It is hard to blame the thousands of Wednesdayites who skipped the club’s lap of appreciation following their final Hillsborough fixture.
Many fans had left the ground long before the players re-emerged on to the playing field with the message emblazoned on their white T-shirts that read: “Thank you for your support”.
The lap of honour, ultimately, proved somewhat of an anti-climax in the wake of the Owls’ poor Yorkshire derby showing.
Leeds headed to Wednesday short on confidence on the back of a five-match losing run and without several senior players for various different reasons. Given Stuart Gray had presided over just one defeat in 11 previous matches against White Rose opponents, the odds appeared stacked in the home side’s favour of picking up another positive result.
But the Owls, who were fortunate to be leading at the interval thanks to Chris Maguire’s 36th-minute penalty, produced a lack-lustre second-half display. There have been a few Hillsborough stinkers this season but I think they saved their worst performance to the end.
That said, Leeds raised their game and what will hurt Gray when reviewing the derby is that the visitors looked hungrier and wanted the points more. Leeds won more second balls and carried a threat through Sam Byram, Charlie Taylor and Steve Morison all afternoon. They deservedly atoned for their 6-0 drubbing in the same venue last term.
Indeed, Leeds could have gone ahead inside the opening minute when highly-rated midfielder Alex Mowatt raced on to Byram’s pass only to be denied by Wednesday’s player of the season, Keiren Westwood.
Against the run of play, the hosts opened the scoring from the penalty spot after Byram clumsily brought down Lloyd Isgrove and Maguire coolly stepped up to slot in his eighth goal of the campaign.
Maguire’s strike should have given Wednesday a platform to build on, but their inability, yet again, to push on and get a second goal duly cost them.
Gray questioned referee Robert Madley’s decision to penalise Jose Semedo, one of four Owls changes, for blocking Sol Bamba in the build-up to Leeds’ leveller.
“I was disappointed and amazed the free-kick was awarded,” said Gray. “Semi blocked their man, stopped him from making a run into the box.
“Semi didn’t grab or pull him down. It is how everybody defends and for some reason the referee decided to give a free-kick.”
Leeds made the most of the set-piece, with Taylor turning the ball in after Murphy’s low attempt struck the wall. It was hardly a surprise that Wednesday were undone by a dead-ball situation as, in Gray’s view, they repeatedly gave away “cheap free-kicks” in dangerous positions.
“They got a fortunate ricochet for the equaliser but they reacted the faster,” said Gray.
“We gave far too many free-kicks away and if you keep doing that, you will be punished.
“If you keep giving ridiculous free-kicks away, you will get in trouble, which we did do. That’s what’s happened and we only have ourselves to blame.”
The Owls created little in the second half and Leeds grabbed the winner with 18 minutes remaining when Morison bagged his second goal in as many outings after Westwood had saved his initial effort.
As the contest wore on, Wednesday lost their shape, rhythm and discipline. Gray threw on strikers Stevie May, Will Keane and Sergiu Bus but it was Lewis McGugan who they could have done with having available to give them some control, flair and imagination in the middle of the park. The Watford loanee was left out due to a groin problem.
Gray admitted: “We missed Lewis’s creativity. He has the ability to get the ball down and play.
“I just felt there were times when our final pass and decision making let us down. We gave Leeds a sniff with squared and misplaced passes. If you keep giving the ball away, you put yourself under pressure.”
Just when it appeared Wednesday were beginning to get their act together at home, accruing four good points against Charlton Athletic and Brentford, they then bow out on a bad note by delivering an awful performance versus one of their fiercest rivals.
If Wednesday are to fulfil chairman Dejphon Chansiri’s objective of getting back into the Premier League by 2017, it is imperative they find a cure to their Hillsborough woes. Five wins from their last 27 Championship matches on home soil is relegation not promotion-winning form. A big improvement is required and the players will not be able to use the pitch as an excuse, with a new playing surface to be installed in time for next season.
It is understandable why there was not a big crowd to clap the players off in the lap of honour. More than 24,000 Owls fans had just witnessed another below-par home display and have been starved of entertainment, goals, memorable matches and wins throughout the campaign.
But for all of the Owls’ home troubles, 14th place is the lowest they can finish as they prepare to travel to Premier-League-bound Watford on the final day. That is two positions higher than where they ended up last year.
What Gray has done with limited resources is worth celebrating and a comfortable midtable finish should not be sniffed at.Wednesday: Westwood 6; Vermijl 6, Lees 6, Buxton 6, Helan 5 (Bus 85***); Lee 6, Semedo 6; Maguire 6, Isgrove 5 (Keane 64*, 5), Maghoma 6 (May 64**, 6); Lavery 6. Substitutes: Nuhiu, De Havilland, Melo, Kirkland.
Leeds: S Taylor 7; Wootton 7, Bamba 7, Cooper 7, Berardi 7; Byram 7, Murphy 6, Austin 6, Mowatt 6 (Sharp 71*), C Taylor 8; Morison 8. Substitutes: Cairns, White, Phillips, Ngoyi, Sloth, Montenegro.
Manager’s view - Stuart Gray: “It was a scrappy game but the most important thing was the result. It was a case of being solid and compact. Our ball retention could have been better and we didn’t work their keeper enough. It is a big disappointment to lose a Yorkshire derby. It wasn’t as if Leeds played well to get the victory. We gave them far too many opportunities to put the ball into our box.
Manager’s view - Neil Redfearn: “I thought we were the better side, even at 1-0 down. I thought the decisions - the penalty for us and the penalty against us - were dubious at first. But, having seen them, the referee got both spot on. I saw him at half-time and pulled him over to one side and apologised because I had got a bit carried away.”
Hero: Kieran Lee was the best of a poor bunch. The midfielder tried to make things happen and rarely gave possession away cheaply. In recent weeks, he has stood out in the centre and added goals to his game. Lee’s worth keeping for next year.
Key moment: Leeds’ equaliser gave them the impetus to push on and claim maximum points. It was sloppy defending by the Owls, who have equalled a club-record by recording 17 clean sheets in a league season this term.
Viewpoint: A disappointing way for the Owls to round off their Hillsborough programme. The team managed just 16 goals in 23 matches in their own backyard. Rectifying their goalscoring woes must be one of the big priorities this summer.
Ref watch: Robert Madley. The West Yorkshire official infuriated the away fans by awarding the Owls a first-half penalty. Owls boss Stuart Gray, meanwhile, thought Madley, who dished out bookings to four players, including Jose Semedo and Jeremy Helan, harshly penalised Semedo for a foul in the build-up to Leeds’ equaliser.