Stoke ended their 11-game winless streak and grabbed their first victory of 2021 in dramatic style as Steven Fletcher came back to haunt his former club.
The Potters headed into the clash after suffering at the hands of a ruthless Norwich side last time out, losing 4-1 at Carrow Road. Michael O’Neill’s side needed to improve things if they were to stop slipping down the table, starting with Sheffield Wednesday on a Tuesday.
A reshuffle was in order, and O’Neill made five changes from that heavy defeat with Danny Batth, Jordan Thompson, James McClean and Jacob Brown all replacing James Chester, Sam Clucas, Jack Clarke and John Obi-Mikel.
The manager’s other change was enforced, with Nathan Collins suffering a fractured foot last time out, meaning Tommy Smith came in for the 19 year-old.
Despite finding themselves in 22nd, as opposed to Stoke’s 10th spot, Sheffield Wednesday had found form heading into the game, with three wins and two losses in their previous five.
Caretaker manager Neil Thompson, who many tip to take the job permanently, kept his team unchanged from the Owls previous 2-0 win at home to Wycombe. The players had enjoyed a longer rest than usual, after their weekend game against Swansea had been called off due to a frozen pitch.
Last season’s fixture in the Potteries between the two served up a brilliant game, with Stoke clinching a 3-2 Boxing Day win thanks to goals in added time from Tyrese Campbell and Sam Vokes.
Neither team started with particular spring in their step, but Stoke did look to take control of the game in the opening minutes.
The first big chance came for the visitors though, as Jordan Rhodes flicked a good ball from Kadeem Harris over the bar on eleven minutes.
Stoke then went straight back up the other end, and Jacob Brown’s cross was close to being turned into his own net by Chey Dunkley just a minute later.
Wednesday then should have opened the scoring just five minutes later, as Callum Paterson crashed a header off the crossbar from a corner.
The Scot had been unmarked when running in, but was called for a foul on the keeper after the header anyway.
The game was largely uneventful for the rest of the half, but Stoke were forced into an early change as Morgan Fox went down injured and was replaced by Josh Tymon.
Stoke fashioned a chance through James McClean at the end of the half, but his header was deflected wide.
Referee Linington soon called for half time, and it had been uninspiring to say the least.
Half time: Stoke 0-0 Sheffield Wednesday
Neither team had shown much promise, but Wednesday could have been ahead early on had Paterson directed his header slightly downwards.
Michael O’Neill needed a lot more from his attack to break down a firm Owls backline in the second period.
Stoke started the second half with the best chance of the game so far, as Nick Powell was found unmarked at the back post by Thompson, but his shot was well saved by Keiren Westwood.
The resulting corner then delivered another big chance, as Powell this time delivered a quick ball to Thompson, but the Northern Ireland international’s shot was cleared off the line.
City’s next big chance came on the hour mark, after a good move found Steven Fletcher free in the box, but his shot was parried away by Westwood.
It was then Joe Allen’s turn for a chance, but he dragged his shot well wide of Westwood’s right-hand post after another good Stoke move.
Stoke were getting ever closer to that elusive goal, but still not close enough.
Sam Clucas and Jack Clarke came on for McClean and Thompson with 15 minutes left.
Then as the clock had passed into the last ten minutes, there was a breakthrough. It was a huge goal, and it went the way of the hosts.
Tommy Smith delivered a deep cross, it was flicked back into the middle by a Wednesday head to Fletcher, who turned, took a touch and scuffed the ball past Westwood.
There were calls for offside from the Owls’ defenders, but the goal stood and Fletcher had the all-important finish against his former club with just six minutes left.
The remaining minutes were tense as expected, but Stoke survived the onslaught of aerial balls and Mr Linington called full time after four minutes added on.
Full time: Stoke 1-0 Sheffield Wednesday
MOTM: Harry Souttar
Relief would likely be the main emotion in the Potters dressing room, after they finally ended their 11-game winless streak with their first victory since December 19.
It was a tense affair, but Stoke will have felt they deserved the win after having some good chances in the second period.
Despite the win, Michael O’Neill will know that things must keep improving if his side are to make a playoff push.
Wednesday boss Neil Thompson will no doubt be disappointed at the result, after they had looked to be grinding out a tough point in their battle for survival.
Stoke move up to eighth, for now, with Luton up next at home. Sheffield Wednesday stay 22nd, and face Birmingham next in a crunch game at the bottom of the league.