Football: Old faces head back to familiar places

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The Independent Online
Perspectives can change quickly in football. Three weeks ago even South Yorkshire would have presumed that to be adrift of Sheffield Wednesday would be a polite euphemism for being in trouble; now the whole of the Premiership is looking up and wondering how long the bubble can stay intact at Hillsborough.

Four matches, four wins and even the sceptical Sheffield public is being persuaded that the fight against relegation might not be the likeliest option this term. As Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, predicted yesterday "It will be dog eat dog" in England's top division and so far the team with the biggest bite is Wednesday.

"We'll let the players enjoy the triumphs," David Pleat, the Wednesday manager, said, refusing to get carried away by the club's best start for 65 years. "When you have been in the game a long time you know there is always something coming round the corner."

Looming round the bend today are third-placed Chelsea who had not conceded a goal this season until they shipped three at Arsenal in mid-week. "They play it on the deck," Pleat said. "They pass the ball, don't whack it. You have to respect them. But we can cope with it, I'll be disappointed if we can't."

Wednesday have not occupied the top position since 1967 but elsewhere the meetings will be more familiar. Nowhere more so than at Elland Road where, for familiar, you could read rude whenever Eric Cantona returns with Manchester United.

In the last two seasons Leeds have stirred themselves out of their general torpor to inflict defeat on Ferguson's team, victories that were warmly greeted then, but assumed little significance later when discontent took almost permanent residence with supporters frustrated by the paltry legacy passed on from the 1992 Championship.

In theory, a robust match against a team guaranteed to be straining at the leash, is just about the last thing the Mancunians would want prior to a Champions' League match against the European Cup holders, Juventus, but Ferguson differed. "It will be good for the players," he said. "It's a pressure game and a good preparation for Turin."

Ferguson is never particularly forthcoming about his line-ups, but yesterday the smoke screen was thicker than ever. "I may play four or five at the back," he said. "I've got one change in mind."

When that code is cracked, the meaning probably is that United's Norwegian centre-back, Ronny Johnsen, will play in preparation for Juventus, where defence in depth will be essential.

Another homecoming will occur at Anfield where Graeme Souness' welcome is likely to be warm thanks to memories of his playing days rather than the time he was in charge. He returns with Southampton two and a half years since leaving the manager's job at Liverpool to pit wits against the man who used to be his assistant, Roy Evans.

"He will always be welcome here in my eyes," Evans says of his predecessor. "I enjoyed working with him. You wish him success - but not at Anfield."

Kevin Keegan arrived at Newcastle with trumpets blaring and a noise that has scarcely diminished since despite the throwing away of the Championship last spring. He, too, brought old friends together this week - Peter Beardsley and the playmaker's role - and enjoyed the re-acquaintance thanks to a win at Sunderland that propped up an otherwise unconvincing start.

"He is an inspiration," Keegan said on the eve of Newcastle's trip to Tottenham.

"I turned back to him after trying other things and he did the business for me. But then he always does."

Wednesday's dribbling keeper, page 26