Sheffield Wednesday: Gray targets Yorkshire top spot

Liam Palmer has earned his new contract, says Stuart Gray
Liam Palmer has earned his new contract, says Stuart Gray

Stuart Gray has set his team a new target - to finish the season as the top Yorkshire team in the Football League.

The Owls are in pole position, a point above Leeds but the Whites have a game in hand.

“I want the players to achieve as much as we can, on the back of a disappointing start to the season” said Gray, with the Owls tomorrow facing 12th-placed Watford.

“It’s Yorkshire bragging rights,” he added. “The only Yorkshire team above us (in the pyramid) are Hull City; whether we’ll get past them one day, that’s in our dreams.”

Watford were hoping to reach the Premier League far quicker than Wednesday but have slipped into mid-table after reaching last season’s play-off final, where they lost to Crystal Palace.

A downturn this season for the Hornets was followed by exit of Gianfranco Zola and arrival of new head coach Beppe Sannino just after the Owls won at Vicarage Road on December 14.

“Watford are a very good team,” says Gray. “I saw them play at Doncaster and were very unlucky not to get a good result; they had a man sent off.

“They play 3-5-2, flood midfield, and counter-attack with pace, and Deeney up front is probably very similar to Leon Best - he’s got good ball retention and an eye for goal.

“But we got an away win there; we played very well and put them under pressure, and I expect us to do that again on Saturday.

“They’ll probably think they have an outside chance of the play-offs; I would imagine their manager will be motivating them, saying they need three points at Sheffield Wednesday to push for the play-offs.

“It’s strange, similar to last year, when you look at the results; nobody seems to be able to cement themselves in that sixth spot, and down at the bottom, teams are being allowed to think ‘we’ve got a chance.’ You can’t predict anything

“We want to get as many points as possible. Peterborough went down with 54 last season, and everybody’s saying we’re safe with 48.”

Watford’s tactics may sway Gray’s selection, as Brighton’s did.

Whether he starts with one up front again, and opts for midfield strength, or goes with two up, Liam Palmer has staked a strong midfield claim and has signed a deal that takes him up to 2016.

“I’m delighted; he’s earned it,” says Gray. “He’s been one of our most consistent players this season. He’s probably played more minutes than anybody else. He adapted well at full back. You need that versatility. What he needs to do now is learn the other aspects of the game: creating chances and scoring, and I know and he knows he needs to work on his heading.

“But he and Caolan Lavery have a long way to go. They need to get up around 300 league games; I’m sure they both will, and hopefully it will be for Sheffield Wednesday.

“It was important we got Caolan signed up, because he was coming out of contract, and it was important we kept Liam.

“You want your younger players on long contracts but they have to be the right personalities as well: they’re not not just the sort who sign long contracts and think they’ve arrived and just sit back; they’ll want to learn and improve, and that’s the type of player I want.”

Sam Hutchinson is “struggling” for tomorrow with a minor knee problem unrelated to the one that once threatened his career.

It is hoped that he will be fit for the trip to Leicester next Friday, after staying off at half time of the Brighton game.

Lavery trained yesterday and if he feels no reaction in his hamstring could be back in the squad for tomorrow.

Michail Antonio has begun light training in the wake of his ankle injury and may be available for the Leicester match, which was brought forward a day for live coverage by Sky.

Gray refuses to acknowledge that the Owls are virtually safe but admits that there may come a point when another young player is given a taste of the first-team environment to aid his experience:

“I take training every day and I see the Under 18s and the Under 21s, so I know who is knocking on the door.

“It’s big step up (to the first team) but it would be nice, whether they sit on the bench or come off the bench, to give that bit of experience, even with an overnight stay before an away game. It’s just a part of their development.”

Gray has also looked ahead to preparations for next season by fixing July 1 as the date when the players will report back for pre-season training.

He has lined up some friendlies, though these have yet to be confirmed.

“You can’t stand still,” he says. “We’re looking at areas where we want to recruit, and hoping that maybe we’ve got some of those players in house, and once we’re mathematically safe. maybe I can try one or two.”