Football: Frustrated centre-forward makes his mark

Glenn Moore talks to Kevin Pressman, the goalkeeper who has helped Sheffield Wednesday become leaders of the pack
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The Independent Online
There was less than 10 minutes to go as the goalkeeper raced the opposing centre-forward to a long ball hit towards the corner. He reached it first, but was outside his area. With the forward breathing down his neck, he calmly flicked the ball over both their heads, turned first and chested it into the area before picking it up.

Rene Higuita? Jorge Campos? Jose Luis Chilavert? No. It was none of the extrovert South American goalkeepers, it was the unassuming Kevin Pressman of the unexpected Premiership leaders, Sheffield Wednesday, bamboozling Leicester's Steve Claridge on Monday night.

"If it had been a Continental player, we'd have been raving about the skill," Trevor Francis, Sky TV's summariser, said. Francis, Pressman's former manager at Wednesday, added: "He's always doing it in training - but 10 minutes before the end of a game, with the score at 2-1?"

"I'm a frustrated centre-forward," admitted the 28-year-old at Wednesday's training ground this week. "People say: 'What if you made a mistake?' but I don't worry about it. It is exactly the same as if I had come for a cross and dropped it, the consequence is the same. If it comes off you're the best, if it doesn't you get slaughtered.

"I don't go out planning to do them. It's a split-second decison. I try and keep risks to a minimum, I'm not going to try and nutmeg someone or something ridiculous like that."

Unlike most frustrated centre- forwards, the amiable Pressman does have something of a pedigree, even taking a penalty in an FA Cup shoot-out. "I played there for England schools at Lilleshall in a practice match because they were short - and scored. For Derbyshire boys and Chesterfield boys I'd play the first half in goal, and if we were losing, I used to go up front. Taking the penalty [at Wolves two seasons ago] was no harder than being in goal and trying to save it." Pressman scored, but as Chris Waddle did not, Wednesday went out.

He draws the line at copying Chilavert and Higuita and taking free-kicks. "I don't think I have the legs to get back, you have to be careful. As we have seen this season, people can shoot from anywhere these days. I'm always thinking a player is about to shoot, wherever he is."

As we speak, Garth Crooks is talking to David Hirst in front of the BBC TV cameras, another TV crew is interviewing David Pleat and a clutch of radio and press men wander about. Sheffield Wednesday are suddenly news and they are enjoying it so much they have not even posted a jobsworth on the gate to keep people out.

"It's great," Pressman said. "It makes a change, especially after the way we have started the last two years. It's been nice to come into training every morning with something to look forward to. There is a buzz about the place.

"Everybody is talking about it in the city. They can't believe it. They're asking: 'When's it going to end?' but I'm not really surprised. In the last two years, we have very much underachieved. We have got good players, they may not be world-famous names, but as a team we have always had the potential. It's just a matter of making it click, getting everybody to pull together and work hard. We are now working as a unit to get the ball back."

This is a Hillsborough theme, as Pressman's potted pen-pictures of his team-mates (right) underline. 'Honest, hard-working' are his most common adjectives. Such virtues have not been common features of previous Pleat teams, but they are a necessity in the modern Premiership. "Nowadays you have to earn the right to play," Pressman said. "You have to break people's resistance before you can knock it around."

Unlike other clubs, Wednesday made most of their summer spending in the lower divisions, buying young and hungry players. Pleat also brought in Peter Shreeves as coach. "That has made a difference," Pressman said. "He is a very professional person in his approach. In training, he makes sure you all warm up properly and look like a team. These are little things which are trivial to an outsider, but to a player doing them every day they make a difference. We know what we are doing."

Wednesday's new resilience was evident against Leicester. "We did not play as we feel we can, but we got the result," Pressman added. "Look at Manchester United, they do not play their best every game, but they grind the result out and get the 1-0 win they need. It keeps them on course."

That win put Wednesday five points clear. Later midweek results means the lead is down to three points as they approach today's top of the table match with Chelsea, but whatever happens, they will at worst be level top with Aston Villa tonight.

Villa are the club Wednesday hope to emulate. A year ago, Villa had also escaped relegation, more narrowly than Wednesday, but they began the season by beating Manchester United and maintained the momentum to finish fourth. They also won the Coca-Cola Cup. Now they are regarded as contenders.

"That could happen to us," said Pressman, who is in his 12th season at Hillsborough, but only his fourth as the recognised No 1. "We have the players here to stay in the top six. When everything is going well, everyone wants a part of it. When it's not, you get litle niggles and you think: 'Ooh, I'm a bit stiff today', whereas when things are going well it does not matter, everyone wants to play, everyone wants the ball.

"That 'feelgood' factor means people are not frightened of making a mistake. When you are down at the bottom and you make a mistake, it could be three points lost and relegation. At the top, if you make a mistake, you think you can rectify it."

Wednesday's success can only help Pressman's England ambitions. As a youngster, he was promising enough for his school to allow him to take his exams while on tour with England in Switzerland. He went on to earn Under-21 and B caps and was called into one of Terry Venables' early get- togethers.

Then came a hernia and a loss of form, a pattern which was repeated last season. "I don't like to use excuses, and at the time I didn't think I was affected by them, but both needed operations and I can see by the way I train and play now that I was.

"A hernia affects the sharp stuff, the reaction saves, it makes you that split-second late because you get to know what type of movement hurts you and you shy away from it. You are battling against your own mind.

"I've learned a lesson - don't carry injuries, get them sorted out. If you are not 100 per cent in the Premiership, you get punished."