Football: United fall to Hirst

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The Independent Online
Sheffield Wednesday 1

Hirst 44

Manchester United 0

Attendance: 33,441

SHORN of Eric Cantona and Andrei Kanchelskis, Manchester United's campaign to retain their title showed more signs of becoming an uphill struggle after they suffered another blow at Hillsborough, when they were on the receiving end of Sheffield Wednesday's first Premiership home win.

They have only themselves to blame, however, as they had enough first-half chances to transform the second 45 minutes into a mere formality. As it was, the game's only goal came at the other end and at that most vital of psychological moments, minutes before half- time and just at the time when United had shown signs of imposing their innate superiority despite their distinguished absentees. But in the end it had to be said that they played like a team with other, perhaps more important, things on their minds.

The depleted visitors seemed content to stay in a low gear for most of the first half until the fresh talents of young Keith Gillespie on the right wing offered a possible channel for their efforts.

Steve Bruce contrived to get himself booked after only 18 minutes for some rough treatment of Mark Bright and minutes later Wednesday's Andy Pearce suffered the same punishment for a tackle on Gillespie. Between times, Mark Hughes wasted a good opportunity by blasting Denis Irwin's cross straight at Kevin Pressman.

Encouraged by this, Paul Ince then squandered another opportunity created by Hughes and Roy Keane when he ballooned his shot from 12 yards over the Wednesday bar. Ince was on target minutes later with a diving header from Irwin's corner but it rebounded off a ruck of bodies. Young Gillespie did put the ball in Pressman's net but Brian McClair's perceptive run which had opened the way to goal had taken the Scot offside.

Wednesday had enjoyed little success in their joust with Bruce and Gary Pallister but minutes before half-time, suddenly the Red Sea parted. Chris Bart-Williams collected a clearance, took stock and sent David Hirst charging between Bruce and Paul Parker. Peter Schmeichel was left with no chance as Hirst clinically curled a right foot shot past him from 15 yards for his first goal since the opening day of the season.

United's determination to level matters after the restart manifested itself with an ambitious 20-yarder from Gillespie, saved at the second attempt by Pressman, and Lee Sharpe shooting yards wide. Sharpe, a lethargic presence in what is his favoured attacking role, stirred himself to deliver a dangerous hanging cross that confused Pressman, but the goalkeeper's blushes were saved by the quick-thinking Des Walker.

Despite Trojan efforts by Ince and Keane, the game seemed to be slipping away from United. Wednesday sensed it and their ambitions rose. Graham Hyde robbed Gary Pallister on the edge of the penalty area but blew his chance by attempting a weak chip which Schmeichel had no trouble reading. Another Hyde effort clattered against the keeper's body before Mark Bright ballooned his shot over the bar with Schmeichel sprawled and beaten.

Hirst was an increasing torment now and only a brave dive at the striker's feet by Schmeichel prevented him from adding to his tally. United were not going down without a fight but their frustrations were epitomised by Hughes's booking in the dying minutes for hacking at the substitute Ian Taylor's ankles. It was just not going to be United's day.

Their manager Alex Ferguson brushed aside suggestions that his players were suffering from double priorities because of their European commitments, and preferred to argue that they had been playing well enough but not taking their chances. There are many who would disagree - if they dared.