Football: McClair makes move towards centre stage

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Sheffield Wednesday. .3

Manchester United. . .3

BRIAN McCLAIR'S position in Manchester United's line-up appeared under threat when Eric Cantona crossed the Pennines, but Alex Ferguson had other ideas, stationing the industrious Scot in an orthodox central midfield role. McClair, in his own unspectacular way, is fast becoming the new Bryan Robson, tackling back, driving his team on and arriving late to scavenge in the six-yard box.

Paul Ince operates in a similar style and the pair's enterprise allows Ferguson to field two wingers, Lee Sharpe and Ryan Giggs, and two central strikers, Cantona and Mark Hughes. The system's one weakness is that United can be swamped through the middle, as Wednesday showed for an hour of a thrilling Boxing Day match, moving ahead through Hirst, Bright and Sheridan. But the great strength of Ferguson's formation is the flexibility it lends to the pursuit of goals: the four attackers can choose their own avenues of assault while Ince and particularly McClair break late - and often unnoticed - into the box.

Two of the three late goals which heralded United's stirring comeback and brought them a point came from McClair, the 29-year- old Scottish international twice heading Lee Sharpe's crosses past the outstanding Chris Woods from close range. Cantona's toe-poke six minutes from time triggered the chorus of 'Glory, Glory Man United', but it was McClair's initiative and intelligence that remained long in the memory.

Particularly of Trevor Francis. 'McClair was always a threat. He could have had five,' the Wednesday manager said after 'Choccy' had netted his fourth double in five trips to Hillsborough. 'In this country we always have a problem in picking up people who run into the box. Players like McClair, Robson, Platt, Townsend and Keane. United have some great attacking players. They went very close to the championship last year. This could be their year.'

How many times have the Red hordes heard that prediction before? The new Stretford End is built on broken dreams. But this season, with the title race so open, Francis's words have much to recommend them. Last season's dilemma, a shortage of goals, has been alleviated by Cantona's arrival. He has brought the best out of Hughes and himself supplied the sort of strike that has eluded United recently, the ball forced over the line Gerd Muller-style.

Cantona's first snatched attempt brought howls of derision from the Kop, whose beloved club the fickle Frenchman had forsaken last year for Leeds United. 'Ee-Aw,' they chanted at Cantona. By the end all you could hear was 'Ooh, Ahh' from the Mancunian contingent.

Ferguson spent pounds 1.2m on Cantona when Wednesday rebuffed his pounds 3.5m offer for David Eric Hirst. The scoreboard billed the game as the 'Battle of the Erics' and for 84 minutes the Englishman looked the better value.

The burly Barnsley-born centre- forward put Wednesday ahead with an angled drive at 12.03 and set up Mark Bright at 12.07, sending three-quarters of Hillsborough's largest crowd of the season, 37,708, into a raucous rapture.

Francis had detailed Chris Waddle to deliver the ball from right to left to the far-post. Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister miss little in the air, but play the ball over them, pressure United's full-backs and the odds are stacked more promisingly. Hirst twice outjumped Paul Parker: the first brought a neat nod down to Bright, the second, after 61 minutes, allowed John Sheridan to drill the ball past Peter Schmeichel.

This was what the Premier League was supposed to be all about: international players at full throttle (only three of the 24 used had not won full honours), great goals (Hirst, Sheridan, McClair), late drama and a crowded house. If only every game could be like this.

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

Sheffield Wednesday: Woods; Nilsson, Worthington, Palmer, Anderson, Shirtliff, Wilson (Harkes, 73), Waddle, Hirst, Bright, Sheridan. Substitutes not used: Bart-Williams, Pressman (gk).

Manchester United: Schmeichel; Parker, Irwin, Bruce, Sharpe, Pallister, Cantona, Ince, McClair, Hughes, Giggs (Kanchelskis, 67). Substitutes not used: Digby (gk), Phelan.

Referee: A Buksh (Dollis Hill, London).

(Photograph omitted)