Football: McClair ignites a spirited recovery

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Sheffield Wednesday. . 3

Manchester United. . . 3

THE destination of the Premier League title is, like much of the country, still shrouded in fog, but many of the captivated crowd of 37,708 at Hillsborough yesterday will have left with the growing feeling that the championship trophy could materialise at Old Trafford. United have skill in abundance, here they showed their spirit.

Trailing by three goals with 23 minutes remaining, despite a catalogue of excellent chances, United embarked on a remarkable revival, led by the irrepressible Lee Sharpe. The runs of Paul Ince and Brian McClair through the middle, and Sharpe down the left, finally began to tell against a weakening Wednesday. McClair, with two close range headers, and Eric Cantona, with an inelegant toe poke six minutes from time, secured parity in a thrilling 15- minute spell in which United were rampant.

Alex Ferguson, the visitors' manager, left saying his team should have won, such was the power of their final flourish. 'I'm really disappointed,' he said. 'We could have won it at the end. We showed the character which is in the best tradition of this club.'

Ince, from long range, had an opportunity to steal all the points in stoppage time, but for either side to have lost such an exciting, end-to-end game would have been a travesty.

However, for an hour it appeared that Manchester's Reds would have been leaving only with red faces. Defensive mistakes helped the Owls to their first two goals - although nothing should detract from Wednesday's positive approach work and ruthless finishing.

Carlton Palmer, who came out honours even in his midfield duel with Ince, his fellow England international, instigated Wednesday's opener in the third minute, his long legs propelling him inexorably into Peter Schmeichel's 18- yard box. Ince won possession but, falling off balance, cleared the ball only to David Hirst, and the man whom Ferguson has tried repeatedly to buy shot crisply past Schmeichel from the edge of the area.

Hirst looked every inch an international-class centre forward: muscular in pursuit of the ball, intelligent in possession of it, and clinical in or around the box. Three minutes later, the Barnsley- born attacker created Wednesday's second, rising at the far post to direct Waddle's long right-wing cross into the path of his partner, Mark Bright, who dispatched the ball past Schmeichel with aplomb.

Seven minutes gone and the tightest defence in the Premier League had already conceded two. United, with two short full- backs in Paul Parker and Dennis Irwin, can be vulnerable to the high ball delivered behind them. 'We attacked them at the far post,' Francis said simply. It worked beautifully.

United, initially, had no answer to Wednesday's direct running, orchestrated by Palmer, Waddle and John Sheridan, but having caught their breath they gave warning of the potency of their attack. Sharpe should have scored when Ryan Giggs found him unmarked at the far post. But Chris Woods pulled off the first of a string of outstanding saves. In the space of two minutes, the England keeper denied McClair twice, both times from point-blank range.

Steve Bruce, the United centre- half was booked for a late challenge on Hirst and was lucky to stay on when he tripped the same player early in the second. Hirst replied in style, after 61 minutes, flicking Waddle's high cross on to Sheridan for the Manchester-born Irishman to beat Schmeichel with a stinging shot.

Cue the comeback. Sharpe, finally finding the measure of Roland Nilsson, crossed from the left for McClair to head United's first. With 10 minutes to go, the pair repeated the act, Sharpe's drag-back bemusing Nilsson and another whipped-in cross being met by McClair.

Schmeichel kept United in it by pushing Hirst's fulminating drive around his left-hand post in the 84th minute. Seconds later, United were level when Cantona, who was introduced to English football by Wednesday, steered Sharpe's cross past Woods at the second attempt.

A just result; a marvellous match. Get a video of it if you can.

Sheffield Wednesday: C Woods; R Nilsson, N Worthington, C Palmer, V Anderson, P Shirtliff, D Wilson (J Harkes, 73 min), C Waddle, D Hirst, M Bright, J Sheridan. Subs not used: C Bart-Williams, K Pressman (gk). Manager: T Francis.

Manchester United: P Schmeichel; P Parker, D Irwin, S Bruce, L Sharpe, G Pallister, E Cantona, P Ince, B McClair, M Hughes, R Giggs (A Kanchelskis, 67 min). Subs not used: F Digby (gk), M Phelan. Manager: A Ferguson.

Referee: A Buksh (Dollis Hill, London).

Goals: Hirst (1-0, 3 min), Bright (2-0, 7 min), Sheridan (3-0, 61 min), McClair (3-1, 68 min), McClair (3-2, 80 min), Cantona (3-3, 84 min).