Football: Lukewarm welcome for Atkinson's return

Sheffield Wednesday 2 Arsenal 0
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The Independent Online
An incident after this game showed what might have happened had Sheffield Wednesday lost. Ron Atkinson's face appeared on television screens at Hillsborough and a group broke into "You fat bastard". Smiles accompanied the chant.

The words would have been used with less humour and more bitterness in the wake of defeat, but the irony underlined the ambivalence felt in Sheffield at the second coming. Big Ron is back after the big wrong of leaving Wednesday in the lurch six years ago and people have not forgotten.

A letter in a fanzine summed up the new manager's precarious position. "He is not a popular choice," it read. "Ron's job of winning back the devotion of the Hillsborough faithful won't be easy. Ultimately, it will depend on results."

So far, so good then. This win took the club out of the bottom three and deterred any potential nastiness, but three defeats on the run - and this performance did not make that out of the question - and the mood will change. Boos laced the cheers at the announcement of Atkinson's name and it will not take much for the former to predominate.

It was pertinent that no one took up the hastily re-taped "Atkinson's Barmy Army" chant booming out of the speakers, while the requests to brandish the Big Ron hats went unheeded. Not that it bothered the man himself. He wears confidence like a fashion accessory and he arrived at Hillsborough as if he was a returning hero. An imperious wave of an arm, a big smile and he began where he left off in 1991.

"It was brilliant, the whole day was great," he beamed afterwards." What had he hoped for at the start of the day? "That Ian Wright has a nightmare and that David Seaman lets a couple slip through his hands." Arsenal were not that accommodating, but they tried their hardest.

The team that had deserved to beat Manchester United 13 days earlier provided the sort of opposition Big Ron had wanted in his dreams. Limited, error-prone, sloppy, they were less second place in the Premiership than second class.

Dennis Bergkamp, Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira were missing because of various acts of stupidity, but so was the verve and confidence you expect in potential champions. On this evidence, as their manager, Arsene Wenger, conceded, the front-line troops might be good enough, but the reserves are lacking.

Stripped of his midfield resources, Wenger came in search of a point and probably would have got one had Gilles Grimandi not committed a schoolboy error after 41 minutes. The Frenchman had time but no composure when one of many countless bad passes arrived at his feet and instead of trapping the ball he volleyed a perfect through pass for Andy Booth.

The Wednesday striker's self-esteem had been massaged by a hat-trick in the previous match and he waited for Seaman to spread himself before slipping the ball under the Arsenal goalkeeper.

That set the parameters for the rest of the match and exposed the Gunners' lack of imagination. They attacked with enthusiasm but little wit and poor Wright might have been sitting on the substitutes' bench for all the service he received. The England striker has now gone five matches without scoring and more Arsenal performances like this and he could go another 15.

"Today he was sharp," Wenger said, "and in better circumstances he would have been dangerous. I had a feeling that if we had been more creative he would have scored. I'm not concerned about him, I'm more concerned about our collective game."

So he should be. Of all people, the two wing-backs, Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn, were the best visiting attackers and, if they had to press forward to get any response, gaps were always likely to appear behind them.

Wednesday duly raced into one, finishing off the match with a lovely goal four minutes from the end. Two first-time passes and Arsenal were slashed apart, Guy Whittingham finishing with aplomb.

It was a splendid finale to a drudge of a game and made Big Ron's day. "I don't think I've ever looked forward to a game with as much enthusiasm as this one," he said. "There are things there to work on. It's certainly a far better side than the one I took over last time."

Then he unplugged his adrenalin. "Games like the Arsenal look after themselves, the motivation comes from the game. But we go down to The Dell next week and no one knows better than me how hard that will be." The true test of the second coming will start there.

Goals: Booth (42) 1-0; Whittingham (86) 2-0.

Sheffield Wednesday (4-4-2): Pressman; Nolan, Newsome, Walker, Pembridge; Whittingham, Magilton (Hyde, 83), Atherton, Rudi; Di Canio (Carbone, 78), Booth. Substitutes not used: Blondeau, Humphreys, Clarke (gk).

Arsenal (3-5-2): Seaman; Keown, Adams, Grimandi (Marshall, 50); Dixon, Parlour (Hughes, 37), Platt, Overmars, Winterburn; Mendez (Wreh, 54), Wright. Substitutes not used: Upson, Manninger (gk).

Bookings: Sheffield Wednesday Atherton, Nolan. Arsenal Adams, Platt, Grimandi.

Referee: K Burge (Tonypandy).

Man of the match: Walker.

Attendance: 34,373.

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