Football Commentary: Wednesday showing their spirited side

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The Independent Online
IT WAS a grey, sombre afternoon, as if Mother Nature had come out in sympathy, and something out of the ordinary was needed to lift the melancholy induced by that poignant minute's silence. Ryan Giggs, whose precious, precocious talent had excited the Fallen Hero, was foremost among those good enough to oblige.

He was not alone. Sheffield Wednesday and Liverpool provided their own farewell salute with a vibrant 1-1 draw which had just about everything bar the decisive outcome both teams would have preferred.

Someone at Hillsborough said Bobby was with us in spirit to see it. No doubt there was much the same wishful thinking from the great arenas of Old Trafford and Villa Park down to Northampton's little County Ground, where the sound of silence is a more familiar backdrop for the League's bottom club.

It is a beguiling thought that 'Mooro' was up there somewhere, looking down on Sheffield from football's Valhalla. He would have appreciated the enterprise and endeavour which held the mere mortals in thrall.

Wednesday started as odds-on favourites, seeking a post-war record of eight successive wins in the League. Liverpool, in contrast, arrived with one solitary victory in their last 12 matches. The form book pointed to only one outcome.

These are dark days at Anfield, rumours of dressing-room discord fuelled by the omission of Ian Rush, who was 'upset' by the decision, and particularly by the way he learned of it, via the newspapers. Individuals are unhappy, disaffected even, of that there is no doubt, but there is still enough residual pride - personal and collective - for the cornered beast to come out fighting.

Playing would be a better word. For most of an absorbing, competitive match Liverpool were the better, more cohesive team. Given the lead after 20 minutes, when Nigel Worthington's thoughtless backpass let in Don Hutchison, they spurned countless chances to increase it before Viv Anderson popped up to poach a point.

To their credit, Wednesday hit back with indefatigable spirit after Worthington's 64th-minute dismissal, and Trevor Francis was justified in acclaiming it as a point well won. On reflection, though, he acknowledged that the two which went AWOL were of much greater significance. Thirteen points now separate Wednesday from the top of the table. Too wide a gap to close at a time when injuries are beginning to bite deep.

Already without David Hirst, his England striker, and Danny Wilson, the midfielder he calls 'our unsung hero', Francis has now lost his defensive rock, Peter Shirtliff, with a broken arm, and the versatile Chris Bart-Williams, who is away for a month with the England youth squad. Nigel Pearson, the logical replacement for Shirtliff, is another casualty and, in such circumstances, it is unrealistic to expect Wednesday to keep firing away on all three fronts.

Francis put it in boxing parlance. He was not throwing in the towel, but Saturday night found Wednesday 'on the ropes'. Maintaining momentum was going to be 'very difficult now' he said, because 'injuries are starting to catch up with us'.

The Coca-Cola Cup, where they lead Blackburn Rovers 4-2 with the home leg of their semi-final to come, and the FA Cup, in which they are away to Derby County next Monday, should ensure that one of the country's more progressive sides do not end the season empty-handed.

Such is certain to be Liverpool's fate, of course. They passed the ball with much of their old conviction on Saturday, but the poverty of their finishing made a nonsense of Rush's demotion, and it is a measure of their decline that Wednesday continued to attack them, in expectant pursuit of the winner, even with 10 men.

In fairness, Liverpool should have had the game won by half- time, McManaman, Hutchison and Barnes all wasting inviting opportunities to improve on that 20th-minute lead.

For a long time Wednesday were stymied by their opponents' businesslike economy. Paul Warhurst, striving for what would have been his 10th goal in eight games, came up against Mark Wright in renascent form, and was restricted to long-range pot-shots until late on when David James thwarted him with a brave save.

The false impression that it was Liverpool's day became overpowering when, in the space of 11 second-half minutes, Shirtliff fell awkwardly and was taken off on a stretcher with a double fracture of the left arm and Worthington, booked previously, followed him to the dressing-room, after tripping Hutchison, 25 yards out.

Lesser teams would have buckled. Instead, South Yorkshire's finest, as the public address announcer called them (praise, indeed) reorganised around Anderson's massive experience and came bounding back.

Fast and furious became faster and more frenetic, but it was football, football, football, with the ball passed rather than kicked, and - joy of joys - along the ground. John Sheridan, set up by Warhurst, shot wide from 10 yards and back-to-back saves by Chris Woods and James denied Hutchison and Chris Waddle before Wednesday's pluck finally had its late reward.

Anderson, sent on by Francis with the instruction to 'get us a goal from a corner', obliged much as he had against Manchester City in midweek, heading in from four yards from a Waddle cross.

Hutchison had the ball in the net, only to be penalised for a foul, and Mark Walters demanded a high-class save from Woods, but Wednesday held out in a backs-to- the-wall finish which had Francis punching the air with relief at the end.

He was certainly the happier manager - not that he had much competition. Graeme Souness was reticence personified in a post- match press conference which lasted all of 90 seconds. 'It was a game we should have won,' he grumped. 'We had more chances today than we've had in our last four games. It was a bad result for us, that.'

So why had he dropped Rush? 'It was a bad result for us today,' he repeated, greeting the question with a dismissive grin, and making for the door.

Rush could be heading the same way, although not, we can safely assume, in the same direction as Messrs Saunders, Houghton and Staunton. Souness has had enough 'bad results' to last him a lifetime - especially in his dealings with the League leaders.

Goals: Hutchison (20) 0-1; Anderson (81) 1-1.

Sheffield Wednesday: Woods; Nilsson, Worthington, Palmer, Harkes, Shirtliff (Anderson, 53), Hyde (Bart-Williams, 89), Waddle, Warhurst, Bright, Sheridan. Substitute not used: Pressman (gk).

Liverpool: James; Redknapp, Jones, Nicol, Wright, Bjornebye (Marsh, h/t), McManaman, Hutchison, Walters, Barnes, Stewart. Substitutes not used: Rosenthal, Hooper (gk).

Referee: V Callow (Solihull).