Football: Atkinson returns in triumph

Big Ron's inherited team stage a hearty welcome home to Hillsborough for their flamboyant manager
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Sheffield Wednesday 2

Booth 42, Whittingham 86

Arsenal 0

Attendance: 34,373

They called him Judas last time he was at Hillsborough, but in football perceived treachery can vanish with one result. Ron Atkinson's return to Sheffield Wednesday was marked with a victory yesterday and, for the moment, the bitterness of his departure in 1991 was forgotten.

Andy Booth and Guy Whittingham crowned Big Ron's second coming with goals to bury potential discontent. The three points lifted Wednesday out of the bottom three, while the game cast doubts about Arsenal's ability to match Manchester United at the other end of the Premiership table.

This was a thoroughly limp performance from the Gunners, who lacked ideas or threat. They could not discover the verve they had displayed against the champions at Highbury 13 days previously and the hope engendered by that victory has proved ephemeral.

Not that matters at the top of the table will worry Wednesday. They had domestic affairs to deal with yesterday: indeed, not since Howard Kendall referred to Everton as his wife and Manchester City his mistress has a relationship between club and manager been so likened to a marriage. Atkinson's return has created ambivalent reactions from the jilted, some warming the home fires for his return, others seeing him as an old lecher back after being tempted away by a more glamorous model.

The fanzine Spitting Feathers recorded the mixed welcome, the editorial stating: "He's Back! And I'm Glad!" while a letter inside read: "How on earth anyone who booed Atkinson in August '91 and hated him with a passion can seriously welcome 'Judas' back is quite beyond me." No one could accuse the man of generating indifference.

"They have all greeted me wonderfully," Atkinson said after the game, even though the cheers were laced with boos at the announcement of his name. "This is a far better side than I took over last time. We stayed up with that team and we can stay up with this."

He had arrived in the arena arm raised, like a Roman general accepting a triumph, and at least it was an emphatic gesture which could not have contrasted more with the play in the first 35 minutes. This was second bottom against second top, but there was nothing to distinguish which team was which as passes were sprayed in every direction but the desired one.

Arsenal had opened like this against Manchester United in their previous match but redeemed themselves with two spectacular goals; this time the closest they came to an uplifting moment came after 39 minutes when the head of the substitute Stephen Hughes met a cross from Ian Wright, forcing a fingertip save from Kevin Pressman.

Wednesday, whose flank men, Whittingham and Petter Rudi, insisted on coming inside, lacked width as well as wit and had only two speculative shots from the latter to take as souvenirs until they took the lead after 41 minutes. Typically, it came from a mistake.

Gilles Grimandi attempted to locate Tony Adams, only to hit the pass too hard and provide a perfect through-ball for Booth. The Wednesday striker waited for David Seaman to make his move and then slipped his shot between the goalkeeper's legs.

That goal provided a focal point and the second half was far better. Wednesday, their confidence surging, attacked with far better conviction and might have added to Booth's goal on several occasions before Whittingham struck.

After 52 minutes, Paolo Di Canio twisted, feinted and turned (does he ever do anything else?) before crossing to the far post. Jim Magilton's effort was accurate, but it hit an Arsenal defender, spiralling perilously close to the posts before it was cleared.

Arsenal, increasingly urgent, also found a belated cutting edge and might have found an equaliser on a more fortunate day. Christopher Wreh's volley flew past Pressman but was wide, while the wing-backs, Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn, shaved the post with efforts from either corner of the area.

This aggression was bound to leave gaps at the back, however, and with four minutes remaining Wednesday reaped the benefit with a goal of splendid economy and skill. Passes were hit first time like a one-touch practice match before Benito Carbone passed to Whittingham, who shot into the corner Seaman was leaving.

At the end, Hillsborough rose to the team and to Atkinson. He's back, and yesterday, at least, they were glad. Judas had become the Messiah.