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https://www.telegraph.co.uk/content/dam/football/2016/05/06/sheffield_wednesday_badge_redesign_trans_NvBQzQNjv4Bq2oUEflmHZZHjcYuvN_Gr-bVmXC2g6irFbtWDjolSHWg.png?imwidth=450


With FM20 now in my possession after a few years off playing FM games, I fancied a challenge. Reminded of a great FM12 save trying to get Leicester out, I thought I'd try Championship challenging, and after considering Bristol City, Nottingham Forest, Reading, QPR and a few others, I settled on this lot.

So, a squad full of ageing and overpaid strikers with my coaches recommending a lone striker tactic, the best CB and CM are long term injured, a transfer budget of £0, generally poor finances, the chairman wants play-offs and placating a fanbase who may be slightly envious at the neighbours landing a Premier League spot.

Yeah, that's a challenge alright. So let's dive on in and see how this goes.
noir et blanc armée

Read my FM20 Career WAWAW

At the start of the 20.0.4 version of the game file, this is the squad list I have to play with.

https://imageshack.com/i/pnHuHsTAp

We have so far had a friendly with the reserves, for which we used a 4-3-3 and won 2-0.

The situation is very much sell to buy, with 5 loanees and the aforementioned transfer budget of £0.
noir et blanc armée

Read my FM20 Career WAWAW

Upon arrival at Hillsborough, I also had no Director of Football or Assistant. Neil McDonald, former Blackpool manager and assistant at Blackburn, West Ham and Hull, was hired as a number 2 but a DoF will be something I wait a while before approaching. Not least because its difficult for me to delegate anyone to buy players when I have no money to buy anyone.

So far, a 4-3-3, 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 have tended to be the formations I have considered using. The squad does have depth, but ability is more questionable.

https://imagizer.imageshack.com/img923/5689/UwEAEy.png

On top of the loanees, the majority of my squad is out of contract at the end of the season, making getting close to market value for duds (chiefly Rhodes and Winnall) that little more problematic. It also doesn't help that Tom Lees and Barry Bannan would be first choices if fit, but Lees is out until December and Bannan is absent for the opening month.

Nevertheless, the goal is promotion. Maybe something can work... right?
noir et blanc armée

Read my FM20 Career WAWAW

Pre-season is over and done with.

https://imagizer.imageshack.com/v2/xq90/924/Ri1kwj.png

After the traditional FM start of an inter-squad friendly, we had 2 routs over local non-league sides, a comfortable win over Beerschot from the Belgian second tier and a fairly reasonable draw with the Italian side Sampdoria.

I feel like the schedule was too generous, however. Could've used one extra big ticket friendly, possibly against a lower-tier Premier League outfit, to see what we got. Or a glamour tie against a big European name to generate some moolah.

It also looks like I'm going to be adhering with what I've got, with nobody bidding for Rhodes, Winnall or Nuhiu despite all 3 being transfer listed by the AI before I got the gig. Which makes it more real in a way, but isn't helpful given I have a few positions where I think we could strengthen.

Still, I guess if we are stuck with what we've got, we wait and see what we can do away at Reading on the opening day.
noir et blanc armée

Read my FM20 Career WAWAW

So, the first day of the season is upon us. To amend the words of The Producers, opening night, its opening night, its my Football Manager's latest show, will it flop or will it go?

The season opener is Reading at the Madejski - a team I did consider before picking Wednesday. George Puscas, Ovi Ejaria, Yakou Meite and more show they're a team with potential and a decent budget, managed by Mark Hughes' former number 2.

It doesn't help that injuries have already surfaced. With Barry Bannan and Tom Lees still long term injured, thus ruling out my captain and vice-captain, it didn't help Sam Hutchinson (my assistant's choice for replacement captain) suffered a lower back stress fracture in training straight after the final friendly and will be out until October. On top of this, it turns out Dominic Iorfa, who would've been my choice to start at right-back over an unfit Moses Odubajo and Liam Palmer, had a pre-existing suspension so can't play the first few games.

Having mainly used a 4-4-2 in my friendlies, I went for it here and selected:
Dawson - Odubajo, Borner, Bates, Fox - Murphy, Pelupessy, Luongo, Reach - Fletcher, Forestieri
Subs: Westwood, Palmer, Lee, Harris, Wickham, Windass, Rhodes

So... how did we do?

https://imagizer.imageshack.com/v2/xq90/924/DDrM5F.png

Just what we wanted and needed - 3 points on the opening day against another side that will fancy themselves as this year's dark horse for the play-offs. After all, we're predicted to come 11th with the Royals a more modest 17th. Hardly up there with the likes of Leeds, West Brom or Fulham but mid-table sides do break through sometimes.

The thrill was there straight away as Forestieri saw a strike go wide with our first attack, and then put us in front with our next, with the Italian scoring the rebound after Rafael saved his first effort. With uncertainty over our attacking options, its good to know he's got potential to be a line leader.

The first half was fun and open, but sadly it was Reading with the second goal as Felipe Araruna headed in. With Reading having a go, I thought it might be tough only for Wednesday to prove me wrong. Long ball forward by a centre-back released Forestieri, who legged it clear of their centre backs before lashing it in.

And that was it for goals. Not for chances - on balance, we had more of them but after I gave Dawson the nod over Westwood, he still had to make saves and did well to do so. As is often the case, I was convinced a sting in the tale was on its way, but nope - 94 minutes were up, we'd just held out, and it was victory at the Madejski.

So there we are - first game in charge of the Owls, first competitive win. Just 45 (plus any potential play-offs and cup runs) to go.

The opening month will be similarly relentless. One week until Yorkshire neighbours Barnsley make the trip to Hillsborough, then a Carabao Cup tie at Oakwell, Millwall away, a visit from new boys Luton, a trip to Preston, and QPR at home. Even at this early stage, its relentless.

Its a reasonably generous opening, with all our opening month's opponents predicted to finish either around or below us. With this in mind, I want to finish the opening month unbeaten as this would be the sign of great understanding of my methods. However, its one thing to say this, and another to go out and do it.
noir et blanc armée

Read my FM20 Career WAWAW

Of course, its one thing to win a football match. Consistently doing it will be what gets us close to meeting Chansiri's lofty goals... or not.

For that end, its a double dose of Barnsley that we now have to deal with. We first play the Tykes in the league at Hillsborough, then follow it up with a trip to Oakwell for a Carabao Cup tie. Our ever-expectant chairman wants a Third Round place in that. Ideally, I'd rest players, but I suspect with our finances in the toilet that we could use the cash from a visit by a top 6 side, if indeed fortune smiles on us in the draw.

But that's a later problem. Before that, we welcome Barnsley for game 2. For all that we should win this, given the game has them down for the drop, they beat promotion favourites Fulham in their first game and will no doubt fancy staking a claim to be the best team in Yorkshire.

We nearly named the same 18 as our opener, though with one alteration as Kieren Westwood picked up a groin strain in training, joining Hutchinson, Bannan, Lees (injured) and Iorfa (banned) as non-combatants. Ideally I would've picked U23s keeper Joe Wildsmith, who has played a decet chunk in real life. But with torn knee ligaments, he's out as well.

This is an 18 of:
Dawson - Odubajo, Borner, Bates, Fox - Murphy, Pelupessy, Luongo, Reach - Fletcher, Forestieri
Subs: Jones, Palmer, Lee, Harris, Wickham, Windass, Rhodes

So what did game 2 and our first at Hillsborough provide?

https://imagizer.imageshack.com/v2/xq90/924/H6B6k1.png

Bit weird. Wanted 3 points, would've been OK with 1 as Barnsley got a slightly fortunate opener when a Chaplin cross went in, wanted to push on for 3 after Connor Wickham came off the bench to equalise, but then Barnsley had the better chances late on and we could have lost it.

As happened against Reading in the opener, we had less possession but more chances. Things could've been better if, like at the weekend, we'd scored an early goal, but after blowing a few chances, Chaplin's cross deceived defender Bates, then fooled Dawson and crashed in.

With Odubajo, Fox, Reach and Foresteri all missing chances, and Brad Collins making good stops to deny Bates and Fletcher, I thought I'd try the old option of throwing on another striker, with Wickham replacing the disappointing Luongo as one of 2 changes. Within 3 minutes, the Crystal Palace loanee headed a cross past Collins.

In an ideal world, we'd have pushed on, but an injury to Forestieri meant we had to withdraw him for Windass, and we lost all our momentum. Indeed, had Alex Mowatt and Chaplin not blown a few last chances, we would've suffered our first defeat.

So 1-1. OK, but not great. Round 2 was a few days later at Oakwell in the Carabao Cup's opening round. I decided to make some changes, given my priority is turning this squad into play-off contenders, by accident or otherwise.

In all, it was six changes but after considering changing to a 4-3-3, I stuck with the 4-4-2 and picked the following:
Dawson - Odubajo, Iorfa, Borner, Palmer - Murphy, Pelupessy, Lee, Harris - Winnall, Wickham
Subs: Jones, Bates, Fox, Luongo, Reach, Forestieri, Fletcher

The board are hoping for a run to Round 3, which indeed is what they did in the real 2019-20 season. So how would we fare?

https://imagizer.imageshack.com/v2/xq90/923/dB3PoU.png

Ah for fuck's sake.

To be fair, even getting penalties was more than we deserved. Didn't matter what combination I tried, we were just poor going forward. As had also happened at the weekend, Chaplin put Barnsley in front virtually straight away, this time after a defensive mix-up allowed the former Portsmouth player a run-through on goal.

Best chance for so much had come and gone when their keeper denied Winnall (given a rare start) while Woodrow had hit the post. But for most the game, the best chances looked like being for Barnsley, with the only real chance seeing the rare-starting Kieran Lee hit the bar, and as we approached the end, we were only in the game due to a few decent stops by Cameron Dawson.

Then in added time, it all went mad. Having thrown on starters in Fletcher, Forestieri and Reach, I was beginning to think it would all be for naught. And then suddenly, in the first minute of added time, Reach meets a cross by Fletcher and lamps it home.

Barnsley then go straight up the other end, win a free-kick after a foul by Pelupessy and knock it over the line when defender Sollbauer turns the ball over the line after Chaplin hits the post, but an offside flag is raised. And we still could've won it ourselves, with their keeper denying Forestieri.

So its time for the excitement of a penalty shoot-out, and from our first kick, Fletcher hits it at the keeper. Balls. As the kicks ramp up and all of them from both sides go in, it suddenly becomes more crucial and sure enough, Clarke Odour beats Dawson to put Barnsley into Round 2 (and with it a home tie with League 2 side Crewe), while we're left to wonder what the hell just happened.

How annoying. The board will be annoyed and so am I but I guess if we deliver the promotion they so crave, they'll hopefully forget about it.

Onwards then to a busy week - Millwall, Luton and Preston lie in wait.
noir et blanc armée

Read my FM20 Career WAWAW

With the Championship as intense as it is, there's no time to dwell on the disappointment of 2 draws and 1 penalty shoot-out defeat. Indeed, as Barnsley are local rivals, it didn't help with my reputation with fans and board.

First in wait is a potentially dicey trip to Millwall, although the South Londoners had yet to win when we made the trip all the way down south.

The selected 18 was:
Dawson - Odubajo, Borner, Bates, Fox - Harris, Pelupessy, Luongo, Reach - Forestieri, Wickham
Subs: Jones, Iorfa, Palmer, Lee, Harris, Murphy, Windass, Fletcher

Could we pull of a result?

https://imagizer.imageshack.com/v2/xq90/922/iHHPoz.png

We most certainly could. An accomplished performance as we kept Gary Rowett's side from hurting us, and were able to get chances to count.

Forestieri swiped a quickfire opener, as the Italian nicked the ball off a home defender, legged it forward and beat the keeper. Could've had more, with the striker having two blocked and Wickham having one go wide.

Number 2 came in the second half, as Harris was able to seize the ball on the flank and cross for opposite winger Reach to head it into the back of the net.

We had a few chances near the end but a professional job was done and victory secured. But we didn't have time to bask in the glory of that, given a few days later, we had a visit from new boys Luton Town.

A minimal reshuffle was done to juggle the quickfire games. So I went for:
Dawson - Iorfa, Borner, Bates, Fox - Harris, Pelupessy, Luongo, Reach - Fletcher, Forestieri
Subs: Jones, Iorfa, Palmer, Lee, Harris, Murphy, Windass, Wickham

Against the Hatters, what could we do?

https://imagizer.imageshack.com/v2/xq90/922/IHbUOj.png

We would just about grab back-to-back 3 points. Wickham was poor from the start against Millwall, but off the bench against Luton he grabbed a winner, to go with his equaliser as a sub against Barnsley in our home opener.

In truth we could've made it more comfortable. While Dawson had to make a good stop to deny James Collins early on, we had the bulk of the early chances but couldn't beat Simon Sluga or see shots blocked when we tried to lash them on target.

The goal would come shortly after the break. Luongo laid the ball wide to Reach, his ball was missed by a Luton defender and Fletcher attacked it, burying it past Sluga.

We should've pushed on but 4 minutes later, man of the match George Moncur equalised as Pelly Mpanzu's ball was struck. It was straight at Dawson but the keeper turned it in, annoyingly.

I threw on Murphy and we nearly had an impact with Sluga having to make 3 good saves in quick succession. But with 11 to go, we had our winner. Murphy was found again out wide, and his ball in found Wickham off the bench, who duly scored.

Luton did press us hard at the end, but we just ground out the win, and at times played great stuff, giving me my first win at Hillsborough. Great stuff.

This put us on a roll - top of the Championship table after 4 games, with nobody managing a 100% start. However, by the time we next played, West Brom would make the advance claim for top spot, after they put 5 past Derby at Pride Park.

We meanwhile got a trip to Preston, with a 100% drawing record to start off 2019-20.

A minimal reshuffle was done to juggle the quickfire games. So I went for:
Dawson - Iorfa, Borner, Bates, Fox - Murphy, Pelupessy, Luongo, Reach - Fletcher, Forestieri
Subs: Jones, Odubajo, Palmer, Lee, Harris, Rhodes, Wickham

On the one side, with 2 wins in a row and 3/4 to start the season, we could've entered this on a role. On the other side, we'd picked most of this starting 11 for most of the games this week so tiredness could be a factor.

So what would come of our cross-Pennine trip to Deepdale?

https://imagizer.imageshack.com/v2/xq90/922/OgoIkd.png

... a lackluster performance and a first defeat. Had to happen eventually but still such a disappointing turn of events.

Right from the word go, Preston looked more comfortable. We just couldn't get the ball to the flanks, where we have as a priority way to attack, and most the pressure was on our back 4. It could've been different if Murphy and Fletcher had buried near misses on counters, but Preston were doing more.

The winner came when Sean Maguire received a ball down the flank and lashed it in from a tight angle, much to the disappointment that Dawson was beaten.

Despite throwing on Wickham and Harris, and escalating to a more attacking mindset, it remained the case that Dawson was busier than Declan Rudd at the other end. Their keeper did have to make a late stop to thwart Wickham and a Murphy shot that was going wide, but that was all he had to work with.

So I have my first league defeat as Sheffield Wednesday boss, possibly paying for not rotating the side or for being too passive in possession. It adds up as something to work on for QPR, before the international break splits that clash from a surprisingly quiet September with just 3 games in the diary.

(Any comments?)
noir et blanc armée

Read my FM20 Career WAWAW

Very good start in fairness!!

Hopefully you can just keep on picking up the results consistently across the season, because that Championship is such a marathon.
Good start, I've always had a soft spot for Wednesday.
Very good start in fairness!!

Hopefully you can just keep on picking up the results consistently across the season, because that Championship is such a marathon.

It is going to be an interesting challenge to sustain it. I know the real world Wednesday didn't - 3rd after winning on Boxing Day, beat Leeds in early January, ended 16th after just 3 wins in the final 18, with a few thrashings thrown in.

We've made a solid start though.
Good start, I've always had a soft spot for Wednesday.

Well it will be good to fix it up. One of those teams who used to be up in the top flight rain or shine until it all just fell apart. Plus it helps a few Sheffield area bands I like, including the big 2 of Pulp and Arctic Monkeys, are Wednesdayites. Even though I have at least 1 family member who was a supporter of the other big name in the city.

Whether we'll live like Premier League people and do whatever Premier League people do remains to be seen ofc... with apologies for the underwhelming lyrical punwork.
noir et blanc armée

Read my FM20 Career WAWAW

One of the few perks of our Carabao Cup irritation at Barnsley was having a free week off rather than getting bogged down in another tie in the competition. Would've been up for the test, but if we can't earn a place, we don't win the raffle.

So we had a week to lick our wounds and try and lower some of the burnout that felt prevalent in the Preston defeat, then go again for the visit of QPR at the end of the season's opening month.

The selected 18 was:
Dawson - Odubajo, Iorfa, Borner, Fox - Harris, Luongo, Lee, Reach - Fletcher, Forestieri
Subs: Jones, Bates, Palmer, Pelupessy, Murphy, Windass, Fletcher

So its 3 alterations to the side that couldn't get the better of Preston. Against the R's, the result would be...

https://imagizer.imageshack.com/v2/xq90/923/bXMwcM.png

... something of an awkward draw. Our possession was poor, but still could've won. Though unlike our last 2 home games, Wickham went from being a substitute saviour to a villain after missing a penalty given while I was bringing him on.

QPR, like Preston, use 4-2-3-1 and it seems to be we struggle facing sides who use this tactic. They perhaps should've taken the leader early on, with Jordan Hugill missing a particularly good early chance. Though ironically, their goal came after our best early chance. The recalled Kieran Lee fired just over, and five minutes later, Jack Clarke intercepted a poor defensive pass by Moses Odubajo, ran forward and scored.

Harris hit just wide after a great solo run, and it was the former Cardiff man with the next intervention, as he turned in a through-pass by Fletcher to equalise just five minutes after QPR's opener.

We were still struggling to adjust to QPR's approach, with Bright Osayi-Samuel and Joe Mattock being particular dangers. But with 66 minutes gone, a glorious chance turned up for us to score when Harris was fouled and we got a penalty. It would've been taken by Fletcher, but I chose to replace him with Wickham. In theory this could've worked out given Fletcher missed in the shootout against Barnsley, but here, it very much failed, with Wickham's first touch being to slam the spot-kick against the post with the keeper diving the wrong way.

We still could've won it later, when Reach headed in a cross by Harris in the last few moments, only for the offside flag to be raised. The ending was open as well, with Ebrechi Eze striking a post and a well-placed Wickham firing wide.

But it all felt like a missed opportunity. While we had some positive moments going into the international break, the last 2 games felt like something of a reality check after the back-to-back defeats of Millwall and Luton.

Coming out of the international pause, we had a trip to local rivals Huddersfield Town.

During the international break, we received an offer for striker Atdhe Nuhiu from the Austrian side LASK, worth an accumulated total of £475K plus future installments worth £700K. I would've liked a more front-leveraged deal, but the striker is not in my plans, wants to move and is out of contract at the end of the season. So in January, he will make the move to Austria.

A minimal reshuffle was done to juggle the quickfire games. So I went for:
Dawson - Odubajo, Borner, Bates, Fox - Harris, Luongo, Lee, Reach - Forestieri, Wickham
Subs: Westwood, Palmer, Pelupessy, Bannan, Murphy, Windass, Fletcher

There were a few reshuffles done, if one out of force as Iorfa suffered an injury on international duty and I chose not to risk him. Perhaps also of note is a spot on the bench for Bannan, rated as my best midfielder and now able to get going after a calf injury. Westwood is also back after his own injuries, though with Dawson promising in our opening games, he's likely to stay there for a while.

So, in our first game against a former PL side this season, what could we do?

https://imagizer.imageshack.com/v2/xq90/923/guqCVl.png

We got 3 points. Whether we intended to do it the way we did is another question. After an even opening, we scored before and after the break and went 2-0 up, then Huddersfield began to hog the ball and have lots of chances, giving the game a more even look after we'd already got the security. Considering I was bemused by our low possession stats after the QPR loss, 38% was not exactly an improvement. Smash and grab, maybe, but 3 points is 3 points.

Still, we did a job. The hosts had the first chance but as it progressed, we had a fair few chances in the first half, the closest seeing Forestieri denied by Jonas Lossl. Huddersfield had a few positive moments as well, but it was us who struck first just after the half hour, as Wickham headed in a Harris corner.

Number two came five minutes after the break. A flying exchange saw Odubajo play to Reach, who did a 1-2 with Wickham and lashed it past Lossl. Good stuff.

Chris Willock and Karlan Grant then caused us bother, with a few chances that perhaps should've gone in, while Dawson had to make a good stop to keep out Elias Kachunga. Though we still could've made ourselves more secure, as Lossl made a fine double save to keep out Harris.

But in the end, we got ourselves victory that maintains a decent start. There's plenty to work on, of course, but a third win in four away games is really good going.

We now have 7 games done. Feels as good a time as any to have an arbitrary look at the league table.

https://imagizer.imageshack.com/v2/xq90/923/feC2UJ.png

So we sit 5th and in that desired play-off spot, but of course it is only game 7. When its game 37, it may begin to feel more real we can pull this off but we've got room to grow at least.

Next in the diary is Fulham, who were pre-season favourites to win the league and are unbeaten in all their league games after a surprise opening day defeat by Barnsley. This is our first major test of our promotion mettle, given we're taking on an early big hitter in Alexsandar Mitrovic - joint-second highest scorer in the division, with 5 goals in the opening 7 - backed by a supporting cast of Premier League-worthy players. Its certainly a contrast, given our following games are against Middlesbrough and Hull teams who have made comparatively dreadful starts.

Not that our luck with injuries is getting better. Westwood, Bannan and Hutchinson may be back and working their way back to fitness, but Forestieri and Windass both got multi-week lay-offs through training. I'm going to have to find a way for our training to minimise injury risks, as I'm getting multiple e-mails talking up most of the squad being a high injury risk, but losing a key man in Forestieri ahead of our biggest test so far is very much unwanted.
noir et blanc armée

Read my FM20 Career WAWAW

Forestieri or no Forestieri, our big test was now looming by welcoming Fulham to Hillsborough.

The selected 18 was:
Dawson - Odubajo, Borner, Bates, Fox - Harris, Luongo, Lee, Reach - Fletcher, Wickham
Subs: Jones, Iorfa, Palmer, Pelupessy, Bannan, Murphy, Rhodes

How would we fare against a promotion front-runner?

https://imagizer.imageshack.com/v2/xq90/923/LCNSu5.png

Well that didn't go well. We weren't necessarily outclassed but we conceded within the opening 10 minutes and couldn't get back from there.

While we had the best chance in the opening 10 minutes as Marek Rodak denied Fletcher, Fulham had most of the opportunities and took one after 10 minutes. A free-kick was laid short for Bobby Decordova-Reid, who lashed one from 25 yards that crashed past Dawson.

We weren't far away from catching back up afterwards, with Rodak again denying Fletcher and Borner heading wide at a corner. Indeed, while Fulham had more chances overall, we were in the game and had a few forward moments of our own.

But we weren't able to equalise, and with the first real thing of note some 20 minutes after half-time, Fulham had a second. The usually solid Fox had a brain fade as he took out Anthony Knockaert, and Alexsandar Mitrovic buried the penalty.

Rodak did have to make a stop to deny a solo run by Harris and a late header by the lesser spotted Rhodes, but we offered little, the fans left early and we lost 2-0, and had to go away and dream it all up again.

After a week to compose ourselves, the next assignment would be Middlesbrough at the Riverside. While they played a 4-2-3-1, they began the day second bottom and in terrible form, so this on paper looked like a decent chance to return to winning ways.

Taking part this time would be:
Dawson - Odubajo, Iorfa, Borner, Fox - Harris, Luongo, Bannan, Reach - Fletcher, Wickham
Subs: Westwood, Bates, Palmer, Pelupessy, Lee, Murphy, Fletcher

The most noteworthy move was to give Bannan his first start of the season. Initially this was going to be for the midweek game at Hull but with Middlesbrough being dreadful and a reaction desired after the Fulham game, felt like an easier test. We also gave the nod to Dawson, despite him missing training all week after picking up an injury in a recovery session after the Fulham loss.

It would definitely be a bad sign if we couldn't get something of the struggling Boro.

https://imagizer.imageshack.com/v2/xq90/924/BpJVuM.png

But instead we got a very handsome win.

The course was set nearly straight away. Fox lashed home a tremendous long range free-kick inside the opening 3 minutes, which would later earn goal of the month for September, and five minutes after that, Fletcher raced on to Wickham's knockdown to tuck it past the Middlesbrough goalkeeper.

Middlesbrough did begin to wake up, with Dawson tested a few times and Toral's effort deceiving the game narrator into thinking it momentarily crept the right side of the post. But we continued to impress ourselves, with Harris being particularly lively on the right flank.

The hosts got a very good goal back straight from the restart as Paddy McNair thrashed in a fine first-time volley, and a more confident side might've gone on to challenge our previous supremacy. But they faded out, and we began to hit them back.

We had several chances in the 20 after their goal until a flying counter attack generated our third goal. A swift counter saw the two strikers release Harris, who slipped away from their covering left-back and then buried a strike home. The icing on the cake came in added time as Luongo finished a swift breakaway, giving us 4 in a single game for the first time. A profitable away day indeed.

While we could allow ourselves a brief moment of satisfaction, it couldn't last too long. 3 days after the Riverside Stadium, we were down the road at Hull to take on an improving Tigers side.

Making a selection for the opening credits roll, I chose:
Dawson - Odubajo, Iorfa, Borner, Fox - Harris, Pelupessy, Luongo, Reach - Fletcher, Wickham
Subs: Westwood, Bates, Palmer, Bannan, Lee, Murphy, Rhodes

I'm not 100% convinced by some of my back-ups, so only shuffle was to continue to ease Bannan back in, with Pelupessy preferred to Lee as a partner for Luongo.

What would we achieve at the KCOM against a Hull side that had won their last 2?

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It would be 3 points in more of a cagey game. Momentum was not helped by some dicey Hull tackles - the nadir being one that earned Marcus Maddison a straight red card - but we had the crucial moment.

The opening minutes had been really lively, with a few Hull chances creeping wide before George Long made a few stops to keep Fletcher out, and at the other side of this, Maddison hit a post.

Hull had better options in the first half, but we would grab the game's opener in the final minutes of the first half. A swinging cross by Odubajo found Fletcher, whose header landed in the back of the net.

Sub Josh Bowler had an effort at the end of a cool run have the sting taken out of it by Iorfa, but the moment that should've made it more comfortable for us came when Maddison got sent off for a 2 footed lunge on Fox.

It ended up being more even than I was perhaps anticipating from there-on-out, but we got the win in the end.

Next up at the weekend were an in-form Wigan, who had moved into the top 6 in midweek by thrashing Birmingham City, and who play with my old nemesis, the 4-2-3-1.

Lining up against this lot were...
Dawson - Odubajo, Iorfa, Borner, Fox - Harris, Luongo, Lee, Reach - Fletcher, Wickham
Subs: Westwood, Bates, Pelupessy, Bannan, Murphy, Forestieri, Rhodes

Only switch-up was Lee for Pelupessy. But with Forestieri back from injury, he got a spot on the bench with a view to bring him back into the starting line-up for the match against Cardiff after the upcoming international pause.

On paper, this had the air of a decent contest between two sides with form pushing to defy the odds and nab a top 6 space.

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Well, that didn't live up to expectations. Neither Dawson nor his opposite number David Marshall had that much to do, while we failed to push on after Wigan full-back Antonee Robinson was sent off and once again, we had less possession.

We only have 1 home win so far, which was against Luton in August, so this is clearly going to be something to improve. Though the fact that we are doing very well away from home is helping doing a lot of the heavy lifting.

With the October international break now here, this is where we're at.

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5th place after 11 games is definitely a solid start to the season. Just 35 more to go...

We have one international break to go in 2019 before the fixture list becomes pretty much overwhelming. First game back after the break is a trip to Cardiff, followed by our attempts to improve our home form with back-to-back clashes against Stoke and Leeds. Blackburn & Swansea games will complete that section of the season.
noir et blanc armée

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With the October week over and done with, it would be possible to turn attention to the 3rd game back. We have clashes against Cardiff and Stoke to ease us back into the swing of things, but the promotion juggernaut that is Bielsa and Leeds are making the trip down the M1, train and whatever else to try and steamroller us on their way to the Premier League.

Of course we all know if we make the big boy league, we might need to revamp the Wednesday team with all our out of contract players, loanees and adapting to the financial situation. Chansiri sent us a missive we will only see 25% of our transfer fees received be able to be re-invested, which means my January plans might already have to be scaled back. Will be even more annoying if Norwich follow up on interest in Adam Reach with a £10M+ bid and I see so little of the cash in response.

Naturally the Premier League will be a challenge to adjust to if we get there. Our friends from Bramall Lane are proving this - just 1 win in the opening 8, with the rest all defeats for Wilder's side as they sit bottom and with games against Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool as 3 of the next 4. But those of course are their problems.

Our new problem is finding a way past Cardiff at the Cardiff City Stadium, trying to keep up the fact we enter this period with the league's best away form and then trying to amend our poor home form with those games against the Potters and the Peacocks.

So, to Wales for our European away day, or near enough. The selected 18 was:
Dawson - Palmer, Iorfa, Bates, Fox - Harris, Pelupessy, Bannan, Reach - Fletcher, Forestieri
Subs: Westwood, Odubajo, Luongo, Lee, Murphy, da Cruz, Wickham

We made a fair few alterations for this one. Forestieri and Bannan got starts, Pelupessy got a recall as Luongo was late back from international duty, Palmer was preferred to Odubajo as he's due a pay rise if he gets one more game, and as Borner suffered an injury a week earlier, Bates got a call-up at the back.

So how would we do?

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For the first time in the game, we come from behind to win, and continue our exemplary away record.

I thought we'd begun to look better after an even start that saw Dawson worked a few times, with Harris and Forestieri looking good going forward. But we weren't really troubling Neil Etheridge as much as I would like, and we fell behind when a Callum Paterson cross was headed in by Robert Glatzel.

We weren't behind for long though. A through-pass down the flank by Palmer found Forestieri, who got away from Aiden Flint and beat Etheridge to equalise on his return to the starting 11.

From there, we began to make the running. Etheridge made a great save to deny Fletcher while a fine Forestieri volley crashed off the crossbar.

Our momentum was checked when we lost Pelupessy to injury a few minutes after half-time, and we were on the backfoot as we adjusted to our reshuffle, with Dawson making a decent stop to deny Murphy's twin.

However, moments after Glatzel missed a good chance, we put our noses in front. Fine work down the left flank released Fox to cross, Fletcher got his bonce on it, and the Scot made us 2-1.

Until the final stages, we were able to keep Cardiff's forward line at arms length, with Etheridge making a series of saves. It was in added time when Cardiff began to get back forward, but we insulated ourselves and took victory.

Next up we went from facing a recently relegated side to one relegated a year before, with Stoke in lower mid-table and looking dysfunctional.

Taking part to take potshots at the Potters were...
Dawson - Palmer, Iorfa, Bates, Fox - Harris, Luongo, Lee, Reach - Fletcher, Wickham
Subs: Westwood, Odubajo, Hutchinson, Bannan, Murphy, da Cruz, Forestieri

A little reshuffle was done for this one - change for Luongo and Lee instead of Bannan and the injured Pelupessy in the middle, while Wickham over Forestieri as we continue to ease him back. We also named Hutchinson on the bench as he continues his own rehab.

In theory, we should be winning this one with Stoke out of form right now.

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Sadly, our dysfunctional home form continues, not helped by a badly timed second yellow for Bates and the free-kick flying straight in.

The first half was really low quality, with the best chances falling for Stoke's Lee Gregory, with 2 off target and another saved by Dawson. We didn't exactly make as many changes as we did for the Cardiff game, but we still looked weirdly sluggish, with perhaps the best moment seeing a Wickham shot blocked by James Chester.

Indeed, the second half was much the same, with the best chance seeing Sam Clucas come off the Stoke bench to be denied by Dawson. So increasingly agitated, I decided to throw on Forestieri for Luongo and play with 3 strikers.

Still unconvinced, I thought I'd thrown on loanee da Cruz for his debut, if only to see if I was missing something after ignoring the Dutchman for most of this season. Turned out to be a hell of a call - his first moment was to wing in a cross that Wickham headed past Jack Butland.

We ideally would've pressed on. Instead, Bates got a second yellow for an ill-advised challenge on Stoke sub Mame Diouf and Norwich loanee Mario Vrancic leathered the free-kick past Dawson.

Stoke blew a great chance to win it when Tyrese Campbell lashed wide at the end of a swift counter, yet we still coulda won it in added time when Butland do well to deny Harris.

A draw was certainly not wanted though. We still only have 1 win at home so far this season, and given our next assignment is table topping Leeds, few were giving us hope of ending that unfortunate statistic.

Nevertheless, we gotta try. Taking on the Bielsa gang were:
Dawson - Odubajo, Iorfa, Borner, Fox - Harris, Luongo, Bannan, Reach - Forestieri, Wickham
Subs: Westwood, Palmer, Hutchinson, Bannan, Lee, da Cruz, Windass, Fletcher

I chose to bite the bullet and field Odubajo despite the appearance triggering a doubling of wages, though hopefully this will be offset by shedding Nuhiu and potentially Winnall in the January window. Forestieri and Bannan also got recalls, in the face of difficult opposition.

It would've been easy to be a pessimist, so let's see how it goes...

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Well well well. This was quite an exciting game to be involved in that could've gone in all kind of directions, with plenty of chances at both ends, a failure to hold onto leads even after ten men, Leeds still pressing despite the dismissal of their captain and so on. A draw is decent enough, even if I couldn't help but be disappointed we couldn't at least hold onto the lead after the red card.

We were extremely quick out of the blocks. Liam Cooper did well to intercept a pass intended for Wickham, but a poor backpass released the Palace loanee for a one-v-one against Kiko Casilla and he took it.

It could have been even better when Casilla turned away a good shot by Fox, and from there, the game opened up. Leeds had a fair few opportunities to test us, but after we rode it out, we then began to give a good go, with Forestieri missing a decent chance and a great save by Casilla denied Reach.

An open half however contained the risk of a Leeds equaliser, and the away side got it. Dawson made a fine save to keep out Jack Harrison, but the Man City loanee's corner picked out Cooper, who headed in an equaliser.

The second half continued its open start, but we managed the game's third goal. Wednesday won a penalty when Luongo was fouled while challenging for a free-kick, and the skipper Bannan lashed the spot-kick past Casilla.

Leeds pressed us hard, with the best chance seeing Dawson deny Ejzgan Alioski as he tried to atone for the foul on Luongo that gave us our penalty and Leeds tried a comeback victory as they'd managed at Preston while we were limping against Stoke.

Things should've been easier for us when Wickham was tripped by Cooper and the Leeds skipper was sent off. But they very much made a mockery of that when Luke Ayling intercepted a loose pass and quick as a flash, the ball landed for sub Tyler Roberts, who poked it past Dawson.

Leeds must've felt they could push on but sub Fletcher wasn't far off either, with 2 efforts wide and another saved by Casilla. Despite five minutes added on, there was nothing left to give from both sides and a point was shared after a fine contest.

A point is still good, and we're now unbeaten in six games, although a large amount of these are draws and we're still struggling to get wins at home. But its still useful to deny the league leaders and local rivals from walking all over us, so its something to take forward.

So we move on. Next up before the November international break is Blackburn and Swansea, who are only a few positions behind us and will see us as a scalp worth taking in their own respective promotion chases. A trip to West Brom straight after the break will definitely be a large test of our credentials.
noir et blanc armée

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We may have taken something from Leeds, but the fixture list isn't about to get easier. Next up were Blackburn and Swansea games, with both close to us in the table chasing play-offs, and playing 4-2-3-1 - a formation we seem to struggle against.

The first of these was Rovers, as we made the trip to Ewood Park trying to continue our cracking away form.

Picked were:
Dawson - Palmer, Iorfa, Borner, Fox - Harris, Lee, Bannan, Reach - Forestieri, Wickham
Subs: Westwood, Bates, Odubajo, Hutchinson, da Cruz, Windass, Rhodes

Two changes to be made, one enforced with Lee for Luongo as he got a 5th yellow in the Leeds game, and a tactical choice to bring in Palmer for Odubajo. An unwelcome development is an injury to Fletcher, who was going to start this game but suffered an ankle injury in training.

It would be great use to brush off the losses and get victory against a play-off rival.

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Sadly didn't pan out as we hoped. It really should've been as well, given we had more shots than our opponents but placed too many of them off target.

We lost the game in a poor first half. We had plenty of chances in the first half but blew all of them, and then fell behind in the final 10 minutes of the half. We gave the ball away cheaply while trying to build down our left flank, and almost immediately a cross in was headed in by Bradley Dack.

The response should've seen us go level, with Christian Walton in the home goal making a few stops and Wickham heading a good chance wide, and having blown those, we conceded a second in first half stoppage time. The open Adam Armstrong ran onto a through-pass and lashed a volley into the back of the net.

Unimpressed by that mess, I changed to 4-2-3-1 at half-time with a double sub, and got a goal back less than 10 minutes after the break. Reach, who was partially culpable for the opener, reached a move by my subs Odubajo and Windass, and beat Walton.

Reach, Wickham and Forestieri were all unable to make a breakthrough shortly after, although Armstrong nearly grabbed a second, but for all we were looking better, we just couldn't find the breakthrough. Even throwing on the peripheral Rhodes didn't work, and we lost.

So that's not ideal, and with a Swansea side also in good form that also uses 4-2-3-1 next, it wasn't ideal preparation.

Nevertheless, we press on and after a week off, we played them with the following selections:
Westwood - Odubajo, Iorfa, Borner, Fox - Bannan, Hutchinson, Luongo, - Reach, Wickham, Harris
Subs: Dawson, Lees, Palmer, Lee, da Cruz, Windass, Forestieri

With our issues against 4-2-3-1 in one mind and a tricky trip to West Brom immediately after the November break, I decided to try a 4-3-3 with Hutchinson employed as a holding midfielder behind Bannan and Luongo, and Forestieri to be deployed as a super-sub. Odubajo for Palmer would've also been done, but an injury to Dawson in training meant that he was only fit for the bench. So Westwood, who wants to leave in January after a disastrous chat failed to reconcile his disinterest in being a number 2, gets a start instead.

So could this be the day to end our home win drought?

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Answer: No

Another 2-2 draw against another challenger is not to be sniffed at, particularly as we had to recover from going behind twice in an inverse of the Leeds win. But there is plenty to chew over - for whatever reason, our attack is yet to fizz and pop as much as I would like at home.

It certainly didn't help we fell behind to the game's first chance, when Bersant Celina beat Iorfa to head in a cross from the opponent's right - the same flank that yielded Blackburn's opener a week earlier. Which is a sign of a problem.

The game was enjoyably open as we switched to an attacking mentality, with Westwood making more stops after his early concession, and we equalised just after 20 minutes. Wickham received a through pass from Bannan as we countered, and slotted it past Freddie Woodman for 1-1.

A few weeks earlier, we'd come from behind to beat Swansea's neighbours Cardiff. Here, however, Swansea weren't quite so brittle. Just a few minutes after our equaliser, Rhian Brewster - who was giving me trouble all day - headed in Jake Bidwell's cross.

Harris and Bannan missed a few potential screamers before the break, which for the second half in a row saw us bring on Windass and switch to a 4-2-3-1, although this time as the only sub rather than as part of a double.

It didn't have the same instant impact as at Blackburn, but our first real second half chance did grab our equaliser as Reach nodded in Fox's cross.

The second period was lower quality, but we still had chances and forced Woodman into a couple of saves. A more open second period had us having more chances, but sadly for us Woodman repelled everything we could throw at him, so a point was settled for.

As we go into the November international break, we have a quick look at the table:

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At this early stage, Leeds, Brentford and West Brom seem to be putting distance between themselves and everybody else, and unless they begin to consistently drop points or the chasing pack gets more consistent, they'll continue to do so. 5th is a decent place to be in for now, although no win in 4 games mean Hull and Swansea are level on points with us, while Bristol City and Blackburn are within 3 points of us.

Its a busy week when we get back as well, with a difficult visit to West Brom followed by midtable Birmingham and the currently bottom Charlton Athletic. Better get on with it then.
noir et blanc armée

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Its difficult to know what to make of our form coming into a big test against West Brom straight after the international break. On the one hand, we've lost just once in 8, but we also haven't win any of the last 4. However, given the Baggies have won every home game so far this season, we're deluding ourselves if we think it'll be a walk in the park. We may have the best away form, but this is a hell of a barricade.

Taking part will be:
Westwood - Odubajo, Iorfa, Borner, Fox - Luongo, Hutchinson, Bannan - Harris, Wickham, da Cruz
Subs: Dawson, Lees, Palmer, Pelupessy, Murphy, Forestieri, Windass

Had it not been for an injury to Reach, I would've picked the same line-up that began the Swansea game. However, an injury to Reach in the week before this game meant I gave Dutch loanee da Cruz a rare start. Westwood bitched about me during the break and trained poorly, but I promised he got more game time and he played fairly well against Swansea, so I figured I'd throw him in.

Nevertheless, this is perhaps our biggest test so far...

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For whatever reason, our away form is superb and we managed to do it again as we completely thwarted the Baggies attack in a smash and grab on our way to the points.

In an opening quarter largely dominated by the home side, we seemed to have wasted our chance when Wickham headed straight at Sam Johnstone with our first counter. Westwood had to make a fine save to deny Charlie Austin, while a few dangerous strikes from distance crashed just wide.

But a burst from us around the 20 minute mark suddenly turned the contest in our favour. Seconds after Wickham headed over, the ball was worked in field for Hutchinson, who released Odubajo. Our in-form full-back strode into the box and lashed an effort from a tight angle into the back of the home net.

However, 7 minutes passed before West Brom equalised. A corner was only cleared to Kamil Grosicki, and the deflection on his low strike diverted the ball for a free Austin, who didn't need a second invitation to fire it past Westwood.

The first half's remainder was backs to the wall, with Westwood making some good saves in the final stages. We could've again caught them surprise with a great strike in stoppage time, but Luongo's effort very much lacked the same accuracy as Odubajo's one some 25 minutes earlier.

West Brom looked to have burnt themselves out for a bit as after the restart, they seemed to lack the same forward traction. Indeed, the best chances had come to us, when Wickham saw two efforts go off target in a lower quality game. The second of those was on 68 minutes, but that seemed to wake WBA up, with Westwood making a great stop to deny Matheus Periera and Austin heading over.

We decided to go for it, withdrawing an injured Bannan for Windass and changing to 4-2-3-1 - my most common tactical change of late - and also bringing on Forestieri to continue his post-injury comeback. Neither however were involved in our winner, as Luongo won the ball just inside the WBA half and the ball fell for Wickham, who duly lashed a 30 yard thunderbolt golazo into the back of the net.

Westwood made a few more stops but in truth had been tested harder earlier, and we'd duly pulled off the heist, inflicting a first home defeat of the season on Bilic and his side that looks Premier League in all-but-name.

We could allow ourselves a brief moment to take the plaudits for that, but it would have to be very brief, as we now had to turn attention to our crap home form. Midtable Birmingham City seemingly represented a good chance to do that.

The nominated 18 were:
Westwood - Odubajo, Iorfa, Borner, Palmer - Luongo, Hutchinson, Bannan - Reach, Wickham, Forestieri
Subs: Dawson, Lees, Pelupessy, Harris, da Cruz, Windass, Fletcher

3 changes with Reach and Forestieri taking up spots in our front 3, while Palmer - who also wants more game time - gets the space of the suspended Fox, who picked up his 5th yellow in the WBA win.

On paper, with a lower midtable Blues side in the away changing room, we should be targeting this as the win needed to kickstart our home form.

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Once again, the Hillsborough fans have to sit through our less impressive side. It very much didn't help Forestieri suffered an injury in the opening 10 minutes, but we shouldn't really have thrown it away as we once again failed to successfully defend a home lead.

We did at least brush that blow off to grab the opening goal. Borner hit the bar at a Bannan corner, and an unmarked Luongo slotted the ball into the waiting net.

Reach and Forestieri's replacement Harris did have decent chances to make it 2 before the break but couldn't take them. Indeed, as the half wore on, Birmingham looked more dangerous, with Gary Gardner wasting a few chances.

Lukas Jutkiewicz missed a good chance just after the break, with Jeremie Bela well denied by Westwood. But we weren't learning from this and were still struggling to break through.

We paid for this slowness with 15 to go, when Marc Roberts headed in a free-kick after a needless foul by Hutchinson.

The game duly fizzled out, with the ending of our insipid attacking play coming when Luongo broke through in a fine stride in added time only to shank an effort wide. So its another disappointing home result, even if we only have 1 home reverse to partner our only home win.

Still, least there's always an away game to try and maximise our points returns. We travelled to Charlton, who managed to take advantage of a Luton side presumably still celebrating beating Leeds by beating the Hatters in Bedfordshire. However, they were still second bottom.

Named in this squad are:
Westwood - Odubajo, Iorfa, Borner, Fox - Harris, Luongo, Bannan, Reach - Fletcher, Wickham
Subs: Dawson, Lees, Palmer, Hutchinson, da Cruz, Windass, Rhodes

A reversion to a 4-4-2 is adopted after 3 in a row trying a 4-3-3, with Fletcher returning after injury in place with Hutchinson, Harris for the injured Forestieri and Fox reinstated.

In theory, with our away form so hot, we should be winning this, but Charlton need the points and got in a win. Plus its the Championship, and only a fool can predict results in advance.

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Fascinating game in the end. We started slow but developed well, and got better when made a variety of tactical changes until finally, misfit da Cruz scored a superb winner.

Charlton gave us problems early on, with Tomer Hemed and Chuks Aneke giving us bother. A fine stop by Westwood to deny Aneke was perhaps their best chance.

We hadn't really done much going forward, but a snapshot by Wickham that Ben Amos did well to deny saw us begin to wake up. This would continue, with Amos also making a good stop to keep out the recalled Fletcher.

This continued. Bannan and Luongo fired wide after the break, with Reach also having a snapshot blocked.

We did a fair amount of tinkering, first doing our usual fail-safe of bringing on Windass but this time opting for a 4-3-1-2, before pushing Odubajo forward into a 3-4-1-2 and throwing on da Cruz after Harris suffered a knock.

In the end, we would strike first and do so with just 6 to play. Bannan seized a misplaced clearance and forward it to da Cruz. In turn, the young Dutchman carried the ball a long way and lashed it past Amos.

Lees was put in the defence in his first appearance of the season, with Westwood having to make a good late stop to keep out Jake Forster-Caskey as we got the victory.

So at the end of November, we sit in 5th, and potentially still holding outside hopes of pursuing the top 2, even if Leeds and Brentford are beginning to open a gap on the chasing pack. Nevertheless, we can say that with 9 wins in the bank already (of which a staggering 8 of them are away), we have credit. Certainly moreso than Derby, Cardiff, Forest and Stoke, who have all sacked managers appointed the previous summer with all of them in the bottom half.

We mustn't spend so long self-congratulating though. And not least given a news article praising me got the immediate response of "Give over, we'll lose next week" on my social wall.

We're also approaching the point it fell apart for the real Owls in 2019-20, with 3 straight defeats after Christmas and inexplicably following a win over Bielsa's gang at Elland Road by not scoring for a month as their play-off hopes completely collapsed, with a few thrashings thrown in. So I'd like to avoid that.

Saying that, the next test is difficult in and of itself. Our Achilles Heel remains our home form, and next up in the Hillsborough changing room is 2nd place Brentford, before back-to-back East Midlands away days against early strugglers Derby and Forest. But we can only improve and with our form being half-decent so far, why not give ourselves a superb boost by swiping points off the Bees?
noir et blanc armée

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Before we enter our first game in December and the home straight towards Christmas, there was some admin to take care of as we had the FA Cup Third Round draw. We landed a PL name, in the form of a home tie with Aston Villa at Hillsborough.

We now have a sequence of games leading into Christmas, with 2 different kinds of test. Sandwiching this sequence are home games Brentford and Bristol City sides with genuine shots of promotion, either auto or play-off, while in-between are trips to Derby and Nottingham Forest, who have both sacked their managers after poor starts.

So far, our home form has been a real problem. We may have only lost one home game, which was against Fulham in September, but we also only have one home victory, which came against Luton in October. Still, if our promotion aspirations are real, we have to turn it around, and it would be a big statement to do so against a Bees side who arrive in 2nd.

I selected:
Westwood - Odubajo, Iorfa, Borner, Fox - da Cruz, Luongo, Bannan, Reach - Fletcher, Wickham
Subs: Dawson, Lees, Palmer, Hutchinson, Harris, Windass, Rhodes

With da Cruz scoring a great winner off the bench against Charlton, and Harris still having the effects of an injury sustained at The Valley, the only change is a no-brainer.

So, could we end our home hoodoo with a big statement piece?

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Yes we did. Good times good vibes.

Brentford had been dangerous early on, with Ollie Watkins particularly giving me grief. Though it would be after the half hour with their best chance, with Westwood making a good stop to keep out Said Benrahma.

We had offered little going forward, but just after the half hour, our best chance ended up in the back of the net. Watkins had been a big threat at the other end, but got dispossessed by Fletcher, and the Scot released his strike partner Wickham, who struck the ball past David Raya to open the scoring.

Still the away side pressed, with perhaps their best chance seeing Ethan Pinnock's shot at a free-kick saved and Shandon Baptiste's rebound somehow deflected wide, with Pinnock heading wide from the following corner.

Neither side had the same fluency in the second period, with perhaps the best chance coming when Brentford sub Sergi Canos saw a drive cannon off the post with Westwood beaten.

As we moved into the final stages, Brentford were trying to press but we soon hit them with a sucker punch. A long ball by Borner was laid off by Wickham to sub Windass, who leathered a shot from the edge of the box home to give us a cushion.

Raya had to make a good late to beat Bannan, but it was all over and we had a great win to finally give the home crowd that winning feeling we'd been oh so selfishly and exclusively treating to the travelling faithful.

But again, our moment to toast our triumph was fleeting. Tuesday took us to Derby, for a very different examination. Despite all their riches, talent and the actual Wayne Rooney, Derby's start has been poor, with their manager Phillip Cocu dismissed and the club in the relegation zone. Rams fans had seen some truly shocking form - they'd conceded 4 to QPR in their previous home game, less than a month after conceding 5 at home to Middlesbrough and suffering 3-0 away defeats at Fulham and Forest.

However, their last game was a win at Blackburn as they tried to get out of their tailspin, which was evidence we couldn't bank on turning up to win.

To try and take the win, I chose:
Westwood - Odubajo, Iorfa, Borner, Fox - da Cruz, Luongo, Bannan, Reach - Fletcher, Wickham
Subs: Dawson, Lees, Palmer, Hutchinson, Harris, Windass, Rhodes

For the first time this season, I selected the same 18 confident that it could beat the strugglers in the same way they beat a promotion chaser. And yet...

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... they didn't. How disappointing. I accept the Championship is a crazy open league but considering they spent November stinking the division out, we should've done better than this.

We had started brightly. Reach and Fletcher hit the side-netting and Wickham crashed one off target before we struck just after the half hour. A poor infield pass by Andre Wisdom fell for Fletcher, who laid it off to Wickham. There was still a bit of work for the man on loan from Palace to do, but he skipped past Jack Clarke before beating Ben Hamer. Not bad for a player who began the season by starting on the bench.

In the first period, we looked in control, but it all went a bit wrong thereafter. Westwood had already had to make 2 decent saves before he was beaten just before the hour, when Tom Lawrence received Wisdom's cross and lashed a fine strike past the Irishman.

We could've retaken the lead just after when Reach had a strike deflected inches wide and Odubajo rifled one into the side-netting.

My desperation for the win, coupled with the inflexibility having Windass on the pitch drives us into, saw me adopt a slightly insane 3-3-4 formation to try and grab a winner, including a spot for Rhodes. But alas, no breakthrough, and in truth, we had too many strikers on the pitch by the end to do anything coherent.

Interestingly, the day after this misfire, Derby announced Garry Monk as manager. That's the same Monk that in real life is Wednesday manager, having got the gig after Bruce walked out to join Newcastle.

A few days after that missed opportunity, we had another examination against a side from the East Midlands who expected better. Nottingham Forest sacked Sabri Lamouchi after a 3-0 defeat by QPR in mid-November, with a side widely expected to challenge for play-offs going nowhere in midtable, but as happened with Derby, they warmed up for us with a win - theirs being over Middlesbrough.

Taking to the field were:
Westwood - Odubajo, Iorfa, Borner, Fox - Harris, Hutchinson, Reach, da Cruz - Fletcher, Wickham
Subs: Dawson, Lees, Palmer, Luongo, Bannan,, Windass, Forestieri

A reshuffled midfield was my decision for this one, with Hutchinson taking Luongo's deeper-lying role, and Harris replacing Bannan, with da Cruz moving to wide left and Reach into centre-mid.

How would we fare?

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This ended up being a more eventful version of the draw at Derby in midweek, where we didn't convince against a side we perhaps should've defeated. Though this time, it took a late own goal to save a reward, which at least continues our scoring streak, stretching back to a 0-0 with Wigan a few months back.

Things may've been more comfortable had the home keeper Arijanet Muric not kept out Wickham. But Forest weren't about to go away quietly. Westwood had to tip Tobias Figueiredo's effort onto the post, before Jota headed wide at the back post.

Forest struck with 20 gone. Borner caught Nuno da Costa with a poorly timed tackle, giving the home side a penalty that the number 9 just squeezed past Westwood.

But we weren't trailing for long. A great save by Muric denied Wickham, and from the corner given for that intervention, Reach was first to a half-cleared delivery and teed up da Cruz, who deployed a skill move to lose Matty Cash and then blasted a strike into the back of the net.

We were struggling to deal with Jota and Lewis Grabban, but could've still gone into the break ahead when Iorfa saw a diving header well saved by Muric. Although after that, both Jota and Grabban had shots well stopped by Westwood.

After the break, we missed a few half-chances but fell behind after the hour. Jota was fouled by Harris 30 yards out, and decided to try his luck. Correct call - it flew from 30 yards past Westwood to catch us cold and put Forest back in front.

Forestieri and Windass were thrown on to try and salvage something. It nearly worked from the former, with the Italian going on a great run before being denied by Muric. The actual equaliser was a lot messier. Jota gave away a free-kick and after several ricochets, Wickham's effort was going wide until the unfortunate Gaetan Bong sent it over his own goal-line.

Still, we avoided defeat. Just. Not a win, but could've been worse. So we move on.

Next up was the home clash with Bristol City - our last game before Christmas, against an in-form side who had won 4 of their last 5 to very much enter the play-off conversation. After underwhelming against big spending out-of-form East Midlanders, this was a chance for retribution.

Getting the nod would be:
Westwood - Iorfa, Lees, Borner, Fox - da Cruz, Luongo, Bannan, Reach - Windass - Wickham
Subs: Dawson, Bates, Odubajo, Hutchinson, Harris, Forestieri, Fletcher

Having used him as a sub for 9 games running, I decided it was time to throw in Windass and switch to a 4-4-1-1 instead of Fletcher, who was peripheral at Forest. The midfield took a more conventional look, with Luongo and Bannan recalled, while I also made the somewhat surprise call to give club captain Lees his first start of the season, with Odubajo benched.

Could we succeed against a play-off rival where we failed against the less than stellar Rams and Forest?

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Yes we did. Ended up being somewhat more chaotic, with both our goals coming just as I was about to remove key players, and Bristol City getting a cheap concession in added time that made me worried we might let things slip away. But we didn't, and its enough for us to leapfrog the Robins in the table.

A poor quality first half had seen us have the better chances, if nothing of sufficient quality to trouble Daniel Bentley beyond routine saves when we broke through their back 5 - not a defensive style we've faced a lot thus far this year.

An ambitious attempt by Adam Nagy nearly put Bristol City in front at the break, with Westwood's save not the most elegant but well enough to turn the ball off target. Nagy then saw a cross headed over by Benik Afobe as the visitors belatedly began to show us something.

With an hour gone, I decided to change up our attack. But before Fletcher and Forestieri could make their introductions, we broke the deadlock. Iorfa's cross picked out Wickham, who was able to get the ball in the back of the net and spare himself from being substituted.

Bristol City's attempts to get back on level terms were damaged when Portuguese full-back Pedro Pereira suffered a serious ankle injury and had to leave the field.

Their mood wasn't helped when then made it 2-0. After nicking the ball in midfield, we broke forward through sub Odubajo, whose cross found Harris at the back stick, and his header from a very tight angle crept past Bentley.

A farcical goal back did give Bristol City a spot on the scoresheet. A poor pass by Bannan was picked off by Nahki Wells, breaking for substitute Famara Diedhiou to run to the box and beat Westwood. But we did enough to take the points and in the process jump a rival play-off contender.

So Christmas time is here, and the table looks like this:

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For the time being, we're meeting our play-off expectations. We genuinely could be better than 5th position, or closer than Brentford, who we are currently 8 points behind. It is tight. We are just 3 points from Fulham, who lead the queue of teams hoping to profit if one of Leeds or Brentford falter, while Bristol City, Hull and Swansea are within five points of us.

We've now reached the point where, in real life, it fell apart for the real Wednesday, where they lost 3 games in a row, and after a surprise win at Leeds, duly failed to win any of the following 7. If we can clear that low bar, we're closer to believing we're in this fight for the long haul. Until then, we've got to keep winning, starting at Stoke on Boxing Day.
noir et blanc armée

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Halfway through the season you happy with 5th spot??
Halfway through the season you happy with 5th spot??

I would say so, yes. Our form does balance itself out, given that we've had some games where we've dropped points against teams we should've beaten, but got 7 points from 3 of the 4 above us, and have also beaten the duo that for now are our nearest challengers. So we're in a decent place. Plus its the Championship, and we all know anything can happen.

I would like us to be better at Hillsborough - it should be a real nasty place to come for away sides, but our style of play just seems to go better for our away matches than they do at home. We have the league's best away form, but were one of the worst at home until the recent wins over Brentford and Bristol City. We could also score more goals, but it is what it is.
noir et blanc armée

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On Christmas Day, Sheffield Wednesday are 5th - very much a decent starting point to find ourselves going into the second half of the season.

This is especially considering that for some, the main top 6 thing about us is our wage bill - we have the 4th highest salary bill per annum in the division, but have low possession and shot chances. Saying that, we are certainly doing better than Stoke, who are at real risk of turning the league's biggest wage bill into a second relegation in 3 years.

However, its this which is one of our considerations. With many players out of contract in the summer, I'd prefer to try and keep some up. However, with finances biting at Hillsborough, negotiating any deal was going to be tough before Chansiri let me know he's cut nearly £100K a week off our wage bill, making it harder to fit my expectation of keeping it under control. Indeed, he's also now scaled back our ambitions now from "Play-Offs" to "Top Half", which at least gives me job security if our form collapses, but with our finances where they are, I think the Premier League wealth is going to be necessary to keep the lights on.

I did have a lot of ideas for new players in January, but with a £90M+ debt hanging over the place from multiple loans, losses of over £5M so far this season with more certain to come, and officially an "Insecure" rating, we have problems.

On top of this, with many of those that I both want to sell and want to keep out of contract, we're going to have to accept tiny fees if any. Nuhiu is only going for a max of £700K assuming LASK meet all the deal's conditions, and that feels high-end compared to what I might get for others, but that still might be better than letting everyone leave for nowt. It may be the only way I can get in new signings might be to cash in on Reach or Bannan - our two big ticket players with longer term contracts.

Deciding how we can do this is a January problem. First off are a few games in very quick succession over Christmas and New Year's, as we seek to brush off our financial strife and close in on the big budget lads above us.

Boxing Day brings us Stoke City away, with the Potters still struggling despite the appointment of Aitor Karanka.

Taking on the Potters were to be:
Westwood - Odubajo, Iorfa, Borner, Palmer - Harris, Luongo, Bannan, Reach - Fletcher, Wickham
Subs: Dawson, Lees, Fox, Hutchinson, da Cruz, Windass, Rhodes

3 changes from beating Bristol City - Windass failed to make the most of his start against the Robins, so Fletcher got a start, Harris was preferred to da Cruz and Palmer got a start so Fox could be rested.

Could we give our fans a late Christmas present and continue our reputation as away day specialists?

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I mean, we'll play better and lose. So you have to take the win, even if it was something closer to something the home fans would've got under Tony Pulis.

We made a brilliant start at the Bet365. Stephen Ward completely failed to deal with a Reach cross, and it fell for Fletcher to slip the ball home.

Stoke nearly equalised straight away, with Tom Ince having a shot blocked and Mario Vrancic's rebound hitting the bar on the way over. As the half progressed, Stoke were having a lot of the ball, but our keeper and defence were not in the mood for conceding, and we could've snuck a second on a counter, with Jack Butland denying Harris.

Wickham did make it 2-0 after the half hour but had the goal disallowed for offside, while at the other end, Thibaud Verlinden having a strike pushed wide by Westwood and the Irish keeper making another decent stop to deny Lee Gregory.

While Stoke did have a few half-chances, there wasn't really a lot of quality, with perhaps the best one seeing Fletcher hit the bar. But a win is a win is a win, and for all I'd prefer to be playing more handsome football, we've still got points to maintain our top 6 position.

No time to dwell on it though, as 3 days later, we had a home clash with Cardiff City, who have Pulis now on board and who warmed up for our meeting with back-to-back goalless draws.

To try and take the win, I chose:
Westwood - Iorfa, Lees, Borner, Fox - da Cruz, Luongo, Bannan, Harris - Fletcher, Wickham
Subs: Dawson, Odubajo, Palmer, Hutchinson, Reach, Windass, Rhodes

3 changes once more, with da Cruz, Lees and Fox displacing Reach, Odubajo and Palmer. While we beat Cardiff in Wales, our home form's hit-and-miss nature means that this could be another case of a draw after the recent high points against Brentford and Bristol City.

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At least we're now 10 games unbeaten, but its hard not to see this as a missed opportunity.

We had started rather well. Fletcher had already missed an early chance before Harris opened the scoring with a goal against the club he'd moved from the previous summer. The ex-Cardiff player was perfectly picked out by Iorfa, and crashed in a header off the woodwork.

It perhaps should've been 2-0, with Luongo, Wickham and da Cruz all firing wide when well placed before Neil Etheridge denied Wickham. But we weren't home and dry, and Cardiff gave us a notice of their intent when Westwood had to make a good save to deny Nathaniel Mendez-Laing.

Cardiff then equalised just before the half hour, as a through ball by Marlon Pack was missed by Borner and landed for Robert Glatzel, who flicked a strike past Westwood. Things could've then been even worse, with Westwood denying Sean Morrison and Danny Ward in quick succession.

Wickham and Luongo missed decent chances in the final moments of the first half, while Etheridge made saves to thwart Wickham twice and da Cruz straight after the half-time break, and the Cardiff keeper would deny the same two again just before the hour.

Considering I've been critical for our attack, the main issue here was just finding Etheridge in half decent form or getting things fully accurate. Borner and da Cruz flicked strikes just wide either side of a shot Wickham had denied by Etheridge.

Perhaps proof it wasn't gonna be our day came when Etheridge couldn't stop a da Cruz strike going goalward, but it still bounced out via a post. The keeper then also denied Harris, Fletcher and perpetual sub Windass.

Would've been typical if Cardiff got a late winner, but they missed 2 chances in added time and a draw was secured. I would've preferred more, but we're still unbeaten, so we move on to the challenge of another side in the top 6 hunt that was predicted for midtable or lower - Hull City, who are just outside the play-offs despite losing 3 of their last 5.

Chosen for this game were:
Westwood - Odubajo, Iorfa, Lees, Fox - da Cruz, Luongo, Reach, Harris - Forestieri, Wickham
Subs: Wildsmith, Borner, Palmer, Hutchinson, Bannan, Fletcher, Rhodes

3 changes again - Forestieri for Fletcher, Reach for Bannan, Odubajo for Borner. One further alteration was needed in the 18 however - Dawson is out with flu, but lucky for us, as this is New Year's, I could register people on the books. So I got one-time number one Wildsmith registered, then chose him over Jones.

First game of 2020, how would we do?

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Now those are moments we like - injury time winner over a play-off rival, and with Fulham losing at home to Reading, we move into 4th position. Brentford also lost, moving us to 5 points from the Bees and suddenly back in with an outside shot of automatic.

To some degree, it was the inverse of Cardiff. Against the Welshmen, we should've won but couldn't break the door down, but here, we could easily have lost given we had less possession and shots (as per usual). In the late stages, da Cruz was was basically on the floor with exhaustion and watching Hull press us hard down our right flank, but then the Dutchman on loan from Parma slammed in a moment to savour. Grant McCann pouted after saying Hull didn't deserve to lose, and he may've had a point but whatever.

We were on the back foot more or less straight away, with Westwood making great saves to deny Josh Bowler and Leonardo da Silva Lopes, along with a more conventional save to keep out James Scott. But we had a great chance ourselves just after a quarter hour, as George Long turned Harris' strike onto the post.

Long would also have to do a great save to deny da Cruz, and a more conventional one to deny Wickham, but Hull still had their own forward momentum, with Westwood denying Reece Burke.

We were seeing a few half-chances in the minutes either side of the break, but Hull's were still going more accurate. With the game petering out, we decided to switch to a 4-4-2 diamond and throw wantaway Rhodes on, but the best chance was when an away defender's backpass nearly crept over the line.

In the final 10 minutes, Hull were looking more awake. Sub Keane Lewis-Potter saw one saved by Westwood, with the Irish keeper then making a better save to deny Jackson Irvine and another to deny Tom Eaves. Hull were still pressing, with Westwood denying Lewis-Potter, Norbert Balogh and Irvine - the latter in a particularly impressive manner.

Having survived a barrage in the final 10 minutes, we then blew a wonderful chance to break the deadlock when Long made a great save to prevent a rare Rhodes goal in Sheffield blue & white.

But then, 2 minutes into added time, Reach intercepted the ball and passed it along to Forestieri. The Italian's through-ball was missed by a Hull defender and landed for da Cruz, who showed a sudden burst of fate and lashed it past Long to win us the game.

Results elsewhere suddenly made this 3 points even more vital, and underlined the fact this Sheffield Wednesday team is here to stay in the promotion fight, and can mix it with other rivals ahead of the supposed glamour for an FA Cup tie with Premier League Aston Villa as a distraction next weekend.

Whether we can afford to stay in the fight is another question.
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January has arrived, with it bringing a raft of notes about visa changes from 2021 I don't fully get that will change how we can do business. In saying that, such is our budget, I'm not sure how much of a test we're going to give the changes just yet.

With our wage bill getting slashed, its going to cause issues. A large number of key players are out of contract in the summer, but at some point I'm going to have to try renewals. This is particularly acute in attack, as the only first team strikers not out of contract in the summer are Wickham and the forward-capable Windass - both of whom are loans.

So far, I've rejected bids for Pelupessy that fell short of my ideal valuation but as the Dutchman is getting angsty about a lack of playing time, that may be something I have to reconsider.

First test for us in 2020 would be a third straight game at Hillsborough but with attention turning to the FA Cup, as we welcome Premier League Aston Villa to Owlerton. Villa drew 0-0 with our cross-city neighbours in a Premier League game in early November, but lost to the same team in August in a Carabao Cup tie at Villa Park. Whether we can give Dean Smith more Steel City-induced cup misery is one question, but for me, as much as I'd love an upset, this is as much a test to see how much work will be needed to catch up with PL teams if we were to stumble our way into the top flight.

Looking to make the back pages sing with tales of a Cup upset were:
Wildsmith - Palmer, Iorfa, Lees, Fox - Luongo, Hutchinson, Bannan - Reach, Fletcher, da Cruz
Subs: Westwood, Bates, Odubajo, Peulpessy, Murphy, Forestieri, Wickham

With just 2 rest days between beating Hull and this one, I felt it prudent to do some pack shuffling. Perhaps equally noteworthy was a shift to 4-3-3. With a trip to Leeds next for us in the league, I decided to try out a change with that game in mind.

So, what could we manage?

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I guess its next season when we'll have to try our luck at a Cup shock. Though we weren't embarrassed by a side with multi-million talents.

Perhaps the other left field call to go with choosing a 4-3-3 was a first start for the highly rated goalkeeper Wildsmith, who was number one two seasons early and showed some potential with some half decent early saves. These would be rewarded when, against the early run of play, we took the lead.

A foul on lone striker Fletcher was penalised by the ref, and from the spot, Bannan crashed his strike past Tom Heaton to please the home crowd.

The glow and hope of a noteworthy scalp was on for 12 minutes, during which time Villa missed multiple chances before we gave them one on a plate. Ahmed El Ghazi was first to a poor goal kick, and Trezeguet hit a venomous strike past Wildsmith.

Luongo nearly put us back in front within seconds, as a volley careered inches wide of the mark. Iorfa also headed over as we had some isolated chances, but for the most part, it was Villa making the running as was perhaps expected.

A low quality second half saw us hold our own and seemingly inch closer towards taking them to a replay in Birmingham. But with less than 10 to play, an El Ghazi cross caused mayhem in the box and after 2 attempts were blocked, an attempted clearance fell for Grealish, who lashed one into the bottom corner, which turned out to be the game winner.

We weren't a million miles from the visitors, but in truth, they were deserved winners and we can't say fairer than that.

Moving on, we had some transfer admin, or not, to take care of before our next game. Centre-back Bates had not been seen since his red card against Stoke in late September, having made a rare bench spot for this one, and made a request for his loan from German side Hamburg SV to be terminated. With highly rated young defenders in my academy that can cover his CB position, I decided he was surplus to requirements and he was off back to Germany.

The same luck couldn't be said for Rhodes or Winnall. Both have been offered to rivals, but the only offer that came in was from Birmingham City for Rhodes, who offered no monthly fee or wage contribution. Screw that.

So, Leeds away. In real life, the last high point of Wednesday's 19-20 after two goals in the final 10 minutes beat Bielsa's gang in their own backyard. We're not going to pretend its an easy test though. They've so far dropped points at home just twice - a defeat to Preston on Boxing Day, and a goalless draw with Derby in what may've been their only competent display under Cocu.

Sent up the M1 to try and claim a big scalp were:
Westwood - Iorfa, Lees, Borner, Fox - Luongo, Bannan, Reach - Harris, Wickham, da Cruz
Subs: Wildsmith, Odubajo, Palmer, Hutchinson, Murphy, Forestieri, Fletcher

The original plan was to try a 4-3-3 with Hutchinson protecting the back four, but with the midfielder suffering a minor injury and missing most of the week, I tried to improvise. So Bannan is to play as a deep-lying creative, with Reach to play in-field as an extra infield creative, in something of an unusual move. Having rested him for the Villa game, Harris also gets a recall.

So could we pull off the result our fans would've been dreaming of?

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Sadly not. Our first Championship defeat since a loss at Blackburn after 11 games without defeat, and it had to come against that lot. Shame.

Leeds scored first after a fairly sedate opening, when Tyler Roberts headed a cross from the left flank past Westwood.

Mateusz Klich's strike nearly made it 2-0 straight away when he fired over, before a shot from Wickham went over. This was then followed by a good chance for us, when Harris crashed a strike off the side-netting.

But for the most part, it was defensive, with Westwood denying Kalvin Phillips and Klich in quick succession, and the second half was little better for our offensive types. Though annoyingly, Leeds' second goal came nearly straight after a rare foray for us when Reach headed over.

It also summed up our luck. Westwood had made a decent save to deny Jack Harrison, but Jean-Kevin Augustin was ignored by everyone in our green kit, and the Championship's top scorer got a free header.

Our only shot on target saw a long-ranger by sub Fletcher tipped wide, but by then the game was lost and Leeds had missed a few chances to make their afternoon more comfortable.

Still, we were not going to stay unbeaten for the rest of the season, and the goal is now going to have to be

Next up was Blackburn, and in real life, this was the moment it fell apart for Wednesday - a 5-0 home mauling that kicked off a long win drought, and ruined the play-off dream.

Looking to give us a successful bounce back were:
Westwood - Odubajo, Lees, Borner, Fox - Murphy, Luongo, Bannan, Reach - Fletcher, Wickham
Subs: Wildsmith, Borner, Iorfa, Palmer, Hutchinson, Harris, da Cruz, Forestieri

From our disappointing visit to Elland Road, we made 3 changes and change back to a 4-4-2. Noteworthy was a new look right flank, with Murphy given a start after he began to campaign to cancel his loan from Newcastle (and with it a first start since August), and Iorfa benched after a few underwhelming games.

So, having been crap at home most of the year, can we grab a 4th home win in 5?

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We did indeed, and if anything shows how valuable Wickham is, let this be example number 1. Not bad given he was initially going to be behind Fletcher and Forestieri in my pecking order.

In the opening 20-or-so minutes, we had more chances but the best were for Blackburn in our old enemy the 4-2-3-1, with Westwood making two saves. But our first proper chance put us in front, as Wickham received a crisp Bannan pass and then lashed it into the back of the net.

We began to press, with Greg Cunningham do well to block a Odubajo shot before Luongo hit one wide.

However, things then threatened to go wrong for us when Odubajo fouled Bradley Dack, and Blackburn were given a penalty. But Westwood justified his spot ahead of two more highly rated goalkeepers, pulling off a good save to deny Adam Armstrong from 12 yards.

Westwood also did well to deny 2 attempts by Armstrong late in the first half, but was powerless minutes into the second. A free-kick was given quite a way from goal but Stewart Downing's 25 yard kick crashed past Westwood and put Blackburn level.

Curiously, Blackburn chose to replace Dack with a defender and switch to a 3-4-3, while we opted to switch to a 4-4-2 diamond with da Cruz playing wide left and Reach pushed into a number 10 role.

An even game saw both sides press and create chances to try and grab the game's third goal, and it was us who would get it. Reach laid the ball back for Bannan, who slotted it forwards for Wickham to hit a nice first time effort past Christian Walton.

Walton had to make a fine save to deny Reach moments later as we nearly grabbed a third. But for the most part, we were able to restrict Blackburn's attempts to grab a goal, with their closest see Lewis Travis strike a post in the third of five minutes added time.

It was a big win for us though, maintaining 4th position in the Championship and keeping us as a genuine play-off contender.

We can't bask for too long in the warm glow of this, however. A trip to Wigan Athletic is only 3 days away. Though at least there's a 12 day break after before an insane February that crams 7 games into the shortest month of the year.
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Wigan Athletic was next in the diary, followed by 11 days off where the main business would be trying to raise some desperately needed cash to stave off the risk the team might enter administration, which concerns me as something that could undermine our play-off push.

Attempting to get the better of the one-time FA Cup winners:
Westwood - Odubajo, Lees, Borner, Palmer - Murphy, Luongo, Bannan, Reach - Wickham, Forestieri
Subs: Dawson, Hutchinson, Fox, Iorfa, Harris, da Cruz, Fletcher

The chosen reshuffle here was Odubajo and Palmer to replace our full-backs, and Forestieri for Fletcher. So as per usual, 3 changes.

With the Blackburn win doing some heavy lifting, would've been nice to add another away win to our long list of them.

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If this our performance could be summed up in a meme, it would be that one of Will from The Inbetweeners going "Well that was fucking dreadful". There was apparently some controversy over Wigan's winning goal, but given we were the second best team even before Harris got a stupid red card within minutes of coming on as a substitute, we can't say we were unlucky or could hide behind the call.

Things began going wrong straight away. We'd started Palmer over Fox to give our usual left-back a rest, with the Aberdeen manager watching amid rumours he wants to loan our full-back, who was dissatisfied and wanted a loan move. But he got an injury inside the opening ten minutes that will rule him out for a month, meaning he's going to stay put. It was caused by a poor challenge by Wigan defender Nathaniel Byrne, who would also go off injured from the same incident.

We were terrible, with Anthony Pilkington and Kiefer Moore coming close and giving us particular bother but no first half breakthrough.

To try and change the course of the game, I took off the tiring Reach to try something different, with Harris introduced. His first act would also be his last, with a heavy duty two footed lunge earning him a dismissal.

The match winner came with 68 minutes on the clock, when Moore got first header on a Wigan corner and Leon Balogun bundled it over the line. Apparently the ball may've touched a hand on the way in but I didn't see it.

We had all of one chance to equalise, but sadly Wickham snatched at it, meaning no reward for us.

As a result, we had 12 days to lick our wounds over our FA Cup-induced stoppage. But it would also be the end of the transfer window, and this would provide some interesting chaos.

Throughout the window, I'd resorted to increasingly lower prices to try and offload Rhodes and Winnall, who have been transfer listed since the word go but had no real takers. After Birmingham's piss take loan with no fee or wage contribution, I tried again until finally, Preston North End announced an interest in taking a punt. We agreed a £500K deal, although we still have contribute just under £17K of his old £35K-a-week deal for the rest of the season. But he's gone, and given he was poor in his sub appearances, I'm fine shifting him on.

However, in a further sign of belt tightening austerity by Chansiri, we got told that we would only see 5% of that in the transfer kitty for squad reinvestment, and with the wage budget choice by Chansiri meaning we are now still around £40K-per-week over budget, no new investments were coming in.

This would become even more of a problem while the deal sending Rhodes to Deepdale was being sorted. Midfielder Pelupessy whined about not getting game time, with the young Dutchman having last played in October, when he suffered an injury in the win at Cardiff. We had already turned down two bids from Dutch clubs and I told him he was needed as back-up but he protested, and I felt it wasn't worth having him around if he was just going to whine, so I loaned him to Sparta Rotterdam.

Literally the day after that deal was confirmed, Bannan suffered a major hip injury in training and will miss the next 4 months. Effectively, he's out for the season, and is the second such injury we've suffered to a central midfielder after Kieran Lee suffered that shortly before Christmas. But with Bannan a first choice and a key creative presence, this hurts us so much more. For crying out loud, fml, god dammit, etc.

So we're left with 2 out-and-out centre-mids for the rest of the season - Hutchinson, who is shockingly injury prone, and Luongo, who is currently out of form. In theory, Reach can move inside to play CM, but he plays much better in a wide position.

Great. Just terrific. As if my challenge needed to be harder. Dawson getting a hernia didn't help my mood either, although with Westwood in good form and Wildsmith equally capable, that one hurt less. But still fantastically aggravating.

Deadline day came and went, with no other business conducted, meaning the squad and our financial peril remains. Sadly unlike Reading, Leeds and Bristol City, we didn't have a star player brought by Crystal Palace, who went on a Championship-centric spending spree following the second arrival of Sam Allardyce earlier in January.

So with injuries, missing players, suspensions, incoherent transfers and real concern of where the hell we go from here, midtable Millwall might've allowed themselves to dream of a shock victory at Hillsborough and further indicate our promotion chase is in trouble.

Selected almost by default were:
Westwood - Iorfa, Lees, Borner, Fox - Murphy, Hutchinson, Luongo, Reach - Fletcher, Wickham
Subs: Wildsmith, Odubajo, Urhoghide, Windass, da Cruz, Forestieri, Winnall

4 changes, with Iorfa and Fox back in the normal full-back roles, Hutchinson (by virtue of being the only one available) partnering Luongo and Fletcher replacing Forestieri, who was awful against Wigan. On top of this, we had to plump up the bench with Winnall, who we couldn't even give away in January, and young defender Osaze Urhoghide. The first choice would've been another youngster called Isaac Rice, who my coaching team rate higher, but he's injured so Urhoghide gets a spot instead. We also called up well regarded young midfielder Liam Shaw into the first team squad, but he'll have to wait his turn.

With a far from ideal build-up, this had potential for being a banana skin.

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And just like that, we not only pick up our first home and away double of the season, but register our biggest home win so far. Clearly I need to underestimate our chances more often.

We seemed to be in the mood to attack straight away, with Wickham seeing two efforts go close, although Millwall could've changed the complexion more when Tom Bradshaw beat Westwood but saw a drive cannon off the bar.

The opening goal came soon into the game. A free-kick was warded, and Fox sent his delivery in for Borner to nod home for his first Wednesday goal.

Buoyed by that, we battered Millwall's goal. Murphy was denied by a last ditch tackle, Hutchinson crashed a volley narrowly over, and Millwall keeper Bartosz Bialkowski made a good save to deny Murphy and a further save to deny Reach.

Millwall had managed to keep us at arms length after that and had a few half chances, but we would grab a two goal lead in first half added time, when Wickham headed Fox's corner into the back of the net.

That naturally had a boost into the second half. We continued to look positive and would make it 3-0, when Wickham played a one-two with Fox then laid off a ball intended for Reach but which instead found Fletcher, who grabbed the next goal.

8 minutes later came number four and it came through more or less the same route as the second, with Wickham again heading a Fox corner into the back of the net.

Wickham clearly wanted a hat-trick, forcing Bialkowski to make 3 saves in five minutes. But with a four goal cushion, the priority switched to keeping Millwall from ruining our clean sheet and giving a few late minute run-outs. The fragile Hutchinson got the last 25 minutes to cool down, while we also gave the fringe Winnall and youngster Urhoghide time in a full Championship fixture.

The result is a tremendous success. Its our best result so far in charge of Wednesday, and after a few weeks of feeling like we were in danger of flatlining and losing momentum in our Premier League quest, this is a statement piece.

We'll just gloss over the fact another financial dysfunction means if we use Winnall in any Championship game before his contract expires in June, we will have to pay local rivals Barnsley £250K courtesy of the latest of our ill-conceived transfer strategy. And given £250K is literally our entire transfer budget right now, and that's money we'll need if we have any hope of keeping out of contract players we actually want to keep, this may mean we have to send him back to the U23s. Well unless another injury crisis happens but who knows if that'll happen... ha.

Anyway, with 30 games gone in the 2019-20 season, let's see where we're at.

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Unusually, the Championship feels more spread out at the top end than usual. We're level with Fulham in 4th, and just one clear of Hull, but have a reasonable cushion on the likes of Bristol City and Swansea who lead the chasing pack. Looking the other way, we still have 7 points on West Brom, who overtook Brentford recently to swipe a spot in the automatics, with Leeds basically running away with it. Little wonder Everton were reportedly in for Bielsa as a replacement for Carlo Ancelotti, who left to join Manchester United after Ole was taken off the wheel with the Red Devils in mid table.

February will test us with barely any midfielders, though. For all that Christmas is crazy, this is going to be a season definer. A Yorkshire Derby with Barnsley comes next, but then we follow that with a busy sequence against Luton, Reading, Birmingham, Charlton and Derby to follow. For some reason, I got arranged for me a friendly against a Norwegian team ahead of their season restarting, but I explicitly cancelled it as its entirely unnecessary, to say nothing of it being in-between the Barnsley and Luton trips.

None of our February opponents are up there with us, but this is going to be killer. And it won't get any easier, given first game in March is Brentford at Griffin Park.

Still, how hard can it be to stick this landing?
noir et blanc armée

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Loving 5th spot aren't you hahaha
Loving 5th spot aren't you hahaha

We were in 4th for 3 weeks tbf but the defeat to Wigan saw us drop below Fulham in the sequence.

I'll be happy to finish there tbf. Things are getting tougher and tougher out there.
noir et blanc armée

Read my FM20 Career WAWAW

Thrashing Millwall was a great start to February after a chaotic January, bringing with it 3 defeats, transfer policy motivated by lowering our astronomic wage bill after it got cut further, and a ton of injuries.

But there is still a shitload of work to do if we're going to fulfil our brief of play-offs. As much as the board is now content with top half, the fact we've been in the top 7 for the whole season so far is motivation for us to keep this going.

With February having more games than the traditionally jam-packed December, we were going to be tested. None of our opponents in this month may be direct competitors for a play-off spot, but I still want as many points as possible.

The next game would take us to close rivals Barnsley for a clash in front of the Sky Sports cameras, and given the shit I got from fans and board for failing to win either league or Carabao Cup game against our local rivals back in August, you can bet I was keen for more from this.

Trying to grab the respect of fans against these rivals would be:
Westwood - Iorfa, Lees, Borner, Fox - Murphy, Hutchinson, Reach, da Cruz - Fletcher, Wickham
Subs: Wildsmith, Odubajo, Urhoghide, Luongo, Windass, Forestieri, Winnall

The original plan was to name the same side that got the victory against Millwall, but Luongo suffered a minor injury in training and so I chose to bench him, with Reach moving into a central position and da Cruz starting out wide.

While no Steel City Derby is in the diary, the fact these two still hate each other meant victory was still the target. Who would get it?

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Add one more away win to the total, and one several of our fans would get a lot of satisfaction from.

We had started on the back foot against a Tykes side who've been good at pressing. Man Utd loanee Tahith Chong blasted one wide before Westwood made a fine stop to deny Jacob Brown. But the start was pretty open. Fletcher saw an effort bounce wide before Brad Collins did well to deny Wickham.

The opening few minutes were lively but it began to calm down a bit as the half continued, with Barnsley looking the better side. But in the final 10 minutes of the half, we began to turn up the tempo. Collins made a good save to deny Reach, da Cruz saw a drive flash wide and then, with 5 to go before half-time, we got the opener.

Barnsley do get credit for how our goal came about. A short goal-kick was circulated inside Barnsley's penalty area, and a dozing Aapo Halme was robbed by Fletcher. The Scot laid it off to his strike partner Wickham, who flicked in a third goal in two games.

Perhaps annoyed with that, the home side had lively play after the break, with Westwood making a good save to deny Jordan Williams and a more conventional one when Alex Mowatt lined one up.

We still wanted a second goal, however, with Wickham denied by Collins and Murphy heading over. With 25 minutes to go, Barnsley then made it easier when full-back Clarke Oduor got a second booking for the exact same offence he committed for his first half booking - a foul on Murphy - and with it, he was gone.

From there, we controlled the game at our pace with Barnsley hamstrung by their deficiency. We could even have strengthened our hand, with da Cruz coming close twice and sub Forestieri had a great run but couldn't get the shot away. But 3 points is 3 points, especially when they come against neighbours.

Not that we could rest on this for long, much as we'd like to. We had an appointment with a side promoted with the Tykes in 2018-19, as we travelled down the M1 all the way to Luton for a meeting with Graeme Jones' side.

My picks for this one would be:
Westwood - Iorfa, Lees, Borner, Fox - da Cruz, Hutchinson, Luongo, Reach - Fletcher, Wickham
Subs: Wildsmith, Odubajo, Urhoghide, Shaw, Windass, Murphy, Forestieri

One change for this one, with Luongo for Murphy, allowing Reach to return his preferred left midfield slot and da Cruz returning to the right. In order to avoid triggering that £250K payment to Barnsley for Winnall, we decided to go for young midfielder Shaw instead as a sub.

So we're on a high after back-to-back wins. Could we keep this rolling?

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Well, for a while this was going swimmingly, and then it all went wrong. Maybe we got complacent or something, but its pretty galling.

We had made a fantastic start. The ball was circulated out wide to da Cruz, whose pinpoint cross was straight onto the head of Fletcher, and with it the Scot found the back of the net.

A similar routine nearly made it two within a minute, as Luton gave the ball away at kick off and da Cruz found Wickham, but he headed over.

The first half began to be lead by us. Luongo crashed a strike on target that Simon Sluga saved before Wickham had a goal disallowed, and the host's Croatian keeper Sluga then did very well to deny da Cruz. He also made a great save to deny Fox.

There were concerns we were too wasteful for our own good, which could've been punished when a huge tussle broke out in our box that saw 3 Luton strikes blocked. Having survived that, we should've made it 2-0 when Reach narrowly saw a strike creep over the bar.

But further into added time, we would grab a second goal through the same scorer as number one, and in a much more glamorous style. A long ball from Westwood was flicked on by Wickham to Fletcher, who from a long way out thought he'd have a crack and he duly hit the jackpot with a strike that flew past Sluga.

Luton began the second half looking to get back into proceedings, with Izzy Brown lashing a drive into the side-netting and Westwood keeping out James Collins.

After a period where we blew several chances, Luton sent us a warning of intent when they got a goal back only to see it disallowed. Collins turned in the rebound after Westwood turned a Jacob Butterfield drive onto the frame of the goal, but the striker was flagged offside.

We didn't learn from this. Within two minutes, Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu made it 2-1, with the midfielder receiving an infield pass from Brendan Galloway and decided to have a crack that duly beat Westwood.

Our response was to press to try make it 3-1, and after Fletcher, sub Windass, da Cruz and Murphy all missed their shots, we had a chance to surely wrap it up when we got a penalty with 13 minutes remaining after Fletcher was pushed. But deflatingly, the Scot's strike was saved by Sluga.

We wouldn't have long to discover how costly that would be. Westwood can only parry a drive by Mpanzu, and Collins beat our dozing backline to slot in an equaliser as Luton recovered from 2-0 down to draw level.

Things could've been even worse, when Westwood had to turn a Kal Naismith free-kick onto the post. Though we almost responded from that with a goal of our own, when Murphy received his long ball and struck one into the side netting.

It was certainly an exciting, engaging and open adventure, but honestly I'd have taken a boring 1-0.

But again, we had very little time to learn from this, as we hosted Reading at the weekend, with the Royals taking us on in the reverse of the opening day.

Chosen in the 18 for this one would be:
Westwood - Odubajo, Iorfa, Borner, Fox - Murphy, Luongo, Reach, da Cruz - Fletcher, Wickham
Subs: Wildsmith, Lees, Urhoghide, Hutchinson, Shaw, Harris, Forestieri

With captain Lees having a rough conclusion at Luton, he got a bench spot with Odubajo brought in, while Murphy got recalled in the midfield.

So, having started our odyssey for real by winning at the Madejski on the opening day, could we grab another success?

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Urgh that was shit. We were likelier to win it but we didn't do enough, while Reading played for a 0-0 and got it. Perhaps the only person who could look back on this with any fondness is Shaw, who we brought on late on for his debut. But that's about it.

So we move on. One week later, we made the trip to Birmingham.

To leave the Bluenoses feeling blue, we went with:
Westwood - Odubajo, Iorfa, Borner, Fox - Murphy, Hutchinson, Reach, Harris - Fletcher, Forestieri
Subs: Jones, Lees, Urhoghide, Shaw, Luongo, da Cruz, Wickham

Three subs for this one - despite being our top scorer, Wickham was rested with Forestieri given a rare runout, while Hutchinson and Harris had midfield recalls.

With Dawson still unfit after suffering a hernia in early January, it got worse as Wildsmith suffered a torn wrist ligament. Ouch. So Jones, who I couldn't even give away in January, gets an unexpected go on the bench.

How would we fare then?

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I get the feeling Steve McClaren, who turned up as manager at Birmingham a few weeks earlier, will be cursing our defensive line as to how they didn't win and win big, or at least booking extra shooting practice for his strikers, given they had 19 shots on target and failed to score any.

In saying that, the game was somewhat inevitably loaded in the early minutes. Moments after Jude Bellingham was denied by Westwood, we scored the opening goal. Murphy continued his upward curve from his several months in exile, with the Newcastle loanee turning Fox's cross home.

Birmingham's bombardment began straight away, with Jefferson Montero and Jack Clarke-Salter seeing strikes denied by Westwood. Much closer was Dan Crowley, who saw a strike from a tight angle just tipped away.
;
The Irishman maybe older and lower rated than Dawson & Wildsmith, but he was still demonstrating his worth with saves to keep out Montero, Maikel Kieftenbeld and Lukas Jutkiewicz twice, as our defensive line in front of him was frequently tested.

We almost pulled Birmingham's pants down in the final few minutes of the break, but sadly Fletcher's attempt was an easy one for Lee Camp.

The second half continued in much the same way, with Westwood again the more busier of our two goalkeepers, although the single beat chance was for a Wednesday player, after Reach saw a spectacular volley well saved by Camp, and the Birmingham keeper was then also called upon to thwart Murphy.

After another phase of being backs to the wall, Forestieri nearly made the most of a rare start only to misjudge a seemingly simple finish, as he walloped his strike into the away section. Much closer was Wickham, who came off the bench and saw a fine wallop tipped away by Camp, before two extra efforts went off target.

The final stages saw Birmingham continue to press and bombard us, but we continued to have an answer to everything, and the points were ours.

Whether we deserved them is another question, but I'll take it. We're now 5 unbeaten, and with just 5 losses all year have less than the top 2. Even if our drawing habit is what means we're presently 8 points from automatic promotion with 12 to go.

Still, we're in a good on-pitch position despite our finances being in the toilet, injuries racking up and some ill-advised January departures. And that's even before the fact we're stuck with Palmer kicking up shit for not getting a loan move, though not my fault his injuries meant Aberdeen lost interest.

Its now up to us to keep this going. Our crazy busy February is still not over, with strugglers Charlton and Derby coming to the away dressing room at Hillsborough before a big test of our credentials when we make our final visit to Brentford's Griffin Park ground.

It would be painful to miss out on play-offs having come so far, whether through administration or through our form collapsing. But I want to believe we can do this, and maybe we will. Let's just see how we fare.
noir et blanc armée

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My expectation had been for February to be difficult, but we were 2 games away from managing to go unbeaten for the whole block of 7 games in the month. This is certainly a good starting point given that promotion challengers Brentford, Bristol City and West Brom make up 3 of our 4 fixtures in month 3 of 2020. We are mixing it up with them - we've lost the least games of anyone, but are being held back by our high quantity of draws.

Before that sequence - plus a game against Nottingham Forest, who were a challenging opponent in December - would be two home games against strugglers, with bottom 4 sides Charlton and Derby making the trip to Hillsborough.

To some degree, this even had potential as a scouting mission, given Addicks striker Lyle Taylor is on my shortlist as a potential free signing as he's out of contract. He's one of five players out of contract in the summer I've begun scouting in case we don't go up and have to rely on freebies to plump up the squad, and given our strikers are all out of contract and I don't rate our chances of re-loaning Wickham without PL cash, it feels prudent to start looking.

Looking to a crowd out possible future Hillsborough star were:
Westwood - Odubajo, Iorfa, Borner, Fox - Murphy, Hutchinson, Luongo, Reach - Fletcher, Wickham
Subs: Dawson, Lees, Urhoghide, Shaw, Windass, da Cruz, Forestieri

Two changes from our slightly fortunate win at Birmingham the preceding weekend - Luongo for Harris and Wickham for Forestieri. The expected ones, perhaps, but still a reasonable approach to take.

Could we keep an unbeaten run going?

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Yes we would, courtesy of a job well done.

Potential target Taylor did give it a go to change things early on, with one strike flicking the top of the bar on the way over and another tipped wide by Westwood, although the second of that was offside.

The game had been fairly open in the opening half hour with both coming close. But shortly before the 30 mark, it was the Owls with the game's opening goal. Wickham continued his good recent form, as he received a pass from Luongo and duly lashed one home from distance.

Charlton had a patient attempt to try and equalise but couldn't grab a way through in the period before the half-time whistle, and it would then allow us to take a more assertive attacking role after half-time. Close were Wickham, Iorfa and Fletcher, although we were finding a breakthrough fairly difficult to find.

A second Sheffield Wednesday goal would come shortly before the hour, as a goal-kick was intercepted, and we duly punished them as we Murphy & Fletcher exchanged passes before the Newcastle loanee slotted home for a second goal in as many games.

From there, we controlled the game efficiently and could've scored more, but were unfortunately unable to grab a third. A highlight would've been if youngster Shaw had managed it, but his effort flew wide, as did a spectacular Reach strike that would've been worth replaying.

The 2-0 success is still in line with what we wanted though, so we move on with success in the bag.

Next up was Derby, who despite having the actual Wayne Rooney, a number of other big time stars and the real life Wednesday boss Garry Monk, were still struggling in the bottom 4. With those big games in March coming, it would've been great to see them off as well.

Nominated to try and get one over the Rams would be:
Westwood - Iorfa, Lees, Borner, Fox - Murphy, Hutchinson, Reach, da Cruz - Forestieri, Wickham
Subs: Dawson, Odubajo, Urhoghide, Luongo, Windass, Harris, Fletcher

Borner for Odubajo, da Cruz for Luongo and Forestieri in place of Fletcher were the trio of changes made for this affair.

Victory over Derby would be a third in a row, for the first time in this thing. Could we do that?

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By hook or by crook, a third win in a row was achieved, with Forestieri scoring his first goal in bloody ages. I'd like it to be more entertaining, as would the board, but we're rapidly approaching the win-or-bust phase of the season so we just have to win with it. And curiously I'm seen as entertaining despite not necessarily being attacking.

It did take a while for there to be a string of chances, with Wickham heading over moments before Westwood made a good stop to deny Graeme Shinnie.

As half-time loomed, we had a brief spell of having more about us, with Hutchinson and da Cruz coming close. But it then flipped the other way, with Westwood having to make good saves to deny Krystian Bielik and Matt Clarke in the minutes before the break.

The second half began in a chaotic manner, with Bielik having an effort just blocked by Borner seconds before a counter ended in Murphy lashing a strike off the bar with the goalkeeper beaten.

Seconds after that, it was 1-0. A long pass from Lees found Murphy, who found Forestieri, and the Italian just squeezed it under the keeper to put us ahead. Huzzah.

Westwood was on hand to make a good save to keep out Max Bird, with da Cruz responded by hitting the bar. Wickham would then follow with a close strike, with a strike denied by Ben Hamer.

Derby withdrew their superstar Rooney, who did very little, while they came closest when Westwood made a good save to deny Martyn Waghorn.

Indeed, the best chances for a second goal fell in added time for us, with Hamer making a great save to deny Windass and another less taxing one to deny da Cruz.

But by that point, we'd done enough to book in a third straight win and end February unbeaten. Such form would indeed see me crowned as runner up in the Manager of the Month Award the day after, second only to Scott Parker overseeing a clean sweep in Fulham's games. And yet in his month sit-down review, Chansiri gave me a C- for our recent form... can't please everyone.

After this match, there are now just 10 games remaining of the regular season, and the table now looks like this:

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We remain sat in our staple position of 5th, where we've sat for most of the time since late September, barring a few short weeks when we sat 4th and one week when we fell a place to 6th. More of interest is our gap to keep us in the play-offs - with Hull losing against Leeds in an evening kick-off after we saw off Derby, we are now 10 points clear of the Tigers in 7th and should be secure in that goal.

Indeed, we're not necessarily out of the race for automatic promotion. We're just 6 points behind 2nd place West Brom, with games against both the Baggies and Brentford (1 point behind WBA in the table) in the next 4. Win both of those and suddenly I think we could be in with a legitimate shout of getting involved in that battle, which would be a delightful achievement given our low pre-season expectations and lack of depth, financial stability and signings.

No point in getting carried away, but dammit its nice to dream we can bring the Owls' 20 year PL exile to an end without stumbling through the play-offs to do so.
noir et blanc armée

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For all I allowed myself to dream after the win over Derby that we might be about to work our way into the automatic promotion hunt, we simply had to win at Brentford or else realistically the main thing for our last 10 games would just be securing our play-off spot then conserving some energy for the post-season bunfight.

In saying that, having beaten Brentford back in December, it would've been nice to deliver that once more to prove that, despite what some snobby pundits and indeed the Brentford manager say, we're in this fight on merit.

Attempting to upset the Brentford bandwagon were:
Westwood - Odubajo, Lees, Borner, Fox - Murphy, Hutchinson, Luongo, Reach - Fletcher, Forestieri
Subs: Dawson, Palmer, Urhoghide, Harris, Windass, da Cruz, Wickham

The selections here was slightly compromised by injury, with Wickham missing all week in training with a minor injury and, more seriously, Iorfa getting a back strain that would rule him out of some big clashes. Odubajo and Forestieri got the nod as deputisers, while there was also a recall for Luongo instead of da Cruz.

So, would we leave West London with the rewards we want and need?

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Unfortunately not. Our first defeat in 8 games, with our previous being that insipid surrender at Wigan at the end of January. Was deserved as well - it took us until being 3-0 down to really do anything going forward, which was hardly a sign we were about to upset the apple cart.

The sign that this would be a long afternoon came near immediately, when Said Benrahma was denied inside the opening minute by Westwood, and the livewire Algerian would have a goal inside the opening ten minutes. After we gave away a free-kick, he decided to shape the shop up and have a go, and duly placed a piledriver home.

Murphy had a great chance to equalise just after the 20 minute mark only to fling a volley over the top, as we couldn't quite get the thing right.

After lots of Brentford pressure, the best of which saw Westwood deny Bryan Mbeumo, we missed a great chance when Reach volleyed wide, and we duly carried on predominantly defending.

The story continued after half-time, but after one too many near-misses, Brentford would make it 2-0 just before the hour mark. Benrahma got his and his team's second, when he turned in Sergi Canos' cross.

A miserable afternoon got worse 4 minutes later, when Hutchinson failed to intercept a cross and Mbeumo rolled in the home side's third goal.

Wickham grabbed us a goal back 6 minutes after we fell 3-0 down through the classic route one approach, receiving a long ball from Westwood and firing into the back of the net a few minutes after he came off the bench.

We could've made it more interesting later, with Reach denied by David Raya and Harris denied by an offside flag before the sub later was denied by Raya. But Brentford had enough gas in the tank to get the win and we had to slink back up north with our tails between our legs. Could have been worse, with sub Ollie Watkins missing a few chances late on, but no win for us.

With a week to ourselves, we had time to recalibrate for a busy week, with only 2 days break between the Forest and Bristol City games, and another 2 day break between taking on the Robins and another big promotion rival in West Brom.

Starting the supposedly easier one of these games in the form of our meeting with Forest were:
Westwood - Palmer, Lees, Borner, Fox - Harris, Hutchinson, Luongo, Reach - Fletcher, Wickham
Subs: Dawson, Odubajo, Urhoghide, Shaw, Murphy, da Cruz, Forestieri

3 changes as per usual - Fletcher for Forestieri, Harris for Murphy and in something of a left-field choice, the wantaway Palmer over Odubajo.

How would we fare?

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We can't complain that much as on quite a few occasions this season, we contrived to win games with less chances and possession. Equally so, this ended up being pretty infuriating.

Forest had enjoyed the best chances early on in a fairly stalemate opening, even if Lewis Grabban wasted the best one and was offside for another good one.

We were beginning to creep into things as a low quality game approached the half hour mark, with a fine Luongo volley crashing off the post and Arijanet Muric denied Reach, while the away keeper also pulled off a simple stop to deny Wickham.

Less convincing goalkeeper would play a part in Forest's opener. There seemed little on for Joe Lolley, but his strike from a tight angle seemed to go almost through Westwood and in.

Our response was to try and do more going forward. Luongo and Hutchinson both came close, while Muric did well to claw away a Fox free-kick, and we were almost made to pay for that when Grabban fired wide on a counter.

Harris hit the bar and Muric denied sub da Cruz as we searched in vain for an equaliser, with the goalkeeper also denying a stinging Reach long-ranger as we pressed to try and find a way through, even heading to a back 3 in our attempts to do so.

An equaliser would come with 15 left to play. Lolley was penalised when he seemed to get the ball, and a cross by da Cruz found Fox, who glanced in a header to equalise for Wednesday.

I was hoping we'd push on for a winner and we nearly got one when Forestieri lamped one over after a free-kick was cleared to him, but our momentum ground to a halt and, much to my irritation, a point was settled for.

It was doubly compounded when it surfaced that while this was going on, Bristol City had thrashed Blackburn 3-0 at Ewood Park, in the process winning a 7th straight Championship game and taking our 5th place ahead of our meeting at Ashton Gate in midweek.

Saying that, we had an immediate chance to show the Robins up when we travelled south west for a Tuesday night game.

Making the teamsheet for this clash of clashes would be:
Dawson - Palmer, Lees, Borner, Fox - Murphy, Hutchinson, Luongo, da Cruz - Fletcher, Wickham
Subs: Westwood, Urhoghide, Odubajo, Harris, Reach, Windass, Forestieri

Perhaps one of the most noteworthy decisions was to bring in Dawson, who starts a league game for the first time since October after Westwood's error against Forest. We also gave starts for Murphy, da Cruz and Fletcher as we tried to refresh things, not least with West Brom coming after just 2 rest days.

So, how would we cope with the pressure of this big clash?

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A home and away double completed against the Robins as we return back to our 5th place, and stopped the division's form team in their tracks. Sweet.

The recalled Dawson was tested by Nathan Baker's header early on, but Daniel Bentley at the other end responded in kind with a better save to keep out Fletcher.

Dawson then denied Kasey Palmer while Nahki Wells fired wide twice and the keeper did well to thwart Benik Afobe, as Lee Johnson's side tried to batter us into submission in the opening phase of the match.

We still had chances of our own in response, with Murphy well denied by Bentley, Luongo striking a post and the keeper denying Wickham as we tried to respond to Bristol City's pressure with attacking opportunities of our own.

The home side more chances in the last 10 minutes of the half, and a few after the break for good measure, as Wednesday's defence continued to be tested as the game carried on.

Ten minutes after the break, we thought we had the breakthrough moment when Wickham turned in Hutchinson's sprayed ball forward only to get controversially flagged offside. But that sparked us up, as the Palace loanee would then see a strike denied by Bentley.

With Fletcher looking off colour, I subbed him off for Forestieri and it nearly had an instant effect as the veteran Italian had a snapshot blocked. But with less than 20 minutes to go, he would very much make his presence felt. An initial counter from a Bristol City corner had broken down, but a poor clearance was snapped up by da Cruz and Wickham, and the latter cued up Forestieri for an excellent first time finish into the back of the net.

The home side had little in response, and we came close to a second as Forestieri was denied by Bentley. Perhaps the chance for Bristol City came moments later when Dawson denied Kasey Palmer, as we ran down the clock and held out to take a vital victory in the race for the Premier League.

The up-shot is that we re-overtake the gang from Ashton Gate and move back into 5th place with 7 regular games to go. In truth, our hopes of catching the top 2 spots are on the backburner thanks to the dropped points against Brentford and Forest, but we now have a 9 point margin on 7th place Hull City, which means barring a run of losing every game to the end of the season, we should be fine.

That hope of overtaking Brentford, Fulham and West Brom into 2nd would require a freak combination of results, but victory over the Baggies in our next home game would certainly be a great start to that process. 2 days between the two is a very tight turnaround and may require some changes, but with excellent recent home form, no loss at Hillsborough since September and a victory over WBA already this season, we have to be vaguely confident we can at least give it a go against the high flying visitors.
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If we hold any real hope of nicking automatic promotion with a run from deep, defeating West Bromwich Albion is a must. It is something we have had experience of, after we beat them at the Hawthorns earlier this season, but there was no way the Baggies would make it easy for us. It would also be a fascinating tie given there would be a sense of tiredness all round, with WBA beating Brentford at the same time we were winning the game at Ashton Gate against Bristol City on the preceding Tuesday to this game's Friday night.

Named to try and send the Baggies boinging back to the Midlands with no rewards would be:
Dawson - Palmer, Urhoghide, Lees, Fox - Murphy, Luongo, Reach, Harris - Wickham, Forestieri
Subs: Westwood, Borner, Odubajo, Hutchinson, da Cruz, Windass, Fletcher

The biggest move for this one is a first senior team start for the young defender Urhoghide. I would've preferred a lower stakes debut for the youngster, but with Iorfa injured and Borner struggling with a tight hamstring after barely making it through the Bristol City game, this felt like the best option. Reach, Harris and Forestieri are the others to be called up.

Were we all set to make it 2 out of 2 against the Baggies?

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Yes we were. West Brom did not take this well, with 2 red cards and Bilic personally slagging me off in a post-match presser. But we don't give a shit because we've taken a mighty fine victory to achieve our own goals.

The early 20 minutes had a few minor chances without any major test for either keeper, but it was the home side that would break through with a first major chance. A patient passing move from an attacking throw-in eventually see Reach flicks a pass through to Wickham, who placed a neat strike into the back of the net.

Dawson had to stand firm to keep out a few West Brom attempts in the minutes after, although we weren't embarrassed, with Murphy well denied by the away keeper Sam Johnstone.

We were starting to hold them out, but just after the half-hour mark, West Brom hit us with a stunner. Dawson cleared with a punch as he just got ahead of Jonathan Leko, but his clearance was intercepted by Romaine Sawyers, with the midfielder scoring a sensational first-time long range volley to equalise.

But within 6 minutes, we would respond with a second goal to get ourselves back in front. Fox's cross was flicked on by Murphy to Wickham, who hit a fine first time volley into the back of the net and delightfully so.

Bilic was looking to get his charges to attack more after the break, with Sheffield United loanee Callum Robinson coming close with a strike well stopped by Dawson. But our counter strike was still dangerous, with Murphy firing wide on a solo counter, Forestieri hitting the top of the bar and Harris coming close as well.

Things were beginning to come more tense as we approached the final stages, with Charlie Austin denied by Dawson and Leko hitting the post with a volley.

But with a quarter of an hour to go, we were handed an advantage when West Brom had a man sent off. Goalscorer Sawyers went in 2 footed on Murphy, and with that he was gone.

Murphy would also be involved 10 minutes later when another foul on him yielded a red. This time, Baggies full-back Conor Townsend, who has previously been linked with us, had clearly not learned from being booked for fouling the Newcastle loanee shortly after the hour mark by fouling Murphy again and being sent off.

With 9 men now against us, I began to feel a little more relaxed we would see this through, and barring one late scare when a free-kick bounced just wide, it was all good and we had the points against the high flying side from the Midlands.

This game took place on a Friday night, ahead of all of our other opponents, and it remained to be seen how things would look or if things would go our way.

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With 6 full rounds of Championship games to go, we are 7 points from the automatic promotion spots - a legacy of the fact we have more draws than everyone else in the top 6, despite having the least defeats in this division. We could've rose a place into 4th, only for Fulham to ruin that hope by beating QPR away. Brentford winning at Reading also derailed that plan.

We probably won't reach that, though we do have the luxury of a cushion on the play-offs that should all-but see us in the post-season round robin. While Bristol City are pushing us close, there is a double digit gap to 7th place Hull. We might still be caught if we contrive to lose every game remaining, but I'd like to think that's unlikely.

Leeds are still in prime position for taking the title, although they have dropped a few points recently and have been distracted after reaching the FA Cup Quarter Finals, and they would continue that run by beating Leicester to set-up a semi against Manchester United, which is pretty promising for big stuff. They would have to play game 40 against Luton during the international break, with the Whites and Hatters clearly having not enough international call-ups in order to allow the game to go ahead, although they would win.

The bottom 3 is its own interesting scenario. Charlton are in an increasingly vulnerable position, but Stoke, Luton, Huddersfield and Derby are all in close proximity to take it.

West Brom was the last game before the international break, before we enter a final six games and then likely the play-offs. Swansea, Preston, QPR, Huddersfield, Fulham and Middlesbrough stand between us and wrapping up the campaign, before the likely play-offs.

After a quiet interval that comes with an international break, we made the trip to face Swansea at the Liberty Stadium.

Hoping to get a similar Welsh away triumph to go with the one we managed at Cardiff would be:
Dawson - Palmer, Urhoghide, Lees, Fox - Murphy, Luongo, Hutchinson, Reach - Wickham, Fletcher
Subs: Westwood, Borner, Iorfa, Harris, da Cruz, Windass, Forestieri

Fletcher and Hutchinson starting was the only things I felt the need to do, as we continue to try the balance of squad rotation. So, how would we fare?

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Meh. Was an even and mildly entertaining game, but doesn't do us many favours. Especially as we probably should've won.

Swansea took very little time to put us on the back foot, as Bersant Celina met Rhian Brewster's cross and turned a header beyond Dawson to put them in front.

Andre Ayew had a shot blocked and Joe Rodon headed over the Swans really did their best to try and get a second goal and in the process kick-start their somewhat flatlining play-off hopes.

Our first real chance saw the recalled Fletcher denied by Freddie Woodman, before the Newcastle loanee made a good save to deny a longer distance lash at goal by the Scottish striker.

Woodman also denied 2 efforts from Reach as we belatedly began to wake up, and after the half hour, we managed to find a way through.

This goal would be a 20th of the season for Wickham, perhaps making a mockery of Crystal Palace's decision to lend him to us. A long ball down the flank by Palmer lead to a chase between Wickham and Woodman, and after the man in our colours got the first touch to prod it on target, the equaliser was ours.

Celina forced a great save from Dawson moments after half-time, while Woodman did well to deny Fletcher and Murphy fired wide after being set clear by Wickham.

Woodman would be the busier keeper on balance over the remainder of the game, but neither one of us was able to find that breakthrough to win the game.

With Brentford, Fulham and West Brom all winning, it hurts our chances of realising our daydream of catching the top 2, and in truth means we're most probably going to be in the play-offs, with Bristol City also drawing. This point was enough for Swansea to jump Hull in the table after the Tigers were thrashed at The Hawthorns, so we are now 12 points safe inside the play-offs - enough even to soak up an administration related twist of fate.

But for now, we remain in 5th position as we enter the home stretch of the season. Much as I'm aware this is a consistent for us, given we've been there for all but 6 weeks since beating Middlesbrough in late September.

We'll just have to see what we can do from our next games. Next up for us is Preston, who bring their January purchase Jordan Rhodes to the club that sold him and with a potential spring in his step after scoring at Huddersfield. So let's see how big a challenge that provides.
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With Easter here, we're just one win away from confirming a play-off position.

We've had a few things done, with a new contract for Fox and a cash injection of around £4M from the owner to keep the nights on. The last one does sum up the financial implications of what to expect for next year, considering that a look at projections indicated that without promotion, we may have a transfer budget next season of 45 grand. Big budget stuff.

For our two Easter games, we began with a home clash against midtable Preston North End.

Chosen to take on the boys from Lancashire were:
Dawson - Odubajo, Lees, Borner, Palmer - Harris, Luongo, Hutchinson, Reach - Windass - Wickham
Subs: Westwood, Urhoghide, Fox, Lee, Murphy, da Cruz, Forestieri

Perhaps the headline grabbing alteration to our squad is a start for Windass, making only his 2nd start since his summer loan arrival from Wigan and who has made over 15 appearances off the bench. We also gave Odubajo, Borner and Harris recalls.

Preston are one of the few teams to beat us so far this season. Could we avenge our loss at Deepdale all the way back in August?

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Shame. So close and yet right at the end we contrived to trip ourselves up.

We had an early chance when Declan Rudd denied Wickham, coming moments after a good block by Lees thwarted Scott Sinclair's attempts at scoring a fine solo goal.

Wickham would again be denied by Rudd just before the half hour after a very low quality opening, before Sinclair, Jordan Storey and Sean Maguire missed the target as Preston tried to prove they weren't just in town to make up the numbers.

Harris and Wickham missed chances within the opening five minutes after the restart as we began to wake up a bit, with Reach also well denied by Rudd in another chance.

Then, for the second home game in a row, things seemed to turn in our favour after an opposing defender got 2 yellows for a foul on our starting right winger. This time, Joe Rafferty had already been booked for a first time challenge on Harris when an ill-advised trip on the same player saw him walk the plank and reduce Preston to 10 men. Indeed, its perhaps this that denied us the chance to see Jordan Rhodes, who we'd sold to Preston in January but ended up being an unused sub in this game.

We soon began to see more of the opportunities, with Reach seeing one effort saved by Rudd and another strike a post as we tried to turn our man advantage into a goal advantage.

It would come with around 15 minutes of normal time to go and came from a wasted Preston goal-kick. Rudd's ball out was intercepted by a defender in blue and white, and before long we advanced towards goal. Harris' cross would find sub da Cruz, who glanced the ball almost through Rudd to make it 1-0 to the Owls.

Rudd would still be heavily employed, with the Lilywhites goalkeeper making important saves to deny a Palmer screamer and a Wickham header from the consequent corner, as well as a further header from goalscorer da Cruz.

However, the second goal would not come and having left ourselves vulnerable to throwing away points and yet again drawing at home, it duly happened in added time. There seemed little on for Beni Baningime, but his ambitious effort flew past Dawson to give Preston a share of the points, and again left us to curse our luck against this lot.

We only had a few days thereafter to lick our wounds from that unhelpful moment, as we made a trip to West London and with it a visit to QPR.

Selected to try and do better than our poor defeat at Brentford a few weeks earlier were:
Dawson - Iorfa, Lees, Borner, Palmer - Murphy, Luongo, Hutchinson, Harris - Wickham, Fletcher
Subs: Westwood, Odubajo, Urhoghide, Reach, da Cruz, Windass, Forestieri

The usual three changes, with Iorfa returning from injury to replace Fox after he picked up a minor injury of his own in training the day before, plus starts for Murphy and Fletcher.

So, could we give our fans joy to take back with them on the train back up north after full-time and in the process book our play-off position?

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Play-offs here we come. It was a lively game against Mark Warburton's Rangers won by a late goal from a substitute, but we had just enough to book in both the victory and a place in the play-offs for definite. Even moreso with the cash injection sparing fears we're about to go into administration.

QPR bombarded us in the early stages. Jack Clarke saw an effort tipped onto the post by Dawson in the opening minute, with the goalkeeper also having to deny a sharp shot from Ilias Chair inside the opening 60 seconds.

Seemingly with something to prove, the West Londoners bombarded us early on, with Dawson doing well to deny Clarke and Geoff Cameron before Jordan Hugill fired wide from close range, and even before the 10 minute mark, Chair hit another effort into the stands and a further effort Dawson acrobatically tipped over.

Our first real chance came just before the 20 minute mark, when Fletcher had a shot denied by Liam Kelly and in response to that, Ebere Eze crashed a long ranger inches wide.

But the Fletcher strike ended being the bigger warning as despite being second best, we made it 1-0. Murphy dispossessed a dawdling Eze and then played it through for Wickham, who rolled it home.

Our lead lasted all of 8 minutes. After building from the back, QPR progressed down their left flank and Eze's cross fell kindly for Clarke at the back post, where he headed past Dawson to equalise for QPR.

But an exciting game saw us re-take the lead another 8 minutes later. Having already gone close with a fine volley, Wickham reached Fletcher's knockdown and struck a lovely right-footer past Kelly to put us back in front. It was a 22nd league goal of the season for the Crystal Palace loanee - phenomenal numbers, and enough already to give me concerns for the next transfer window, given nobody else has reached double digits and we probably wouldn't be able to afford to pay his £60K a week wages (indeed, right now, we only pay 50% of that).

We could even have entered half-time with a two goal cushion after Kelly did well to deny Borner. However, we would enter the break level when QPR punched back in first half stoppage time. Again, it came from the QPR left, with this time seeing a Mattock cross turned in by Clarke, as the QPR man joined Wickham in having two goals in this game.

The second half lacked the same intensity that it had in the opening 45, with the only real chance in the 20 after the break seeing a Dominic Ball strike comfortably saved by Dawson.

But soon things picked up. Wickham saw a sighter from range narrowly fall over the bar, before Dawson could also watch a Ball volley from another QPR left-wing cross make a similar trajectory.

Murphy saw a drive career inches wide as the game entered the final 20, before a sumptuous effort from range by Eze bounced off the bar. QPR then had another moment of pressure, with Dawson making a great save to deny Ball moments before Chair hit one just wide, while Clarke hit one into the crowd when facing a real shot at bagging a hat-trick.

But then came another curveball, as we took the lead with just 2 minutes of normal time to go. A brilliant first-time cross by da Cruz landed for Forestieri, and the substitute buried his opportunity.

We then soaked up more QPR pressure in five minutes of stoppage time, as we ground out victory in a high quality game and booked our place in the post-season skirmish.

There was certainly a big concern when Wickham limped injured in the last few minutes, although it was only a minor knee injury so he should be good. Not quite the season-ending major injury our overly dependent team could easily fear when it was first flagged up.

Still, we're in the play-offs with 3 games to go, meaning it is likely our final trio of games will be in testing options for those games or allowing fringe players an encore before their summer exits.

With 3 league games to go, the table looks like this:

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It is still mathematically possible for us to sneak into 2nd place and win automatic promotion, but with only 3 to play and a 9 point gap to Brentford, plus a 14 goal difference points inferiority, its not happening. It is also likely we will be playing Fulham in the semis, which does make our regular season clash in the second-to-last game at Craven Cottage interesting. Fulham are the only one of the 3 other play-off sides we have thus far failed to record a win against, with the Cottagers also being the only team to beat us at Hillsborough after they won at our home in early September.

As far as the state of play goes, Leeds are 6 clear with 3 to play and you would think this cushion should be enough to end a 16 year top flight exile. Just one point meanwhile splits Brentford and West Brom, in a fight that may well still be in close proximity for the final day. Below us, it looks like Bristol City will be joining us with a 5 point lead over Hull, although this is not insurmountable after the Robins hit patchy form following a home defeat to us ending their win streak and Hull winning 3 out of their last 4, including a victory at Ashton Gate on Good Friday.

Charlton are bottom of the Championship table, with a 5 points margin to safety. Luton, Derby and Huddersfield are split by just one point, with Cardiff and Stoke having seemingly done enough to stumble over the line.

We've got local rivals Huddersfield next, meaning we do have a role to play in the regular season's tussle at the wrong end of the table. Both that one and the following game against Fulham will be interesting tests of our mettle, with a final day home clash against midtable Middlesbrough fairly unnecessary. It'll still be interesting, even if our main goal has already been achieved.
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Initially, a part of me would've considered just phoning it in and testing the reserves for our final 3 games. But I then decided that instead, with order and potential opponents to be decided from our efforts in the final 3 that this strategy may not be the best approach.

Besides, our fans would've preferred a strong selection for our clash with Yorkshire rivals Huddersfield. So we decide to go semi-seriously.

Seeking success against our Yorkshire rivals were going to be:
Dawson - Palmer, Iorfa, Borner, Fox - da Cruz, Luongo, Reach, Harris - Windass - Fletcher
Subs: Westwood, Urhoghide, Lees, Lee, Murphy, Wickham, Forestieri

I say strong, I still decided to bench our 20+ goal frontman Wickham, with an out-of-form duo of Windass and Fletcher leading the line as a front two.

Nevertheless, I still felt confident that this lot could see of a Huddersfield side in genuine relegation peril. But would they?

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As happened against Preston in our last home game, we conceded a late equaliser. Boo.

Jonas Lossl made an early save to keep out Windass, while both sides would have chances blocked or go wide in the early stages of the fixture. Huddersfield were certainly a bigger need of the points with the Terriers still needing points to stay up and ourselves in the play-offs, with the West Yorkshire side also dominating possession. Nothing new there in all fairness, given we seem to be regularly dominated in possession.

The biggest threat in our colours was Harris, who had a few opportunities blocked or go wide, while Dawson was also on hand to make a few necessary saves.

In truth, however, the game lacked a certain vibrancy overall in its opening period, but we would strike first just before the hour. A fine through ball by Luongo set away da Cruz, and the Dutchman lashed a drive past Lossl.

Borner hit the bar at a corner a few minutes later as we came close to a quick double, with Lossl also making a fine save to deflect a Harris drive wide.

Huddersfield were still dangerous, with Karlan Grant forcing a save out of Dawson and later seeing another strike also saved by our academy graduate goalkeeper. But we still could've made it 2-0, when a long range lash by Fox was tipped over by Lossl.

Wickham came off the bench to head over before Lossl made two good saves in quick succession to keep out Windass and Murphy, as we tried to find a second goal to relax ourselves.

But the failure to make it 2-0 would truly bite us on the arse when, in the 89th minute, Huddersfield equalised. After we failed to reach an Emile Smith-Rowe cross, a knockdown fell for Pritchard to lash a volley into the back of the net.

Dawson had to then deny Grant as Huddersfield nearly scored direct from kick-off, before Wickham then hit the post in added time and Lossl denied Luongo. But nobody would grab a decisive blow, and with it the points were split, much to my frustration as we drew yet again. Our hopes of automatic at this point were unrealistic so this mathematical confirmation was not unexpected.

After a week to work on things, we made a trip to Fulham. With the Cottagers a likely play-off opponent, it would be good to test our mettle against Scott Parker's team and see if we can get ourselves a psychological boost going into that post-season skirmish.

Selected to try and do better than our poor defeat at Brentford a few weeks earlier were:
Dawson - Palmer, Lees, Borner, Fox - Murphy, Hutchinson, Reach, da Cruz - Wickham, Forestieri
Subs: Westwood, Iorfa, Urhoghide, Luongo, Harris, Windass, Fletcher

Bit of a reshuffle for this one, as we try a few things out with a few to that upcoming play-off battle. So could we make a statement with victory against Scott Parker's Premier League exiles?

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Not quite. A draw is a mildly reasonable return though, and indicates we will be very closely matched when we duke it out over two legs. Even if we are draw specialists, given we're amongst the divisions most prolific at that.

We started positively, with Wickham heading wide and both our starting wingers da Cruz and Murphy being denied by Marek Rodak,

This positive start would soon be rewarded. Timothy Fosu-Mensah fouled Forestieri around 30 yards from goal, and up stepped full-back Fox, who sent a strong hit into the back of the Fulham net.

Fulham had started fairly slowly, but within a minute of our opener, they equalised. A great challenge by Hutchinson gave the home side a corner, and from Tom Cairney's delivery, Kevin McDonald turned a flicked-on ball past Dawson and in.

We nearly responded in kind, with Borner hitting the bar and Wickham having a shot deflected wide by Tim Ream. But perhaps the best chance in the rest of the first half saw Ivan Cavaleiro denied by a superb stop by Dawson.

The home side then got a penalty within 3 minutes of the restart, after the referee penalised Hutchinson for pushing Alexsandar Mitrovic, and the Serbian striker responded by perfectly placing a strike past Dawson.

The big striker could've made things worse for us, when he headed a cross wide. That would prove more costly for Fulham a few minutes later, as the Wednesday boys got level within six minutes.

As for a lot of times this season, it was Wickham with the big goal for the big occasion, as a blocked ball allowed Forestieri to release the Palace loanee, and he duly beat Rodak.

Dawson had to make a few stops after that, before a crazy tussle at a Fulham corner saw shots cleared off the line by Palmer and Murphy, as the home side took control for a brief period and tried to break through.

Our best chance would come in stoppage time, when Windass received a good ball by Harris and saw a blast well saved by Rodak.

In the end, a point each was perhaps justified, and it sets up the intriguing prospect of decent ties if it is Fulham we get in the play-offs. Though having looked so certain for so long, it wasn't quite so certain when things finished in round 45.

We played on Friday night before everyone else. On the Saturday, Bristol City beat Swansea at Ashton Gate to secure a third straight victory, putting them in-between us in 4th and the Cottagers in 6th, with the final day now all about sorting out who finishes where in the play-offs.

This would include for the automatics, with Leeds, Brentford and West Brom all in very close proximity. A curveball seemed to come when struggling Derby shocked Leeds with victory at Pride Park, meaning Brentford ended the day top after putting 6 past Stoke. But the West Yorkshire side had a game in hand, and a 4-1 win over Barnsley put them top into the final day, with the Bees just ahead of West Brom in 2nd.

Our final game would bring us a clash with mid-table Middlesbrough, as we looked to put ourselves in the best position for the play-offs after already securing our spot in that skirmish.

Hoping to impress enough for a play-off space would be:
Wildsmith - Urhoghide, Lees, Borner, Fox - Murphy, Luongo, Reach, Harris - Wickham, Forestieri
Subs: Westwood, Iorfa, Palmer, Hutchinson, Lee, da Cruz, Fletcher

Perhaps the most noteworthy decisions from this shuffle was a first league appearance for the goalkeeper Wildsmith, as well as a start for the young defender Urhoghide.

So, could we at least sign off from the regular league season with a win?

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Well, despite a few (mercifully minor) injuries, we did manage to squeeze our way through to grab the points on the final day of the 2019-20 season.

After a low quality opening, things opened up when Forestieri had a header go over and Wickham saw a strike denied by the away keeper.

Lukas Nmecha headed a fantastic chance over for Boro as a low quality first-half seemed to be drifting to being goalless at the break, until we struck with 3 minutes remaining of the opening half.

It came from work from our wingers. Harris lead a charge down our left flank, before firing in a great ball that Murphy tapped over the line.

Ravel Morrison blew a good chance in the first half stoppage time with a shot that just rose over, as we entered the break ahead.

Wildsmith made decent saves after the break to deny Djed Spence and Patrick Roberts, while our first real chance after the break saw Fox have a drive deflected wide via Marcus Tavernier.

Roberts saw a strike hit the post on the way wide with another strike by Tavernier crash wide, as Middlesbrough had a better quantity of chances than we did after the break.

Meanwhile, we introduced Fletcher in an effort to try and break the Scots' goal drought, but his best effort crashed over the bar.

After a period where Wildsmith made some saves, we did come close in response when Harris saw a strike creep wide before Fletcher and Harris had shots denied. But our momentum was very much checked when Murphy and Harris got muscle injuries, and having already used all 3 subs - one because Urhoghide had left with a minor injury.

We were pressed in the final stages, but we held on to sign off the regular season with 3 points in the bag. We ended the regular season with 9 games unbeaten, and a general run of 1 defeat in 17 - good enough to confirm our play-off space. We also lost only one game at HIllsborough in the league, although Fulham in the play-offs means we have a chance to avenge that.

With everything said and done, how does the final table look?

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Well having spent most of the season 5th, we end up completing this campaign 4th, because clearly that's how things work. We will still face Fulham, who had dropped to 6th after Bristol City won the day after us only to retake it thanks to the Robins losing on the final day.

After Leeds, Brentford and West Brom entered the final day split by 3 points, victories for Leeds and Brentford on the final day confirm their place in the Premier League for next year. West Brom will play Bristol City in parallel to our ties against Fulham, with the winners of those respective ties going to Wembley to face off.

Not staying in the Championship will be Charlton, Luton or Huddersfield. The Addicks' relegation had been confirmed in advance of the final skirmish, but a 3-3 draw with Blackburn relegated Luton after a year in the Championship, while despite winning on the final day, a Huddersfield side managed by Mark Hughes were undone by Derby grabbing a 0-0 draw with Birmingham on the final day.

It may well be the case that if we don't go up, we'll have a resumption of Steel City Derbies. With 3 games to play in the Premier League, the Blades are 9 points from safety with just 2 wins in their last 13 Premier League games.

But that'll be a concern for next season provided we don't jump then in the pyramid. First concern is getting Wednesday victories over Fulham that'll get us into the Premier League, starting with next week's game at Craven Cottage.
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