Sheffield Wednesday: Glut of strikers makes Owls boss a forward thinker

Atdhe Nuhiu
Atdhe Nuhiu

It was difficult to keep the smile off the face of Stuart Gray as he carried out his pre-match media duties ahead of Owls’ crunch Yorkshire derby tussle with Huddersfield Town.

That might have something to do with the fact that the Wednesday head coach is likely to have a full complement of strikers to choose from against the 18th-placed Terriers.

Assuming Will Keane shakes off his ankle problem, Gray will have an embarrassment of forward riches at his disposal for tomorrow’s Hillsborough battle. Keane, Sergiu Bus, Stevie May, Atdhe Nuhiu and Caolan Lavery will be vying for two striking berths.

If anything, Gray wishes he had this strength in depth when Wednesday ran-out 2-0 winners at Nottingham Forest in January and sat just four points adrift of the play-off zone. Ultimately, the Owls have failed to score enough goals or win enough matches in their own backyard to maintain a promotion push.

Defensively Wednesday have been well organised and hard to break down for long periods of the 2014/15 season, recording 16 Championship clean sheets. Now the challenge for Gray and his coaching staff is to get his centre forwards firing on a consistent basis to take the team to the next level.

What Gray does welcome is having more options in attack. He believes he possesses the personnel to torment defences in this division.

“I would have been happier after the Forest game had I been spoilt for choice up front,” he told The Star. “Hopefully I will have five fit strikers to choose from on Saturday.

“They will all get minutes and have a part to play between now and the end of the season.

“You can’t beat competition. If they (the strikers) don’t pull their weight, they know there is someone itching to take the shirt so they are always looking over their shoulder.”

Two of Gray’s strikers starred in their stunning come-from-behind victory over neighbours Rotherham United before the two-week international break.

Fresh from a loan spell at Chesterfield, Caolan Lavery came off the bench to grab the Owls’ first goal and Atdhe Nuhiu, who has received criticism from some Wednesdayites for his finishing this season, headed in the second equaliser.

Gray has praised the impact Lavery made in the second half and was impressed with the versatility the former Northern Ireland Under-21 international showed.

“Credit to Caolan because we ended up shifting him slightly to the left hand side and he gambled, got into the middle of the goal and got his goal which gave us a big lift to get back in the game,” he said. “We know Caolan has got that in his locker and can read situations.

“He looked sharp and fresh. He looked like he had a thing to prove to me that he wanted more minutes.

“Caolan has got time on his hands and has worked his socks off to get back to the fitness levels that are required following his injury. He has missed a lot of football but he’s got that hunger.”

Gray has mounted a staunch defence of Nuhiu, insisting the big striker creates space for his teammates due to his height. He is convinced supporters will see the best of Nuhiu next season.

He said: “Attey wears his heart on his sleeve and gives a 100 per cent. He’s as frustrated as the supporters when he misses chances.

“Attey’s not the quickest on the pitch but what he’s got to realise is that he’s got to maybe develop a bit more football intelligence and what I mean by that is his run for the Rotherham goal. He got in front of the defender and created himself a yard or a bit of space in the box.

“Attey’s not someone who is going to lash one in from 30 yards. He’s going to get more of his goals from 12 yards out. He’s got to realise he can’t be easily marked and has to create a bit of space for himself.

“We have to keep creating chances for him but Attey and others have got to have that self belief that when they get in the box they are going to score.”

Given Wednesday play five times in the space of a fortnight, Gray has hinted he is likely to rotate his squad to cope with the gruelling schedule. Sam Hutchinson has recovered from his rib injury and Bus has shaken off his groin niggle but Jeremy Helan (groin) is a doubt.

Gray insisted: “It will be down to the players performances. Any successful team has probably had the ability to pick the same group of players. We will get injuries and suspensions but the players are ready.”

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