Football: Pleat plummets the depths as United soar ever higher

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The Independent Online
Manchester United 6 Sheffield Wednesday 1

A look at David Pleat on Saturday evening and you were reminded of Kevin Keegan's feelings for Gerry Francis after Tottenham had been thrashed by Newcastle last season. All he felt was sympathy, he said. No fix of elation, no thought of celebration. The highs suddenly did not have the elevation of before and the lows were worse.

Pleat was in the depths. He had the weariness but not the elation of a marathon runner and if he had announced enough was enough nobody would have been surprised. Seven days previously Barnsley's Danny Wilson had sat in the same Old Trafford seat and found cheer amid the ruins. For the Sheffield Wednesday manager there was a bleaker landscape.

"Where would I would walk to?" he asked in response to questions about his future. "You have to be positive. You know you can do it, so keep doing it. I'm all right at the moment, I love the game too much not to be. I know what I want and what I'm looking for and at the moment it's elusive."

So is fortune. Wednesday were not very good on Saturday but they were not 6-1 bad. But, as Alex Ferguson said, every shot United had in the first half went in. You can legislate for players and tactics, trying to cope with fate is another thing all together.

Gary Pallister was asked if he could remember when goals were flying in from all angles like this. "Oh yes," he replied. "Against Newcastle and Southampton last year." Even United shipped 11 goals when their luck went on holiday and they were able enough to win the championship. No one would put Wednesday in that bracket.

Yet put Peter Schmeichel and Andy Cole in blue and white stripes and the result would probably have been very different. For 13 minutes Wednesday barely allowed United the ball but, as soon as Kevin Pressman dived in slow motion to allow Teddy Sheringham's shot to find the corner of the net, the match took on an awful inevitability.

United's second was a ricochet off three players while David Beckham's cross for the third took a deflection off Petter Rudi's boot that took the ball away from Des Walker and landed it on Cole's head. When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer hooked a fourth to complement his outstanding all-round play, you feared for Wednesday's immediate future.

Instead Pleat reorganised his side by substituting his talented but ineffectual Italian strikers and a second-half score of 2-1 was a far more accurate reflection of the gap between the sides. Much good it did Wednesday. The result leaves them bottom of the Premiership.

"I believe morale comes from within," Pleat said, talking about the mood of his team. "I can only console and push them. It's how they react that matters. I know footballers, I know what kind of breed they are and I know how they respond to wins. You have only to look at Andy Cole. He was having a bad time not so long ago and, suddenly, two games, bang, bang, bang. Some of his work today was excellent."

Ferguson concurred with that but like Keegan his mind kept wandering to his beaten opponent. "You can't look upon that as an examination of David Pleat," he said. "The goals were well executed but there was an element of luck, too. The one thing about him is that all his teams over the years have tried to play the right way. It's a quality that should be respected. It's not easy for him."

Which, after 13 goals in two matches, is the opposite of Ferguson's position. Saturday's results played into his hands, giving United a four-point lead to take to Highbury next Sunday while pushing them further out of reach of potential dangers.

Just about his only problem is who to drop against Feyenoord on Wednesday to make a space for Ryan Giggs: Cole, Solskjaer, Sheringham? The agony of that decision was lost on Pleat on Saturday.

Goals: Sheringham (13) 1-0; Cole (19) 2-0; Cole (38) 3-0; Solskjaer (40) 4-0, Sheringham (62) 5-0, Whittingham (68) (5-1), Solskjaer (74) 6-1.

Manchester United (4-3-1-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Berg (Curtis, 74), Pallister, P Neville; Beckham, Butt (McClair, 74), Scholes (Poborsky, 55); Sheringham; Solskjaer, Cole. Substitutes not used: Mulryne, Van der Gouw (gk).

Sheffield Wednesday: Pressman; Nolan, Newsome, Walker, Pembridge; Whittingham, Magilton, Collins (Poric, 75), Rudi; Di Canio (Nicol, h-t), Carbone (Humphreys (h-t). Substitutes not used: Grobbelaar (gk), Blondeau.

Booking: Manchester United Pallister.

Referee: G Ashby (Worcester).

Attendance: 55,259

Man of the match: Solskjaer.