Football: FA Cup Semi-final: Wembley succumbs as Waddle waves his wand: Richard Williams on a performance that proved that if you are good enough you are young enough

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The Independent Online
FIRST they had to clear the balloons; then the party could begin. Usually, on these occasions, the magician comes on late and leaves his best trick until last, but this time he did his stuff straight away.

For the few hundred in the 75,000 crowd who had not come to Wembley from Sheffield, Chris Waddle turned yesterday's FA Cup semi-final from a local dispute into an enthralling match. His presence on the right wing of a good Sheffield Wednesday side had always held out the possibility that memories would be made, and he wasted no more than 62 seconds before making a contribution that determined the shape of the afternoon. The curving left-footed free-kick from 25 yards out was quintessential Waddle: smooth, sweet, aimed an inch inside the right-hand post, the only place Alan Kelly, the brave Sheffield United goalkeeper, could not hope to reach it.

Thereafter Waddle infused a tense, often ragged game with the touch and experience of a master. True, he was tackled in possession twice. Yes, he misplaced five passes - in the 15th, 57th, 79th, 92nd and 105th minutes, to be precise. But dozens more were accurate, and he alone did enough to ensure that Owls rather than Blades would be returning to Wembley on Cup Final day.

For most of the match he stayed out on his wing, giving Dane Whitehouse, 10 years his junior, a two-hour headache. Waddle feinted, dummied, twisted, turned, checked back, and delivered a series of passes that, with a bit more sharpness and anticipation from his colleagues, could have killed the match off well before half-time.

Waddle is 32 now, and was thought to have been a distinct gamble when Trevor Francis paid Marseille pounds 1m for him last summer. But a million is cheap for the experience and poise that three years of playing with Papin, Pele and the rest gave him. Now Waddle has seen it all, and because he has kept his enthusiasm for the game he can turn that knowledge into the sort of assured performance that can inspire an entire team. He is simply unrecognisable from the player who performed with fitful brilliance for Newcastle, Tottenham and England, and provides conclusive evidence that there is no specific age at which a footballer should begin or end an international career. A great team needs its Gersons as well as its Jairzinhos, its Van Hanegems as well as its Rensenbrinks.

There were periods in yesterday's match when he took a rest (from the 60th to 80th minutes, for instance), but always he was there when the match was in the balance, making himself available, doing more than anyone to influence the course of events by setting a pattern and a rhythm for Wednesday's play. And when Alan Cork poked his scoring shot past Chris Woods in the last minute of the first half, the man within an inch or two of clearing it off the line was none other than the shambling Geordie.

'If he's not the best player in the league,' Trevor Francis, his manager, said afterwards, 'he's certainly one of the best. I'd like to think he's playing better now than at any time in his career. I was astonished that he wasn't among the nominations for the players' player of the year.'

Only Francis's gamble in choosing to play two strikers who were returning from injury and could not have been entirely match-fit cost Wednesday a more emphatic victory. Paul Warhurst, for the first hour, and David Hirst, for the second, both struggled to find the touch that would normally have added the conclusive point to the variety of passes - chipped, floated and threaded, diagonal and pulled back - that issued from Waddle's left boot.

But Francis is to be congratulated on his success in making a team with an average age only a few days short of 30 last the course of a strenuous two-hour match. In fact the arrival of the 25-year-old Hirst in place of the 23-year-old Warhurst pushed the average over 30, a figure which five of Wednesday's players will never see again. United's average age, by contrast, was just over 26, but Dave Bassett's team never really looked like making the advantages of youth count towards the ultimate result.

So one set of supporters had to be disappointed, but all 75,000 had made it an enjoyable day for Sheffield. The precise split along the half-way line between blue and white and red and white favours turned out to be no battle line but simply a frontier of sporting allegiance, and the match ended in the most appropriate way, with embraces between the players of both sides, and the men in Wednesday's shirts exchanging salutes with United's fans before going to share the celebrations with their own. 'You'd think they'd won the bloody Cup,' a southerner muttered. No - it was different, and almost as precious.

As for the losers, Bassett made no secret of their disappointment. 'There were a few tears afterwards,' he said. 'Unfortunately we just buckled at the end. We just didn't have quite enough, although I thought we were going to hang on and get a draw.

'Conceding a goal so early made it difficult for us but we took the initiative well and scored the goal to pull us level. But we could have done with the first half lasting another 10 minutes rather than ending as it did straight after we scored.'

Forty years ago this May, a 38- year-old right-winger wrote the script for a Wembley match that became known as the Matthews Final. Chris Waddle may not be a footballer of quite such gifts, but he is more than good enough to make those of us who were not around on that occasion look forward to the chance of something similar in six weeks' time.