After recent hamstring injuries to Darren Purse and Lewis Buxton, the recent arrival of Preston North End outcast Eddie Nolan – who Alan Irvine has signed on loan for the rest of the season – has come at exactly the right time.
After allegedly falling out with Preston manager Darren Ferguson, when he was substituted in a recent match against Swansea City, it is expected that Nolan can effectively deputise in defence and provide some much-needed competition for places.
He certainly comes with strong credentials: Nolan has been capped by the Republic of Ireland, is left and right footed, and possesses good distribution levels.
As Wednesday’s defence has only kept five clean sheets in the league all season (which has also seen heavy defeats against Derby County, Watford, Leicester City and West Bromwich Albion), Nolan’s versatility could prove vital in their battle against relegation.
But, as Nolan can play anywhere in defence, the main question is: where is he most likely to play?
Although playing as a centre-back is Nolan’s preferred position, it is unlikely that Nolan will be playing in the heart of Wednesday’s defence regularly – due to the developing partnership of Darren Purse and Mark Beevers.
Despite some abject displays during his early days as Sheffield Wednesday’s captain, Purse’s recent performances have improved. His experience and leadership qualities have been an under-appreciated factor in Wednesday’s recent upturn in form, and this was shown during his absence in the home defeat against Ipswich Town.
The defence was a mess during this match and looked increasingly uncomfortable in a performance that made Ipswich look like the home side.
Too much space was given to the Ipswich forwards and, if their strikers had the ability to create more chances, the score would have been worse than 1-0.
The absence of Purse also led to an uncharacteristically poor performance from Mark Beevers, who has been a revelation since Alan Irvine’s arrival at Hillsborough.
This was shown in Irvine’s first match against Barnsley when Beevers was an absolute rock; the talented centre-back won practically every tackle and header.
Due to the risk of playing two young and relatively inexperienced centre-backs, Alan Irvine wise decision to play the consistent and experienced Richard Hinds, alongside Beevers, during Purse’s three-week absence.
Instead, the possibility of Nolan playing at right-back is more ideally suited to Wednesday’s needs.
Since Buxton’s injury, replacement Frank Simek has failed to impress since his return to the Wednesday squad after a prolonged spell on the sidelines. Desperately short of match fitness, Simek has lost the pace and skill that made him such a favourite at Hillsborough.
Although gaining match fitness will certainly improve his performances, a relegation battle is not the ideal place for the right-back to regain this.
A loan spell at a League One club would be more beneficial for Simek and the American may no longer has necessary quality to play in the Championship.
Nolan would be an ideal replacement for Buxton and Simek, seeing that he is predominately a right-footed defender.
Nolan would also provide much-needed competition for Lewis Buxton, when he returns from injury, as his performances how been a shadow of his impression form during last season.
In fact, his performances this season have been reminiscent of his stuttering form during his first four matches at Wednesday.
Despite being right-footed, Nolan has regularly given assured performances at left-back for Preston in the past. In fact, he is played in this position so often that many mistakenly believe that Nolan is a left-back.
Nolan’s versatility means that he could fill in at left-back and many may feel that he should be given a run in this position, due to Tommy Spurr’s dire form for Wednesday this season.
Despite an impressive start to his career at Hillsborough, Spurr’s desire to get forward – alongside his poor positional reasoning – has often left the Owls’ defence exposed, with many supporters feeling that is a liability to the team.
With the reliable veteran Michael Gray playing in a midfield role and the versatile Hinds preferred as a centre-back, Tommy Spurr has been the automatic left-back choice for Wednesday this season by default.
Nolan’s possible inclusion at left-back could stir things up and may lead to dramatic improvements in Sheffield Wednesday’s defensive displays.
Although Steve Claridge has criticised Nolan for not going forward enough, this could work in Wednesday’s favour – whatever position he plays in.
Claridge has mentioned that Nolan is willing to dig deep and help other defenders out when they are out of position and playing at full-back would mean that Nolan could compensate Darren Purse’s lack of pace and judgement, which has cost Wednesday several goals this season.
Despite Purse’s recent displays, his poor marking of Barnsley striker Daniel Bogdanovic nearly led to the Tykes taking an early lead in January’s clash at Oakwell, after Emil Hallfredsson cancelled out Tommy Spurr’s early strike.
Conceding such an early goal may have led to a different result and a very different (and even more negative) picture to what we are seeing now.
If Nolan plays as a central defender, he can help full-backs like Buxton and Spurr out when they are caught out of position.
At the minute, improving the defence should be the main focus.
Although Alan Irvine’s arrival led to an improvement of results, it also coincided with an improvement in defensive displays at Hillsborough.
This is no coincidence and a return to the sloppy defending seen during Brian Laws’ final days at Hillsborough has seen results decline in recent matches.
Nolan’s unselfish play could be crucial in building a sound and cohesive defensive unit, which will stream confidence throughout the squad.
A lack of confidence has been one of the main reasons why Wednesday have struggled so much this season and the possibility of Nolan injecting this could be invaluable.
It is unlikely that another attacking full-back would make much of a difference – as Wednesday have lacked the flair from their midfielders and strikers to create chances, let alone from their defence.
Whilst Nolan’s recent attitude problems may put his credentials in question, there is no doubting his commitment on-the-pitch and he could well be a pivotal role in Wednesday’s bid to avoid relegation.
Alan Irvine knows the talented defender well, having managed Nolan when he was the manager of Preston.
Eddie Nolan could well be the unlikely saving grace in Sheffield Wednesday’s season and I, for one, will certainly by hoping that he starts on Saturday’s crucial away tie at Reading.
Things can’t get any worse for a Wednesdayite, at the minute, that’s for certain.