Football: Reds drummed out by Atherton

Liverpool 0 Sheffield Wednesday 1
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As their followers turned Anfield into a theatre of drums, Sheffield Wednesday pounded out a message of hope for Liverpool's championship rivals and a warning to Roy Evans.

With the seemingly simple ploy of deputing Peter Atherton to trail Steve McManaman wherever he wandered, the Wednesday manager, David Pleat, exposed the extent to which Evans' side rely on one man to provide both backbeat and solo virtuosity. So effective was the tactic that Liverpool were booed off for the third successive home game in the Premiership.

The name Atherton is synonymous, despite recent events in Africa, with rearguard actions. Like his fellow Lancastrian digging in to save a Test match, the Wednesday defender maintained his concentration and adhesiveness throughout. With McManaman trying everything he knew to find a square metre in which to work up a head of steam, it was a feat of extraordinary single-mindedness.

The England attacker is accustomed to jack-knifing through defences as if they were cones on a training pitch. All he was allowed here was a second-half header which came out off the woodwork. Atherton was seldom more than a drumbeat away, and it was a surprise when he appeared for the post-match press briefing at the shoulder of his goalkeeper, Kevin Pressman, rather than McManaman.

Evans took more than an hour to follow them in, which suggested that some hard talking had been done in the home dressing-room. "I'd hate to think that we are nothing more than a McManaman team," he told the media. "When Steve's being watched so tightly, it should open up opportunities elsewhere. But we just didn't play with our heads."

To rub salt into the wounds, on one of the few times Atherton played the ball in a constructive capacity, he initiated the move from which Guy Whittingham rewarded Wednesday's superiority. Thereafter he resumed his limpet impersonation, aided by some exquisitely timed challenges and interceptions by Des Walker and the surprising agility of the portly Pressman.

On this evidence, Walker has been prematurely written off as an England centre-back.

Liverpool should not, perhaps, be pressured into panic buys. After all, it is less than a fortnight since they breached Arsenal's legendary defence four times in the Coca-Cola Cup. And the fixture list offers ample opportunity to rectify matters, with both Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forest visiting in the next eight days.

Both may now be tempted to go man-for-man on McManaman (saying it may be as hard as doing it), yet neither has a marker of Atherton's discipline. What must have concerned Evans more was the inability of John Barnes and Michael Thomas to assume the creative mantle. They offered neither inspiration nor the ball-winning bite that has been a key component of the best Liverpool midfields, allowing the modest talents of Mark Pembridge and Graham Hyde to dominate.

Evans' loyalty to Barnes, his "manager on the park", is admirable, though it could be costly if it meant Jamie Redknapp becoming disenchanted. Equally, if Aston Villa were to revive their interest in Stan Collymore (who, like Redknapp, is currently injured), the Liverpool manager might be advised to ask for Mark Draper in part-exchange.

Pleat complained that one newspaper had dismissed his team as "unremarkable". At the risk of further upsetting an estimable strategist, the sad truth, as far as Liverpool are concerned, is that Wednesday did not have to be exceptional. While belying their recent horror show across Stanley Park, they needed to be little more than organised and spirited.

If anything, Pleat's game plan appeared designed to secure a goalless draw. However, Liverpool played into their hands, as if being favourites for the title had gone to their heads. Demystified by Wimbledon, Anfield has lost the unique terror it once held for away sides. The mere fact of being at home to average opposition is no longer a guarantee of victory.

All-seat stadiums are not conducive to the all-singing, all-dancing atmosphere of old, and even the Kop has no exemption clause. Without a wall of sound to lift them, Liverpool struggled to impose the kind of tempo on which they have traditionally thrived.

Maybe the cradle of terrace culture could learn from the cradle of football. Helping the Sheffield contingent maintain a barrage of encouragement to Walker and his cohorts was a mini-band in the Dutch mould, a sort of Des's Midnight Runners complete with trombone, trumpet and the percussionists from purgatory.

If Evans woke yesterday with a thumping in his head, it was just as likely to have been the echo of distant drums of the nagging memory of how Atherton robbed Liverpool of their rhythm.

Goal: Whittingham (21) 0-1.

Liverpool (3-4-2-1): James; Wright, Ruddock, Babb (Kennedy, 66); McAteer, Thomas, Barnes, Bjornebye; McManaman, Berger; Fowler. Substitutes not used: Matteo, Cassidy, L Jones, Warner (gk).

Sheffield Wednesday (4-1-3-2): Pressman; Nolan, Walker, Stefanovic, Nicol; Atherton; Whittingham, Hyde, Pembridge; Carbone (Blinker, 79), Booth. Substitutes not used: Oakes, Humphreys, Trustfull, Clarke (gk).

Referee: M Reed (Birmingham). Bookings: Liverpool: Babb, McAteer. Wednesday: Stefanovic, Nolan, Atherton.

Man of the match: Walker. Attendance: 39,507.