MATCH VERDICT: Sheffield Wednesday 1 Bolton Wanderers 2
THIS certainly wasn’t the first time knives have been sharpened in the Steel City – but this win perhaps shows Owen Coyle and his Wanderers do have the requisite mettle when push comes to shove.
Defeat at Hillsborough could have been calamitous for the Wanderers boss, not necessarily in terms of losing his job – that decision rests entirely with Phil Gartside and Eddie Davies. But anything less than victory would have ramped up the negative vibes to previously uncharted levels, pushing the issue of his future straight to the fore once again.
That particular powder keg has been dampened a little thanks to one moment of magic from the enigmatic Mark Davies that snatched victory from the jaws of uncertainty, three minutes after Ross Barkley had equalised for the Owls from the penalty spot.
Both he and Chris Eagles produced performances that were easy-on-the-eye but back in the engine room, the input from Zat Knight, Jay Spearing and Matt Mills was equally, if not more important.
They know their industry in these parts and while you couldn’t see any of those protagonists beating three men to conjure a moment of priceless skill like Davies did in the 63rd minute, their graft allowed the shackles to come off those more adept at that side of the game.
Spearing’s arrival in midfield seems to have breathed fresh life into the flair merchants and though Eagles should have added to his four goals this season, it’s hard to hold anything against him in this form.
At the back, the search for a settled defensive partnership appears to be reaching an end. Knight looks fit and dominant, while Mills has also shown a confidence to play the ball from the back not seen since the heady days of Gary Cahill .
And with the recent addition of Stephen Warnock there is room for optimism, albeit cautious.
Penny dropped, turned a corner, one swallow does not a summer make – pick your cliché – but Coyle knows Wanderers’ real work starts next week when they are fully expected to get something out of home games against Crystal Palace and Leeds United.
After making a rather tentative start, in which Rhys McCabe struck the base of Adam Bogdan’s post for Wednesday with a deflected free-kick, the Whites kicked into gear 20 minutes in.
Eagles seemed to be on the end of everything. One off-balance shot should have hit the back of the net, and another deft chip – entirely of his own making – drifted inches wide.
The home side’s pace and power caused rather straightforward problems, and a few poor decisions in good positions could have cost them an early foothold. On one occasion, Jay Bothroyd’s inability to look up six yards from goal and see strike partner Rodri unmarked cost a certain goal.
David Ngog then took up the mantle of chief chance waster, twice firing over the bar inside the penalty box, but just as a goalless first half beckoned, Eagles swung a corner in for Marcos Alonso to loop a header past Chris Kirkland into the net.
Coyle’s decision to send his side back out early during the break for a warm-up showed he shares the fans’ concern about how fragile Wanderers have looked after the second-half restart.
Six goals have been shipped between the 46th and 60th minute, so when that landmark passed, the manager’s plan seemed to have worked.
Of course, 60 seconds later, we were back to the drawing board.
Ngog should have cleared a woeful corner from Pecnik, which eventually found its way towards centre-half Anthony Gardner. Keith Andrews went to ground and with the most minimal contact, sent the strapping defender sprawling to the ground.
It was more so a penalty than Tuesday night’s mysterious award at Birmingham, but hardly what you would term stone-walled.
Everton loanee Barkley stroked the ball confidently into the bottom corner to level the scores but before the ball had travelled back to the centre circle, Coyle was out of his technical area and demanding his players don’t give up hope.
The 2,000 travelling fans also raised the volume. And my word, they got their reward.
Just three minutes had elapsed when Ngog hassled a mistake out of Martin Taylor, and Kevin Davies picked out his namesake Mark scampering in on goal.
Few are better at running with the ball, and, after beating three challenges, the young midfielder had a sight of goal. But all too often this is where the journey ends for Davies, whose goal return in the last few seasons simply hasn’t matched the number of opportunities he has created.
On this occasion, though, he swatted a curling shot with the outside of his left foot past Kirkland into the top corner to spark joyous scenes high in the stands behind the goal.
This time it was the opposing side who looked deflated. Knight and Mills’ resilience kicked in and they were able to bat away the direct football that came their way.
Tyrone Mears may have got away with a handball after blocking a Pecnik header, after which Barkey shaved the post with a bouncing volley.
But another equaliser would have been wholly undeserved. This was what we thought Championship football would be like when Coyle kept hold of his players this summer, and long may it continue.
We’ve all been watching Wanderers long enough to be wary of false dawns but a modicum of consistency is what the manager will now need to find if he’s to avoid more unpleasant headlines forecasting trouble ahead.