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

Predictably, I've changed my mind about the whole thing.

Until now, the Worthington Cup has merely been a source of extra fixtures, all of them dreadful, all of them requiring gruesome midweek travel, some of them sadistically extended by another half an hour. Like the countless variations on the "Watchdog" theme, it existed merely to fill a gap that would otherwise have been free of irritation and annoyance.

Of course, it's rather different now. Naturally, justifying the Worthy Cup's existence on the basis that your team's got a vague chance of winning it makes your opinion slightly shallow. It doesn't make it invalid, though. Reaching the quarter final stage, particularly after that sensational match against Charlton, is undeniably and genuinely exciting...and that, surely, is justication enough for the existence of a cup competition.

Besides, as far as tinkering with structures and formats goes, the whole Albatross League nonsense has hardened my resolve and strengthened my loyalty. I mean, it really is about bloody time that certain people were told to accept that overwhelming numbers of people like things as they are. If not, sod off. The argument doesn't need to be more complicated than that, really.

You only have to look at Liverpool's Worthington Cup success last year to see how it works. Most of the time, press coverage of the trophy makes little attempt to avoid mentioning its rapidly diminishing status, with endless references to reserve teams and tiny attendances. This, despite the reality that only a couple of its entrants take it so lightly as to field unrecognisable sides and that the matches are generally watched by respectable crowds...even, bizarrely, when those two entrants and their unrecognisable sides meet. Yet, when one of the media's darlings happens to end a barren spell by winning the thing, it becomes authentic silverware again.

Should either of this fixture's participants happen to make it all the way, they'd be naive to expect the credit that Houllier's men received. Rather, their triumph will be taken as further proof of the competition's deterioration. A second-rate winner of a second-rate trophy. That a valuable UEFA Cup place would've been wasted on Nationwide ne'er-do-wells wouldn't go down too well either.

But we shouldn't forget that one of these clubs - or its owners, at least - has already broken ranks. For Sheffield Wednesday, to more than a few raised eyebrows from observers, were one of the six behind the simultaneously laughable and sinister Albatross League proposal. Amusingly, the plan was given the equivalent of a patronising and parental "DON'T BE SILLY!" to a misbehaving child by the top flight clubs at a meeting yesterday, as they dismissed both the idea of a second division to the Premiership and the incorporation of Rangers and Celtic.

That Wednesday are currently holding on just above the relegation zone, and still reeling from the blow of losing their Premiership status, tells the story. This was a scheme hatched by those who can no longer afford to rely on results to stabilise their finances. Watford fans would do well not to feel too smug, mind.

At Vicarage Road earlier in the season, Wednesday looked like a horrible lump of a side. It remains to be seen whether Peter Shreeves' subsequent departure and Terry Yorath's appointment will have made them any less reliant on legions of tall blokes, but the results have perked up a bit in recent weeks, culminating in the win at Villa Park that stole our headlines in the previous round. There's something of the psychopathic PE teacher about Yorath, which ought to make a few players buck up their ideas and a few others forge sick-notes from their mums. League form is erratic, something illustrated by the fact that the cup heroics were sandwiched between a 5-0 stuffing of Stockport and a 3-0 capitulation to Barnsley. You suspect that they'll get enough points to stay up, just.

Tradition dictates that Kevin Pressman will be in goal, that he will receive taunting comments about his less than athletic figure from opposing fans, and that he'll shut everyone up with a couple of fine saves. It was always thus. I've absolutely no idea who his deputies are and even less interest in finding out, for Kevin Pressman is always the Sheffield Wednesday keeper and that's a good thing.

As usual, the managerial to-ing and fro-ing has been followed by similar among the playing staff. Most recently, the defence has been strengthened by the arrival of Marlon Broomes from Blackburn Rovers. We've met him already, as he was on loan at Grimsby for our visit and victory in October, and he'll be cup-tied as a consequence. In addition to Broomes' absence, youngster Leigh Bromby, capable of playing at right back as well as in the centre, is out for a couple of weeks with a pulled hamstring and Ian Hendon, also capable of playing at right back, has a shin injury.

However, Ashley Westwood's suspension for five bookings doesn't begin until the following Saturday, so we'll assume that he's likely to partner Danny Maddix in the middle, although defender-midfielder type Steve Haslam and delicate flower Steve Harkness are available to fill any gaps. One gap that may no longer need filling is on the left, where Andy Hinchcliffe looks set to return from a long-term Achilles injury. Hinchcliffe may displace Phil O'Donnell, who's been enjoying a rare holiday from the treatment room and could move into midfield. At just five feet and seven inches, current right-back Derek Geary is simply far too small to avoid looking daft in this context.

For obvious reasons, the Wednesday midfield is now lacking the familiar figure of Carlton Palmer. For less obvious reasons, one or two others also seem to be missing...although, relying on the law of averages, we'll presume that Simon Donnelly is injured. Alan Quinn, two inches taller than Geary, is certainly injured, out with a broken shoulder until the New Year. Bojan Djordjic, the young Manchester United winger recently acquired on loan, played in Alex Ferguson's afore-mentioned Under-Twelves XI at Arsenal in the Third Round and so will be unavailable.

So the team will form around its captain, former Southampton midfielder Trond-Egil Soltvedt. Ex-Luton battler Paul McLaren is also an option. The versatility of certain players makes it difficult to form a line-up with any great certainty, and we may find Haslam partnering Soltvedt if there are no defensive vacancies, just as O'Donnell may move forward to accommodate Hinchcliffe and replace Djordjic. Look, it'll all make sense on the blackboard in the dressing room, okay? On the right, Gerald Sibon will be both the most talented and, unless the Crouch-like Tony Crane plays, the tallest of our tall opponents.

The forward line has recently been strengthened by the loan acquisition of Dean Windass, whose complete inability to look at ease in the glitzy world of the Premiership makes him the Micky Quinn of his day. Again, however, he's cup-tied after playing for Middlesbrough in a previous round. With Tommy Johnson, the liveliest of the Wednesday forwards in the game at Vicarage Road, having been allowed to go at the end of a short-term contract, that leaves us with Efan Ekoku, a familiar face and scorer of the goal that beat Villa. Alongside him, Yorath has the option of Pablo Bonvin, on loan from Boca Juniors for a year after knocking around for a bit at Newcastle. Or, alternatively, he could get that blackboard out again and shuffle things around to push Sibon into a striking role to provide some extra height in the box, perhaps bringing nippy winger Owen Morrison in on the right.

This means something, make no mistake. For me, it means a chance to return to Hillsborough, my favourite ground apart from the obvious one, for a cup tie that'll fill its stands and bring it to life. There's more than that, of course. For, just as a quarter-final is something to be excited about, a semi-final is an authentic, bona fide, tell-your-grandchildren event for fans of clubs like Watford. And, while Sheffield Wednesday might've been there and done that more recently, there's little indication that they'll get the opportunity to do so often in the future.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the magic of the Worthington Cup.