Sheffield Wednesday: Carvalhal wakes up the giant
Just before Carlos Carvalhal headed back upstairs to his office to continue fine-tuning the Owls' preparations for Brighton, it suddenly dawned on me I had forgotten to ask him a question.
As we walked out of the press room following Carvalhal’s pre-match Seagulls interrogation from the local and national media, there was one last thing I wanted to check with him.
“Have you practised penalties in training, Carlos,” I said.
I felt reasonably confident I knew what his answer would be.
But if I have learned anything from my dealings with the charming, charismatic Portuguese chief over the last 11 months it is he is a hard man to second guess.
“It won’t come to penalties,” said Carvalhal with a wry smile as we parted company.
He didn’t say it in a cocky, arrogant way. Just with the belief of a man who, along with owner Dejphon Chansiri, has built something special at Hillsborough.
Carvalhal knows what his team are capable of when they perform to their maximum. Time and time again in pressure situations, his players have risen to the occasion.
Carvalhal, a self-proclaimed fan of Sheffield band Arctic Monkeys, has got his team dancing to his tune.
“You can’t have an orchestra that is just 11 people playing piano or all playing the drums,” he says.
For the most part, he and the club’s fans have enjoyed the team’s rock ’n’ roll football throughout the 2015/16 campaign.
The atmosphere in the first leg of Wednesday’s semi-final victory over Brighton was electric. Hillsborough was literally rocking. The lights show from the terraces after Kieran Lee’s second goal was breathtaking.
On the night, the best team won. The Owls, who finished sixth in the Championship table, 15 points behind Brighton, took their chances and capitalised on the visitors injury misfortune. Wednesday looked firmly in control of the tie. There seemed no way back for the Seagulls.
But, as I’ve discovered in two years of covering Wednesday, the Owls never do things the easy way.
To be fair, Brighton threw everything at them in the second leg. They clearly hadn’t read the script and absolutely battered the Owls in the opening 25 minutes or so at a noisy, hostile Amex Stadium. They had an astonishing 17 shots on Keiren Westwood’s goal in the first half alone!
Lesser sides might have crumbled under the onslaught, but Wednesday have proven they can mix it with the big boys. Carvalhal’s side dug in, scored a fortuitous goal from Ross Wallace against the run of play and took the heat out of the tie. Sam Hutchinson’s introduction as a second-half sub added extra steel and composure to the midfield engine room.
The final whistle sparked wild celebrations among the 2,000 travelling supporters who made the long journey to the south coast. They were overjoyed, as were the players and the coaching staff.
When he took over last summer, Carvalhal pledged to “wake up the giant”. This great club, one of the founding members of the Premier League, have had little to cheer about since losing their top-flight status 16 years ago.
But having built on the solid foundations laid by predecessor Stuart Gray, Carvalhal has not just woken up the giant - he has got it moving at a rapid rate. This giant is roaring and hungry for success.
There is a buzz and feelgood factor around the club again. Reporters from Portugal and Thailand have attended some of Wednesday’s press briefings and matches in recent weeks. The club’s progress has not gone unnoticed home or abroad.
Their reward for beating Brighton is a trip to Wembley where they will play Hull City. I do hope the capital is ready for a Yorkshire invasion!
The bookmakers have Hull down as the slight favourites. That won’t bother Carvalhal or Wednesday one little bit. The team have thrived on being the rank outsiders for promotion all season.
Carvalhal, formerly of Sporting Lisbon and Besiktas, said: “Why are we underdogs? Because teams like Hull City have been more ready than us, since the beginning, to achieve promotion.
“Hull have a big budget, a good coach, organisation, players and have invested in their team in the last few years.
“We are the outsiders but being underdogs doesn’t mean we don’t have 50 per cent of the chances to win the game. The chances are the same to both teams. We have played two games against Hull City and didn’t lose either. We didn’t win also. It will be a balanced final.”
Given the giant strides Wednesday have made under Carvalhal’s leadership, it should be regarded as a bonus if they pip Hull to the final Premier League spot. Few people outside of South Yorkshire expected them to be involved in the promotion shake-up at the beginning of the campaign. They have surpassed all expectations and have arguably been the surprise package of the division.
And you can guarantee Carvalhal, a vastly experienced coach and a stickler for preparation, will have them well set up for the final. He will leave nothing to chance in the build-up to the Owls’ biggest match in decades.
They will be ready for all eventualities, including penalties, although I’m sure Carvalhal will be hoping a shoot-out won’t be required to separate the two teams.