second half, but then we found ourselves a goal behind in the 48th minute.
“It wasn’t an ideal scenario, but the lads rolled their sleeves up then, produced a bit of quality you need, and the belief has shone through.
“It isn’t the first time the lads have shown that character and that strength to gain a victory. Maybe that’s been the difference between this season and last season.
“The whole mentality of the group is strong at present, and we’ll need that in the remaining games.”
It was a rather pedestrian first half as both sides struggled to carve out a clear-cut opportunity. Rams striker Matej Vydra found space only to fire wide, while the Owls responded with midfielder Kieran Lee cracking in a strike from 25 yards that only just missed the target.
Barry Bannan volleyed wide for the hosts as they sought a breakthrough, but it was the Rams who stunned the home faithful three minutes after the restart when Darren Bent headed home Ikechi Anya’s inswinging corner.
The Wednesday rally soon followed, however. Fletcher struck the crossbar before the imposing Scot then headed home after substitute Jordan Rhodes had nodded precisely into his path.
Victory was sealed just six minutes later when Hooper volleyed home clinically after Scott Carson failed to grab Adam Reach’s deep cross.
The Owls were indebted to keeper Keiren Westwood in the closing stages as he palmed away Chris Baird’s volley – a save which could very well prove crucial if his team are to seal that cherished top-six spot.
Rams boss Gary Rowett claimed a “stupid” spell just after the restart proved very costly for his side, whose own play-off tilt ended a couple of games ago.
He said: “We were far too passive in our defending in that second half.
“Sheffield Wednesday are a really good side and they can put plenty of pressure on you. We got our noses in front after the break and at that point I thought we looked relatively comfortable.
“However, a stupid ten-minute spell has proved so costly. They’ve got two balls in to the box, we’ve not defended them at all well, and before you know it we’re behind.
“Again it’s small margins that’s costing us. We’re causing our own problems and that’s something I’ll have to take a good look at in the summer.”
HOOP DREAMS: Gary Hooper wheels away after scoring the winner, inset
BALANCING ACT: Derby defender Cyrus Christie avoids the sliding challenge of Sheffield Wednesday midfielder Barry Bannan