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FA Carling Premiership, 18/3/00
Sheffield Wednesday
Not finishing bottom
By Matt Rowson

The Hobbitt. Gollum and Bilbo's riddles in the mountains. Events result in the wretched Gollum thinking back to a time when he was young and innocent, a time before he was swallowed up by a coarsing, relentless bitterness. A time when he was happy. It doesn't seem real to him.

Equally, I find it hard, almost painful, to look back on that hour or so at Hillsborough in October when the sun shone, we sang Michel Ngonge's shot into the Wednesday net, and Gifton-fuelled optimism seared through us. Fifteen games and one win later, that happiness seems awfully remote.

Our good performances against Leicester and Chelsea, though, had led to a surge of optimism before the West Ham game. Surely this was the turning point, West Ham were stumbling, we were at home and on a roll. Well, sort of. But it wasn't a turning point. Of course. We blew it. And for all the negative scepticism that materialised afterwards, what we had lost was a real opportunity to salvage something.

The Owls have been in a similarly unenviable position to ourselves for much of the season, contesting also with boardroom conflict and widespread criticism of the manager. Recent performances had been criminally lackadaisical, but after an invigorating second half showing put paid to the same West Ham that we made such hard work of the previous week, there might suddenly, impossibly be a chink of light for Wednesday. They're still in big trouble...but the gap doesn't gape quite as wide. That should have been us.

The one thing that will blow their last chance out of the water, of course, would be defeat at the Vic on Saturday and a rapid contradiction to Danny Wilson's bold assertion that his side won't lose another game all season. Whatever way you look at it this is a massively important game - for Watford, if nothing else, it represents our best chance of not finishing bottom.

The West Ham result seems to have resulted in an explosion of repressed optimism at Hillsborough, and it's difficult not to hark back to the comedian who sang "we're gonna win the league" all the way up Occupation Road after our isolated December victory over Southampton. The Wednesday message board features one joker - presumably the same guy who put 50 on us not winning a Premiership game at the start of the season - proclaiming that Watford, "if there is ever a team not fit for the Premiership...", will have their noses rubbed in it. A bold statement, given Wednesday's inability to blow their own noses for much of the campaign.

We've all been putting up with crap like this for months, though. Wednesday aside, every smarmy Manchester United/Liverpool/Spurs/Arsenal fool is oh-so keen to point out what an embarassing shambles the Hornets have been.

This shouldn't rile us, of course, because we know better. We know that much of the current squad was around when we went out of the Cup to Wednesday as a second division side two years ago. Twelve of the players who featured in those games have played this season, and Williams, Smart and Wright were also second division players then. That we're "not fit for the Premiership" is precisely the point. This is still a far more praiseworthy team than most of the Premiership "elite".

We also know that we have a magnificent manager, a fine and consistently vociferous support, and a team that is still playing with pride despite the circumstances. Whilst Wednesday's performances have displayed a complete lack of pride. Whilst Hillsborough only stirs itself to barrack the manager. No, this inane fool and his ilk shouldn't matter.

But how I'd love to win on Saturday.

Wednesday's keeper will be Pavel Srnicek, who epitomises the Owls' defence's lack of comfort with crosses. Nordin Wooter's recovery from his St.James Park knock is to be hoped for.

At the back, Ian Nolan and Peter Atherton are both out of contract in the summer and have both been linked with returns to former clubs, Tranmere and Wigan respectively. Atherton in particular, for all his wholeheartedness, appears to be a pace too slow this season, and whispers are also surfacing that the once infallible Des Walker is also past his best. Making up the quartet is Andy Hinchcliffe, scorer of a belter of a goal on Saturday, but otherwise not apparently on his best form.

In midfield, Wim Jonk has appeared less than enthusiastic at times but his presence has been acknowledged as coinciding with Wednesday's better performances. Another of the Owls' brighter contributors has been Swede Niklas Alexandersson, who scored in Wednesday's last visit here two years ago. Injuries and poor form have led to youngsters Alan Quinn and Steven Haslam also gaining regular starts, with the combative Quinn in particular impressing recently. Petter Rudi, Mark McKeever and Phil O'Donnell are all out through injury, whilst Danny Sonner is out of favour and on the bench.

Up front, Gerald Sibon has not convinced, a ferocious recent goal against Derby being a rare high point. More debatable is the contribution of the explosive Gilles ("Bob") de Bilde, who is Wednesday's leading scorer, but has displayed a volatile temperament and a lack of enthusiasm for physical contact. Andy Booth, who has never been as prolific at Wednesday as he was in his Huddersfield days, is returning from injury, whilst Richard Cresswell's introduction was widely credited with sparking Saturday's turnaround, although he's not expected to start this time.

This has been a bit of a rambling preview, so to close here's a riddle that Gollum would have liked. Given the choice between, say, Graham Taylor and Danny Wilson running the country or a gaggle of opinionated MPs running your football team, which would you choose?

Me too. Worrying, isn't it.