Owls facing season of struggle

SHEFFIELD Wednesday were one of the teams predicted to struggle, along with newly-promoted Colchester, in most people's eyes at the start of this season.

By Carl Marston

SHEFFIELD Wednesday were one of the teams predicted to struggle, along with newly-promoted Colchester, in most people's eyes at the start of this season.

That's why tonight's game is such a key tussle. Wednesday have indeed found the going tough, although Paul Sturrock's men finally chalked up their second win of the season against Yorkshire rivals Barnsley on Saturday.

Just two wins out of 12 league and cup fixtures is a disappointing record. The only other bright spots, in addition to last weekend's win, have been a 2-1 home victory over Plymouth, and a couple of battling away draws at Preston (opening day) and Southend.

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The Owls clambered off the Championship basement, thanks to the win over Barnsley, although they rode their luck - the Tykes had to play the final 66 minutes with just 10 men, following the dismissal of Paul Heckingbottom, and it was not until injury-time that they poached the winner.

Chris Brunt blasted home a 25-yarder to sink 10-man Barnsley, after Glenn Whelan had earlier put the hosts ahead, with Brian Howard equalising.

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Heckingbottom is a name familiar to Colchester fans. It was he who netted a bizarre own goal in Sheffield Wednesday's last visit to Layer Road, on March 19, 2005, which ended in a 1-1 draw.

Left-back Heckingbottom moved onto Barnsley, his home town club, last January. He was sent off for two bookable offences against his old club at Hillsborough.

Manager Sturrock did not get carried away with Saturday's success. He admitted: “We'll take a dirty win. The important thing now is to build on this.Barnsley are a good side, who play open football, and we could have got kicked in the teeth again.”

Sturrock is sweating over three fitness tests this evening, concerning Graham Coughlan, Whelan and Drew Talbot. Big centre-half Coughlan, who was at Plymouth during Sturrock's tenure as Pilgrims manager, failed a fitness test on a strained hamstring before the Barnsley game.

Fellow Irishman Whelan, a promising midfielder, limped off with a calf strain at the interval on Saturday. The Republic of Ireland under-21 international is hoping to make a quick return tonight, while Talbot resumed training on Monday after being stretchered off with cramp against the Tykes. Talbot had just returned from a 16-month lay-off due to injury. Wednesday have managed just eight goals in 11 league matches this term. Whelan has bagged two of them, but left winger Brunt leads the way with three. The Northern Ireland international celebrated his 100th league appearance earlier in the month.

Instead, the Yorkshiremen have tended to rely on a miserly defence, and their reliable Australian keeper, Brad Jones. The 24-year-old is on loan from Middlesbrough, for whom he has started 15 games in the Premiership.

Jones was mostly an understudy to Mark Schwarzer at the Riverside last term. But he had one particularly memorable moment when saving a penalty at Old Trafford to hold Manchester United to a goalless draw. In addition to Australian-born Jones, the Owls have a number of other impressive foreign imports, all of whom should feature tonight.

Yoann Folly is a talented Frenchman who was playing for Southampton during Sturrock's short stint as manager.

The Saints originally bought him from St Etienne for £250,000 in 2003, and Sturrock then signed the 21-year-old midfielder last summer.

Algerian defender Madjid Bougherra has been a mainstay at the back this season, following his move from French side FC Gueugnon, while American Frank Simek has made the right-back slot his own over the last year.

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