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01/02: Reports:

Worthington Cup Quarter Final, 19/12/01
Sheffield Wednesday
By Matt Rowson

A week ago blood vessels in my left eye haemorrhaged, an irritating and debilitating symptom of diabetic retinopathy. Unable to see clearly enough to drive to Sheffield, our arrangements were reviewed; ig, Loz and Sarah to catch the bus, leaving the rest of us able to fit into a single car.

On the way from Brighton to catch the bus from Watford, the car that Loz has borrowed breaks down on the M25. Loz and ig towed back to Brighton, an irretrievable distance from Hillsborough. The remaining car heads into Sheffield in reasonable time, but somehow ends up pointing the wrong way out of Sheffield down a dual carriageway after the subtlest of wrong turns.

My brother and dad, meanwhile, approaching from the North, make the mistake of following a handbook's directions too literally by leaving at Junction 34 (Meadowhall) and sitting in the shopping traffic until kick-off.

Do you ever get the impression that someone, somewhere is trying to tell you something?

This is not a result that would have been widely predicted. As late as fifteen minutes in, when Dad and Brother finally made their way breathlessly into the stadium, there was little suggestion of what was to follow.

Many had been the frowns in the away end at the revelation of the line-up, much changed from Saturday's impressive showing against Palace. Indeed, the shape of the side that had achieved such encouraging recent results was sacrificed, with Issa joining Vega and Cox in a three man central defence, Fisken wide on the right, Gayle on the left, and Noble playing in the Peter Beardsley hole behind Gifton with Tommy Smith relegated to the bench.

The Hornets started much the brighter of the two sides, however, looking far more composed and confident in the early exchanges. The prowling Noble was the first to threaten, fizzing a shot narrowly over after receiving the ball from Vernazza. Then a Cox corner from the left was met at the far post by Issa who hit a first time shot wide. Another good ball by Vernazza released Gayle down the left, and his deep cross found Fisken free in the area. The young midfielder hit a wayward shot first time when he perhaps had more time than he allowed himself.

Perhaps most critically, Watford wasted a good chance when Vernazza, released by Robinson down the left, squared the ball to a surprised Noel-Williams rather than shooting himself. There was some debate in the away end at the far end of the stadium at quite how Noel-Williams managed to miss; it later transpired that he had kicked the ball against his standing leg.

Nonetheless, the signs were good. Indeed, there was only really one team in the game; Watford's passes flowed like water, Wednesday were floundering against the tide. Hillsborough's magnificent, cavernous stands were taken full advantage of by the travelling crowd.

Gradually, the game began to turn, but there didn't initially appear to be a problem. The home side's evident limitations were demonstrated on two occasions by Ekoku. Played through by Hyde's slack pass, the striker was forced wide by the onrushing Chamberlain, whose stretched palm gave the ball enough of a touch to send the striker far out in pursuit. The finish should still have been a formality, but Vega was on the line to block the Nigerian's lame shot.

The second occasion, more comically, saw Ekoku shepherded wide by Issa, who then took advantage of a clumsy touch by the striker to nip around him and claim possession on the edge of the area. Ekoku, in frustration, shoved his adversary in the back and conceded a free kick and possession.

Wednesday had trouble building attacks; their passing often went astray, control was never particularly close. What they lacked in guile and footballing ability, however, they more than made up for in industry.

We have comprehensively beaten several less limited teams than Wednesday this season; we had not previously come up against the bloody-minded belligerence displayed by our hosts during this cup-tie. To say that they were playing to their strengths would be an understatement of immense proportions.

From very early on, no Watford player was given time on the ball in any area of the pitch. Without needing to touch the ball, Wednesday restricted the visitors by closing down space, forcing errors and frustration.

This frustration first showed its face with Noble's booking mid-way through the half for a two handed shove on Ashley Westwood. The home fans bayed for a dismissal and expressed their displeasure in no uncertain terms until the game moved irreversibly in their favour in the second half. In fairness to Noble, the fact that he still appeared to be trapped in a pincer between Westwood's legs at the time of the shove seems to have saved him; the referee, probably accurately, saw the shove as an attempt to free himself rather than a petulant act of retaliation.

Whatever, Noble's early significance in proceedings dwindled greatly from that point on. Watford were gradually forced backwards; Noble retreated into midfield leaving Noel-Williams on his own up front. So impressive with his back to goal and his marker on Saturday, Gifton struggled here when he found that with his back to one marker there were two others ready to take the ball off him and precious little support to lay off to.

Wednesday's chances came on the break having forced possession out of us, Robinson more than once tidying up for his colleagues.

Then, Wednesday scored. Despite the fact that the game had clearly been turning the goal was something of a surprise, coming as it did in the absence of any previous suggestion that the Owls had a means of propelling the ball towards the goal beyond forcing us backwards and into it. Haslam's deep, hanging cross from the right should not have been a problem, but Cox failed to block the run of the enormous Sibon, who beat Chamberlain to the ball and headed in at the far post.

It began to feel cold.

Half-time was brightened up by the welcome sight of the much-needed Smith and the much-missed Nielsen warming up; their introduction for Noble and Hyde indicated at the very least a recognition that the shape of the side wasn't helping our cause.

And again, the Hornets began the half brightly, Smith bringing a spark to the forward line and leaving Wednesday's defence looking vulnerable. Fisken proved to be a key source of activity in this period, supplying a number of telling balls from the right. The first of these saw Smith peel off his marker on the near post and fire a shot crisply across the face of goal. Later, Noel-Williams was inches from making near-post contact with another vicious ball that Pressman eventually fielded comfortably. It was something of a surprise when Vialli chose to replace Fisken with the eager but decisively not-a-winger Helguson.

As Watford forced a left-wing corner, it seemed that the screw was being turned. Somebody - it may, unfortunately, have been me - commented that if we were to score one we'd probably score two.

Instead, the weak corner was fielded easily at the near side of the area by Sibon, who released Matt Hamshaw midway inside the Wednesday half. The winger scampered off purposefully upfield; Paolo Vernazza found himself in the unfamiliar position of being the last defender and illustrated precisely why he's not a centre-back by being caught flat-footed. Hamshaw progressed into the Watford half unhindered and - what seemed like an hour later - clipped the ball neatly past Chamberlain with his left foot. A quite exquisite goal from probably Wednesday's first piece of controlled football of the game.

The home crowd had to that point been rather quiet, but now the stands were rocking as the travelling Hornets sunk glumly into their seats. This stadium has been deprived of worthy fare for a while, and the home fans were making the most of it.

The rest of the game was a complete mess from Watford's point of view, Wednesday had their tails well and truly up, and hounded down any Watford possession with renewed vigour. Vernazza's first-half involvement had probably merited his retention at half-time at Hyde's expense, but he now displayed the worst facet of his game by showing a complete lack of interest in proceedings. His one notable contribution to the second half was a sulky late tackle for which he was rightly yellow carded.

The final scoreline probably flattered Wednesday, but at the same time it's hard to make a case for us deserving better. Tired of looking for possession only to be instantly crowded out, the players stopped moving for each other; each of the two late, well-taken goals ultimately resulted from a defender being dispossessed in the absence of an outlet.

Late on, after O'Donnell and Soltvedt had completed the scoring, a crisp if depressingly untimely passing move turned Wednesday's defence inside out, finding Smith, still running attacking the near post. His free header cleared the bar, and summed up the evening.

In the Premiership, we once recorded a gritty victory against a side of nominally better players by fighting for every ball and refusing to concede to the inevitable. Whilst it's doubtful that the Owls will remember last night for as long or as fondly as we remember that occasion, it's a little depressing that the opponents who didn't fancy competing with us were Luca Vialli's Chelsea.

We've come to expect a lot more than this from his current side over recent weeks. Saturday's tie with Wolves will be a crucial test of their mettle.