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05/06: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 18/09/05, 7.45pm
Sheffield Wednesday
Beware Eagles' lair
By Ash Peters

A small pleasure of any day off work is the chance to watch cheery Aussie daytime soap Neighbours. Personally, whilst a daily diet of the sunshine would probably do my head in now, the occasional chance to catch up with the goings on in Ramsay Street is a welcome trip down memory lane. There will inevitably be some new characters, fitting the mould and mood that has given it such longevity, but the main pleasure is seeing some of the same old faces I used to cheer and boo at daily. What a stroke of fortune, then, that this particular football-enforced day off coincided with the twentieth anniversary special Neighbours episode, in which all the former cast members whose careers hadn't taken off (and, perhaps admirably, Holly Valance) reprised their roles for the delight of ex-students everywhere. So it was that over lunch I was able to relive memories of classic characters, like mad Joe Mangel, or dull Paul Robinson (not a phrase many Watford fans use often, I'll admit) What about those I used to quite fancy - ooh dear, Sarah's looking a little less glamorous, but Amy's new dye-job quite suits her.

I used to quite fancy Chris Eagles too in a purely footballing sense, you understand the old-fashioned winger type, not much defending but plenty of tricks and shuffles, skinning his way through a league's-worth of full-backs, when he could be arsed. And this brief meeting on a day of re-unions showed that not much has changed where he's concerned, although its still only an admiring type of fancy, no matter how much time he's spent on his flash new hairdo. We were looking for a win here, a return to form with the return of the injured troops, but within five minutes Eagles had twice had possession, twice dumped Chambers on his back, and set up a free header that rebounded out off the post. Er, nice to see you again, Chris.

Henderson had returned to the starting line-up, forcing top-scorer Young wide and subdued McNamee to the bench. We also saw the welcome return of Lloyd Doyley to the team, albeit at full-back, with Chambers, who switched to the left, right into the path of the Eagles Express. Despite the early let off, with Lee Peacock the guilty party missing his easy chance, we were not over-run, the familiar early-season story of it looking like goals at both ends returning. Young had some early trickery but wasted a corner, whilst King had the ball in the net inside five minutes, only to be pulled back for either handball or the first of a simply huge amount of offside infringements we accrued. Peacock remained lively, getting wide when possible and generally being a handful, though thankfully Carlisle and Mackay were on better form than Saturday. Spring, who had a decent, committed first half, nearly put King in with a smasher of a diagonal ball that the striker couldn't quite control.

Still the game swung end-to-end, and once more Foster looked uncertain when exposed by his defence to the onrushing David Graham, and appeared to bring down the forward outside his own box. From our seats high on the upper tier of the far stand, it looked a genuine attempt to play the ball, but he certainly caught him; with the ball speeding up and away off the pitch, you could certainly understand referee Leake's refusal to give the keeper the red card Wednesday fans bayed for. Whelan scythed a decent shot over the bar from the resulting free kick. Though the match was certainly holding the attention, there was little quality on show, bar some stylish play from Young - somewhat hampered by playing on his least-favoured wing - and of course our Manchester United friend. Certainly the tendency to overhit cross-field balls suggested the large expanse of grass at either side of the pitch was confusing even the home side.

Peacock dived in the box under Chambers' challenge, the lack of a penalty award further upsetting the home fans, and fouled Mackay somewhat brutally to earn a yellow card; fortunately the referee decided not to penalise the big centre back as he again retaliated with a kick from his grounded position. We had survived, just, a spell of early Wednesday pressure and our attacks began to have a little more fluency as the game entered its second quarter. Young twice had good possession on our left, but Spring was unlucky not to convert a decent chance, the busy central midfielder then turning up again to cover Chambers as Eagles' constant threat was recognised. Henderson, whose rusty touch was nonetheless perceptive on occasions, won a right wing free-kick well only for Young's shot to stray too close to home keeper Lucas. King was so nearly set free in the last part of the half, becoming a regular offside victim and more marginal than the Wednesday defence would have liked. The away side needed more attacking contribution from a few of the regulars, however: Mahon was largely ineffective though never not involved, but Devlin, playing wide right, was almost totally overshadowed. We looked like breaking through but never worked a decent chance to truly test the capable Lucas.

An enjoyably parochial choice of half time music meant we spent the break in the company of the Arctic Monkeys, always fun. We had Sheffield's finest musicians, but the realisation that most of Sheffield's finest footballers were down south giving Millwall a pasting made the likelihood of a draw harder to take. A decent performance would surely have seen off Wednesday, but they could easily say the same for us.

Again the home side started briskly in the second half, Brunt striking a free kick narrowly over from the right, and Eagles taking a break from beating Chambers to stride past our central midfielders, crossing the field imperiously before releasing Hills to cross menacingly, though Mackay cleared up. Peacock again wasted a free header, nodding it straight to Foster, after Eagles had once more bypassed our defence in finding Brunt for the cross. The loan winger spent the second half pacing the touchline, and the havoc he caused when he had possession only heightened our relief that Sturrock did not order his players to rely entirely on his dominance.

Ten minutes in, we had found our feet once more and again it was Young who showed, charging down the left only to gain only a corner as a combination of full back Simek and the home keeper cleared desperately. Within minutes Young had further troubled the home side with a decent corner earnt by King and a curling shot keeping the Wednesday defence honest. A presumably-planned substitution saw Henderson withdrawn on the hour, and McNamee came on for a lively substitute appearance, Young pushing forward alongside King. Watford continued to attack well but ironically it was Sheffield who got the first goal, Brunt latching on to some ricochets from Peacock's long pass to loop it over Foster. After all our marginal offside decisions from the other linesman, this looked highly questionable, though it has to be said our viewpoint behind the goal made judgement difficult. A neat finish, regardless.

Back came the away side, determinedly but with little penetration. Chambers, probably happy to break forward away from Eagles, earnt a free kick with a decent run, then King was well tackled in the box. It was noticeable that Lucas had mostly easy work, with the Wednesday defence quick to block decent shots at source. An amusing scene then developed as the increasingly hapless referee allowed a bloodied Sheffield player back on the field with his new shirt in his hands, even to challenge for the ball as we took a free kick. A few more years before you get the Premiership gig, Mr Leake....

McNamee was his lively best and lashed in a vicious cross that beat everyone, but a further break from the home side should have sealed the contest. Eagles, for a change, sauntered past Chambers only to be hacked down by the touchline, close to the perimeter of the six yard box, right in front of us. The away fans winced in collective anticipation, and the chance of all officials missing the clear penalty looked less probable than Amy wanting to get back with Lance in Neighbours. Bizarrely, she did, and they did, and those in the stands looked at each other with the guilty pleasure of someone in recipt of a tax error in their favour: "Shh, everyone, if we don't react they wont realise their mistake...." In general, though, there was some disquiet that we looked likely to drop more points to a side no better than us, and the general low level of performance made a nasty parallel with last season's injury-spurred about turn into mediocrity.

Boothroyd understandably made changes, Spring, having been anonymous after a fine first half, making way for the committed Bangura, and Jay Demerit replacing Devlin, lucky to last so long on the pitch, so that Carlisle could add to the height up front. I suppose this was technically 4-3-3 now, but in the grand tradition of Boothroyd's last minute tactical changes, it was very much a case of "let's all bundle forward and not worry too much about who's exactly where" not that that is any kind of criticism; if you ask me, it's great! Furthermore, it was this kind of blind positivity that lead to the equaliser, as a scramble from a long throw, with Carlisle involved, saw Young turn on the ball in the six yard box to hook home. Messy build up, but a nice finish from again our classiest player.

Eagles, having planted his flag on Mount Chambers, withdrew slightly and the last few minutes were Watford's. Only once did we look like nicking the win, McNamee's swift low centre causing more indiscriminate chaos at the far end, with both Carlisle and King involved somewhere, and the ball coming off the post. I'd be speculating if I told you anymore details, suffice to say the net rippled promisingly and I had to stifle a full blown last-minute-undeserved-winner-in-the-freezing-North scream. For that reason alone, I don't think there's any need to linger on this final action.

Wednesday were not awful, and even sometimes promising in their attacks not using Eagles, might well have the better claim to have won this. However, they were poorer than some sides we have beaten, and like at Coventry, we were disappointed not to have played well enough to deserve victory. In short, this offered no visible signs of a recovery from our recent disappointing run, but we remain entertaining and at times very dangerous. Back down to earth after our good start, but so long as we can maintain confidence we should stay clear of the dogfight at the lower end of the table. That's when good players become good friends...