Just over six months ago Sheffield Wednesday’s newly appointed manager Gary Megson watched in shock as the visiting MK Dons raced into a 2-0 first half lead.
The Owls looked bereft of confidence, passion and structure. Only some interval substitutions and two Dons sendings-off allowed Wednesday to escape with a point.
Now, roll the calendar forward to late summer and again the visitors from Buckinghamshire were looking a class apart.
The ball was being knocked around between the red shirts while the likes of new faces David Prutton, Jose Semedo, Danny Batth, Julian Bennett, Ben Marshall and Rob Jones chased shadows on the sunlit Hillsborough pitch.
It seemed not much had changed.
But that would be to underestimate this Wednesday team. At home, in particular, they have taken on their manager’s feistyness. They’re evenly balanced – a chip on both shoulders. What looked like, in the first 20 minutes, another win for the top-of-the-table Dons became a marker of intent for a fast-improving Wednesday as they weathered an early storm to end the match as deserved winners.
It took another half-time change to make the difference. Liam Palmer replaced the ineffectual Jermaine Johnson, who in his first start of the season was massively short of match fitness.
Palmer was the unlikeliest of heroes for Wednesday. His first nine minutes on the pitch almost saw the rare event of the sub being subbed. But once he’d intercepted a Dons clearance in the 54th minute, set Clinton Morrison free inside the box who in turn passed it on to Gary Madine for the tall striker to slot home, the Scottish under-21 international was at the heart of Wednesday’s best moments.
On 63 minutes after a spell of Wednesday pressure Palmer whipped in a gorgeous right-wing cross for Madine to power in a spectacular flying header.
The Dons pulled one back, much to Megson’s chagrin, on 77 minutes through the tricky Angelo Balanta.
However, Palmer surged through the midfield on 89 minutes, sent Madine scampering down the inside-right channel and calmly stroked a right-foot shot past MK keeper David Martin from the striker’s perfectly-weighted return pass.
There were good performances all over the pitch for Wednesday, not least from Madine who has now scored five goals in the last three home games.
But it was Palmer who provided the quality to break open the match. And his manager was delighted that his instructions are being listened to.
Megson said: “Liam has come onto the pitch in the second half. The first 10 or 15 minutes he was all over the show knocking everything off first time when he’s probably one of our most talented players with the ball at his feet.
“We delivered that message that if he kept doing the same things he was coming off again. When he started getting hold of the ball you could see what kind of a player he is.
“He’s started the move for the first goal; set up the second with a fantastic cross for Gary and then scored his first league goal of his career. He was terrific once he’d settled down.”
Wednesday had struggled for the first 20 minutes. The Dons were giving their best Barcelona impression as former Owl Darren Potter and midfield partner Stephen Gleeson pulled the strings. The return of Johnson from a pre-season injury, as Megson later admitted, was premature and it left Wednesday exposed with the winger’s defensive frailties.
MK failed to trouble Richard O’Donnell in the Owls goal and as Wednesday grew in confidence the Dons began to lose their way.
On the half hour the Dons had their best chance to break the deadlock. A corner from the left was only partially cleared by an O’Donnell fist. The ball was squared on the edge of the penalty area for Potter who blazed over.
A strong Bennett challenge ended Gleeson’s match, which seemed to affect the visitor’s shape.
Owls on-loan wide-man Marshall was becoming an increasing threat from set-pieces. And it was from his corner in first-half injury time that Wednesday almost snatched the lead. Lewis Buxton heading wide.
Once Madine had given the Owls the lead early in the second half, Wednesday’s superior physical strength began to tell. However, at 2-1 it took a flying save from O’Donnell to keep Wednesday in front.
It gave the manager his only complaint, that his team hadn’t finished the Dons off. He said: “When we went 2-0 up they began to knock the ball about again. We have to get out of this habit that we’ve got; when we take a 2-0 lead we have one or two players who rest on their laurels a bit.
“Consequently when it goes to 2-1 we lose that momentum we’ve got.”
The match didn’t end well for Dons striker Jabo Ibehre who was dismissed for a second booking. Unlike February, this Dons sending-off was too late for it to affect the result.
Wednesday have moved on from needing the assistance of others. These days they’re happy to help themselves to another home three points.