Football Commentary / FA Cup Semi-Final: Wandering Waddle becomes a wonder of the modern world: Kelly's heroics are not enough as Sheffield Wednesday parade a passing majesty to ensure their second cup final at Wembley this season

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The Independent Online
THE best player in the country may never play for England again, but he will be back at Wembley twice in the next six weeks, and we should savour his skills while we may.

The phrase 'different class' is one of the most overworked in football, but it was never more appropriate than in the case of Chris Waddle in the first of the local derbies to determine the FA Cup finalists.

Waddle, more than anyone, gave Sheffield Wednesday a dominance over United which made a nonsense of the need for extra time on Saturday, and the 2-1 result it produced.

At 32 the winger-turned-playmaker accepts that his international days are probably over, and leaves it to others to bemoan his continuing absence from an England squad crying out for players of such creative ability.

The man himself is content to give a knowing grin, which speaks volumes, whenever Graham Taylor's name crops up, and to contemplate two Wembley finals in little more than a month, in the Coca-Cola and FA Cups.

Others are less reticent on the case for Waddle adding to his 62 caps. Trevor Francis, the Wednesday manager, knows as much as anyone about international forward play, and says his recruit from Marseille is performing as well as ever - certainly better than when he last appeared for England, 18 months ago.

United's Glyn Hodges, an international winger in his own right, with Wales, acknowledged that Waddle's influence was decisive, his meandering elusiveness making him impossible to mark. Like another Francophile of a bygone age, they sought him here and they sought him there. To no avail.

As if to underline the perversity of his omission from Taylor's World Cup squad, Waddle embellished a sparkling performance with a free- kick reminiscent of Gazza's gem against Arsenal two years ago.

Similar goals, same effect. Both came early, lifting one side and deflating the other. United, always the outsiders, found themselves chasing the game after just 62 seconds. Even 'Harry' Bassett was dumbstruck.

Waddle's missile was as special as the atmosphere created by two vibrant sets of supporters, who were boisterous without ever descending into boorishness. Passionate? Most definitely. Noisy? To an exhilarating degree. Aggressive? Never.

The red and blue balloons they had brought by the thousand were still popping when Waddle exploded his 30-yarder past Alan Kelly's despairing left hand. Balloons underfoot? It was like playing on that unlamented Kenilworth carpet. Wembley will ban them, of course. Can't have people enjoying themselves, can we?

'One Chrissie Waddle, there's only one Chrissie Waddle' chorused the blue-clad legions. Unfortunately so. Mind you, throughout a one-sided first half there seemed to be half a dozen. The most mesmeric shuffler since Stan was The Man popped up all over the place - right, left and centre, but usually deep, from where his penetrative passes gave United more perforations than one of Tetleys finest.

Excused the defensive duties with which England burdened him, Waddle was free to float in midfield, where he seized upon every scrap of loose possession and used it to telling effect. Inexplicably, United opted not to mark him man for man, but instead left it to the closest player to pick him up. Whoops. Nobody was ever quite close enough.

The extent of this tactical faux pas is revealed in a look at the first-half chances. His free-kick apart, we had Waddle through to John Sheridan. Shot saved. Waddle through to Paul Warhurst. Shot hits crossbar. Waddle goes close from 25 yards. Waddle shot saved. Thirty-six minutes had elapsed before United were able to get near enough to tackle him for the first time.

Wednesday were edgy. Too many opportunities were coming to naught. When Warhurst drove firmly against the bar a second time, Francis glanced across at the United bench and lipread someone saying: 'We're going to win today.' Superstitious nonsense, of course, but it hardly seemed that way when, within a minute, Chris Woods was picking the ball out of his net.

Ironic that the Blades should be sharpened by Alan Cork, who had grown a 'lucky' beard and resolved not to shave until the Cup run was over. As good as his word, the Godfather of the Wimbledon 'Crazy Gang' left Wembley shorn.

Cork has also come clean about his age - he is 34. Thin of thatch and grey of bristle, he looked like a cross between Kenny Rogers and Max Wall, but that canny old brain remains as shrewd as ever, and he was one of the few United players to make a favourable impression.

The goal was fitting reward, although it was as scruffy as his whiskers - a mishit shot bobbling in, with Waddle desperately close to hooking it clear.

There is never a bad moment to score, but a minute before half-time was not ideal. The interval prevented United from working up a momentum, and in the second half it was much as before.

The loss of Warhurst, who aggravated his groin injury in the execution of a shot, was no great inconvenience to Wednesday, who might have preferred David Hirst anyway, and the longer it went, the more unbalanced play became.

Warhurst apart, Hirst, Roland Nilsson, Sheridan and Mark Bright (twice) all had good chances to settle it within the 90 minutes, but Kelly was in heroic form to take the tie into extra time.

By now, the chasing game had taken heavy toll on United's stamina, and in the additional period the goalkeeper seemed to be playing Wednesday on his own. He came up with a stunning save to deny Hirst from four yards, then a miraculous one-handed reach at Bright's expense.

It could not last. United had 'gone' in the legs, and Kelly was beaten twice, albeit from offside positions, before Bright finally did justice to Wednesday's superiority by heading in a John Harkes corner from six yards.

Amid all the talk of Waddle, Warhurst and Hirst, it should not be overlooked that Bright, with 18 goals this season, has been something of a catalyst. The perfect foil. As Ian Wright will testify, Bright's partners profit greatly from his unselfish assistance.

The last blast from Kelvin Morton produced the usual contrasting scenes. The courageous Kelly and Brian Gayle, who had missed the Cup final in his Wimbledon days, both sank to their knees in tears while Wednesday capered as if the old pot was already theirs. Francis, in particular, could be accused of tempting providence by scaling the famous steps to embrace his family.

The final, against north London's finest, will be tougher, but Wednesday's attractive passing game will grace the occasion, and where there's a Waddle, there's a way.

Goals: Waddle (2) 1-0; Cork (44) 1-1; Bright (107) 2-1.

Sheffield Wednesday: Woods; Nilsson, Worthington, Palmer, Harkes, Anderson, Wilson, Waddle, Warhurst (Hirst, 61), Bright, Sheridan (Hyde, 110).

Sheffield United: Kelly; Gage, Whitehouse, Gannon, Gayle, Pemberton, Carr, Ward (Littlejohn, 96), Cork, Deane, Hodges (Hoyland, 90).

Referee: K Morton (Bury St Edmunds).

(Photograph omitted)

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