Best advice in a new job? First impressions. Jordan Rhodes, on his home debut, did just that.
Much has been said, both positive and negative, of the deadline day signing whose career took off at Blackburn Rovers but then stagnated at Middlesbrough. My word, Sheffield Wednesday are glad to have him.
His first half header, rising above three Birmingham City defenders, was the first of what will be many for the club. The subsequent celebration, sprinting over to the bench to hug his father, told a story itself.
It was a tale of firsts for Wednesday, with Sam Winnall and Adam Reach scoring their opening goals at Hillsborough, but the talk of the town will be about one man.
After their 1-0 win at Wigan Athletic The Owls were in confident mood. Sam Hutchinson returned from a two-game suspension to take the place of David Jones, while Morgan Fox and Winnall replaced Daniel Pudil and Adam Reach respectively.
Unchanged after their first win in 11, Gianfranco Zola’s side looked to build on their 1-0 win over Fulham but will rue not finding the net after hitting the woodwork twice.
Much criticism surrounded the decision to replace Gary Rowett as Birmingham manager, and under the floodlights Wednesday exploited that apparent lack of confidence from the off.
Buoyed by the catchy club anthem reverberating around the historic stadium the home side nearly took an early lead, Winnall hitting his shot straight at Thomas Kuszczak after a low Fernando Forestieri cross.
This was a changed Wednesday front-line, and the combination play between Rhodes and Winnall from the beginning was a delight to watch. Perhaps it was a given then that the club’s record signing would open the scoring. Rhodes’ towering leap from a corner, followed by a sprint over to hug his father Andy Rhodes on the touchline in a unique family outing, delighted the home crowd.
Unbeaten in their last five league games against Birmingham, with the added bonus of Glenn Loovens passed fit before the match, it would be easy to say that the away side would not frequently threaten Carlos Carvalhal side’s goal.
Though just five minutes after the opener they nearly levelled, when Hutchinson came close to heading the ball into the net, grazing the post, after a wicked curling delivery caught the defence out.
The idea of continuing to stick with three at the back at all times looked foolish, and after Emilio Nsue almost shattered the bar with a powerful shot, Morgan Fox dropped deeper to solidify the Wednesday back line.
Winnall, dangerous on the right, caused major problems for Birmingham’s defence, continually cutting inside. His dangerous shot mid-way through the first half deflected wide for a corner much to the frustration of Kuszcack who felt his defence were too slow to the ball.
Much to the annoyance of the home crowd, Wednesday’s discipline failed to match the quality and speed of their link up play. Keiren Westwood came to the rescue after judging Craig Gardner’s dangerous free-kick well.
After dropping Reach much debate circled around how Forestieri would do in a slightly deeper role to accommodate for Winnall and Rhodes. A few clinical crosses, which troubled the Birmingham defence produced the answer. Much to the relief of Zola, Jonathan Grounds came to the rescue at the last minute to deny the home side a certain second goal.
Even a small injury to Bannan, who was clattered right in-front of the home dugout, could not distract anyone from what was a memorable first half for Wednesday.
Now attacking towards their fans The Owls, just like in the opening 45 minutes, looked to gain an initiative instantly, and nearly did so when Ross Wallace’s lovely weighted pass found Winnall, the latter hitting a tame shot straight at Kuszczak.
The home side’s tendency to be reckless continued, and when Fox fouled Jerome Sinclair on the edge of the box Birmingham were gifted yet another opportunity to test Westwood from a dead ball. Gardner’s curling free-kick struck the side netting, drawing sarcastic cheers from The Owl’s fans after some of their Birmingham counterparts thought that it has nestled in the goal.
Wallace’s neat runs through tight spaces in midfield continued to frustrate Birmingham. And two yellow cards followed in quick succession, the first for Maikel Kieftenbeld for a vicious and late foul on Fox, and the second for David Davies for kicking the ball away.
Zola swiftly replaced Kieftenbeld with Kerim Frei to minimise the likelihood of his team going down to ten men, and Forestieri left the pitch to a standing ovation, Reach taking his place.
Cheick Keita’s bursting run, slicing through his opponents on the left side of the pitch, left the Wednesday back-line troubled but bodies on the line optimised their resolute last ditch defending.
Suddenly the game erupted. Gardner’s attempt from 30 yards smashed against the bar to the anguish of the travelling supporters, and that was compounded when minutes later Jack Hunt’s curling cross found Winnall unmarked to double Wednesday’s lead.
Then Reach completed the rout. Birmingham’s defence capitulated, space opened up and a calm finish beat the despairing Kuszczak. By then the result was never in doubt. And neither was the name on everyone’s lips.
Referee: Christopher Kavanagh
Assistant Referees: Nick Greenhalgh and James Mainwaring
Fourth Official: Andrew Madley