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01/02: Reports:

Worthington Cup Quarter Final, 19/12/01
Sheffield Wednesday
Playing God
By Ian Grant

Really, it's a wonder that God ever gets around to doing anything else. Like making the first selection from a particularly fine box of chocolates, Nationwide Division One must be an endless cause of difficult, yet ultimately rewarding, decisions.

I mean, just look at it. Where would you start? Maybe by leaving Man City to win the Championship, to puff themselves up even further, to fall even harder next time? By letting Wolves win a few more games and really get their hopes up, perhaps, before being over-taken by someone less deserving at the last minute and consigned to hideous playoff defeat at the hands of West Brom? But could you resist the possibilities offered by allowing Palace and Birmingham to go on a bit of a run and finish in, say, fourth and fifth? And wouldn't Burnley be rather more fun and much less obnoxious in the Premership?

The bottom half has been much less worthy of attention for most of the season. It must be tempting to tinker a bit, nonetheless. Not even divine intervention will save Stockport, but perhaps you might let Grimsby escape the drop with a dramatic - and, yes, entirely improbable - sequence of results that punished Walsall for their idiocy in sacking Ray Graydon?

Oh, but what about Sheffield Wednesday? If Bradford are safe - and if they aren't, then we aren't, so we'll say no more about that - then there's still the possibility of sending one of the "Albatross League" architects tumbling through the trapdoor that they tried so desperately to board up. What an almighty irony that would be, eh? Just far too good to resist, I would've thought.

Shame, really. I've had a soft spot for Wednesday for a while, mainly because, in a age of concrete and bucket seats, few stadia have the grand elegance and warm match-day atmosphere of Hillsborough. It's a brilliant football ground, and I'm slightly sad to be missing both of this season's visits, even if the breakdown on the M25 that prematurely ended attempts to reach the Worthington Cup tie turned out to be a blessing.

But, soft spot or not, the idea that three of Crewe, Rotherham, Walsall and Grimsby might survive at the expense of one of those who've tried to separate themselves from the riff-raff is so appealing. Not quite this season's Palace, but close...and with a happier ending, maybe.

A vital three-nil win at Walsall on Saturday opened up a small gap between those in the relegation zone and those just above it, with Wednesday in the latter camp. But "small" is the operative word, as three points is easily gathered in. For Watford, the season's remaining fixtures are increasingly meaningless...yet, from watching the earlier, gutless attempt at reaching the semi-final of a major cup competition, you might've thought that had always been the case. There are wrongs to be righted here.

Having commented in the preview for the Worthington Cup game that "Kevin Pressman is always the Sheffield Wednesday keeper and that's a good thing", it's a bit of a shock to find someone else between the sticks. Thanks to an ankle ligament injury, Pressman is currently out of action and Wimbledon's Paul Heald has been brought in on loan, with South African youngster Sean Roberts remaining on the bench.

In defence, former Blackburn bloke Marlon Broomes was cup-tied last time and will be suspended this. In his absence, captain and more regular midfielder Trond Egil Soltvedt will presumably continue to partner Danny Maddix at the back. The versatile Steve Haslam and wee Irish chap Derek Geary are likely to be the full-backs. Youngster Leigh Bromby, much-booked Ashley Westwood and, of course, Andy Hinchcliffe are all cluttering up the treatment room.

While Soltvedt is helping out further back, the midfield has been based around lanky youth product Tony Crane, although ex-Luton scrapper Paul McLaren may take over if he's recovered from an illness. With the lively Alan Quinn banned for this match, some reshuffling might be needed to fill the gaps and could involve Simon Donnelly, enjoying a rare break from perpetual injury, or Welshman Neil Gibson. Both were on the bench at Walsall. On the right, Matt Hamshaw was the scorer of that sensational second goal in the cup tie, running from his own half to beat Alec Chamberlain.

With Dean Windass back at Middlesbrough and Tommy Johnson checking vacancies at the Job Centre, Terry Yorath has again been on the phone to strengthen his attack, this time to bring David Johnson on loan from Forest. We know well just how erratically dangerous, and dangerously erratic, he can be. Efan Ekoku is equally familiar, while Finnish international Shefki Kuqi is an old-fashioned target man and was signed from Stockport in mid-January, swapping a lost relegation struggle for one that might still be won. Gerald Sibon continues to sit in the dugout rather more than a player of his evident quality ought to, while pacy Pablo Bonvin is on loan from Boca Juniors (fancy) and Michele Di Piedi is out with an ankle injury.

Really, there should be no need for much of a team-talk on this occasion. Back in December, we were well-beaten by a team that simply out-fought us, that demanded to know whether we fancied it and took full advantage of the fact that we clearly didn't. They won't have changed much. Have we?