THEY got nearer this time, but in yesterday's dour FA Cup final Sheffield Wednesday could not wear down Arsenal's familiar, traditional resolve. The lessons of their defeat in the Coca-Cola Cup final against the same unyielding opponents had been digested, but even after extra time Wednesday's comparatively free-spirited football was still kept under Arsenal control.
The imperative challenge for Wednesday was to devise something fresh, something to ensure that the midfield domination Arsenal had taken with such confidence in the previous final was not to be repeated.
The situation was double edged: Wednesday would either be intimidated by the earlier experience or spurred. At least they returned to Wembley feeling that the place was not quite as daunting, but that in itself was not enough. Most of the Arsenal players had been to the old stadium more often, and for some, especially Tony Adams and Lee Dixon, it was as if playing on home ground. That, in a way, was the problem. Familiarity, both with the venue and between teams, bred predictability.
The onus was on Trevor Francis to conjure something out of a hat Arsenal had turned inside out at that earlier rehearsal. His task ought to have been made easier by Arsenal's loss of Steve Morrow, dropped so negligently by Adams during the celebrations after the Coca-Cola final in which the young Irishman not only scored the winning goal but subjugated Wednesday's potentially most important player, John Sheridan. This time Paul Davis did a similar job to the same effect.
The focus of most interest was Chris Waddle, who had been so effectively controlled last time by Nigel Winterburn and now needed to reward his campaigners and those who elected him Footballer of the Year.
If he was to be effective he had to find space to produce passes likely to put the Arsenal defenders on their heels. Above all, he had to divert attention from David Hirst, who Francis chose to play alongside Mark Bright in the centre of the Wednesday attack. Francis also had to persuade Paul Warhurst that in spite of his new career as a striker, here he had to revert to his old central defensive postion, which he did successfully. In neither case did Waddle really succeed, which was all credit to his marker, John Jensen.
Taking Arsenal by surprise was essential to Francis's plans, and his rearrangements at first seemed to be effective. Controlled aggression, which was not part of Wednesday's performance before, was seen at the beginning but it faded. In midfield Sheridan determinedly tried not to be dogged by Davis, but never gained his release. That, as much as anything, determined that the game would not be won or lost through midfield invention. Inspiration all round was strictly rationed.
Wednesday tried to put power above prettiness, and of course Arsenal could match them. Carlton Palmer, taken out of defence to play an attacking midfield role, thrust forward until eventually the game exhausted itself and he dropped back, guaranteeing the status quo.
At the start, though, Palmer had been full of positive ambition, heading a corner from Sheridan beneath the Arsenal bar. David Seaman pushed the ball away but he was quickly called upon to do even better when Waddle's free- kick found a hole in the Arsenal wall and he again had to divert the ball over.
Arsenal's defensive soundess was clearly going to be crucial. They were also helped by the fact that Winterburn was given so much freedom to attack down the left side. Whenever he moved forward Wednesday were troubled; so much so that Paul Merson, who most people expected to direct Arsenal's attacking progress, was left, almost like Waddle, on the periphery of an increasingly untidy game.
Certainly Arsenal merited holding a first-half lead, but on this perfect Cup Final afternoon the football itself was always flawed. That Arsenal scored after 21 minutes was not so much the result of their ascendancy but Wednesday's decline from optimistic beginnings. At least the goal brought Ian Wright out of the shadows of his scoring blight. A free-kick from Davis was headed across the Wednesday goal by Andy Linighan and Wright headed in from the far post.
Wednesday were becoming increasingly troubled by Wright, who at last seemed to be coping with the pressures of Wembley and, more importantly, the big occasion. His speed and brightness of thought were as one.
Had Arsenal scored again in the first half no doubt the game would have been put beyond Wednesday's reach. As it was, they failed to take advantage of their dominance, and after 62 minutes they suffered the consequence.
Sheridan, who Arsenal had thought they had controlled, now centred dangerously. Bright headed on in the penalty area and John Harkes headed back for Hirst to drive in a left-foot shot that temporarily brought a diminishing game back to life.
But once Viv Anderson went off with a leg injury, Palmer had to drop back into defence and Wednesday were in danger of having their chances of snatching a goal taken away by Arsenal's final push.
Only a minute from the end of normal time that event could easily have come about. The ball was passed head-high across the Wednesday penalty area and Wright lined up for the final volley. Again his accuracy seemed perfect, but the ball was deflected over by the ever-alert Woods to make extra time inevitable.
The loss of Palmer as a driving force in midfield and the arrival of David O'Leary as a second central Arsenal defender during extra time, plus the retirement of Wright with a leg injury, all contrived to turn what was already a poor game into a muddle unworthy of the occasion.
If ever there was a need and a chance for a player of Merson's ability to plant a controlling foot on the extra half an hour it was here, but his contribution throughout was disappointing. Nothing, however, was more disappointing than the match itself.
Arsenal: D Seaman; L Dixon, N Winterburn, A Linighan, T Adams, K Campbell, I Wright (D O'Leary, 90 min), P Merson, R Parlour (A Smith, 65 min), P Davis, J Jensen. Manager: G Graham.
Sheffield Wednesday: C Woods; R Nilsson, N Worthington, C Palmer, D Hirst, V Anderson (G Hyde, 85 min), C Waddle (C Bart-Williams, 111 min), P Warhurst, M Bright, J Sheridan, J Harkes. Manager: T Francis.
Referee: K Barratt (Coventry).
Goals: Wright (1-0, 21 min); Hirst (1-1, 62 min).
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