Hirst's virtuoso performance

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The Independent Online

Sheffield Wednesday 2 Aston Villa 0

Another goal from Robbie Fowler, another Alan Shearer hat-trick, Teddy Sheringham on target too... another Saturday, in fact, to emphasise the embarrassment of riches from which Terry Venables selects his strikers.

But it would be no exaggeration to suggest that, had fate behaved differently, all these goalscorers might today be looking up to another. David Hirst, capped three times in 1991 and 1992 under Graham Taylor, looked once to have the makings of a fine England centre-forward. Injuries - one after another - ended that possibility. Now, at 28, it is unlikely that his full potential will ever be seen. Except, maybe, in glimpses such as Hillsborough witnessed on Saturday.

Returning, inevitably, from another enforced absence, Hirst scored one goal and made the other. But there was more to a virtuoso performance than just that. Pacy on the ball, quicker still running off it into space, he would invariably be the player posing the greatest threat to Villa's security..

"It just makes me wonder what he could do if he could stay fit," his manager, David Pleat, reflected, "because he won every header, he made clever runs, he kept the ball well and set up a goal. Like most of the players, he had an influence."

The goal Hirst scored himself, his 13th of the season, was almost incidental. By the time he launched his height and strength into heading home Steve Nicol's cross, Villa were already beaten.

"It was a super goal but the first one was crucial," Pleat said, "because the longer it goes on the more the anxiety on the terraces starts to transmit itself to the players. That's the feeling you get when you are fighting for results." Guy Whittingham had been the one to settle the nerves with a cool finish against his former club - but it was another aerial challenge won by Hirst that paved the way.

Fighting for results? After losing six games in the preceding seven, Wednesday undeniably are. But they gained one here, aided by the cleverness of Marc Degryse and Regi Blinker, the dreadlocked Dutch winger making his home debut, with little hint of fear.

Villa have proved in a splendid season that they need fear no one and yet there is anxiety now, it seems, born of weariness. They want to win the Coca-Cola Cup, win the FA Cup and, as insurance, qualify for Europe through their League placing. It is taking its toll in tired bodies.

Goals: Whittingham (58) 1-0; Hirst (87) 2-0.

Sheffield Wednesday (4-4-1-1): Woods; Nicol, Newsome, Walker, Briscoe; Whittingham, Sheridan, Pembridge (Hyde, 76), Blinker; Degryse; Hirst (Stefanovic, 88). Substitute not used: Watts.

Aston Villa (3-4-1-2): Bosnich; Ehiogu, McGrath, Scimeca (Joachim, 67); Charles, Draper, Townsend, Wright; Carr; Yorke, Milosevic. Substitutes not used: Farrelly, Oakes (gk).

Referee: P Jones (Loughborough).

Bookings: Sheffield Wednesday: Sheridan. Aston Villa: Carr, Ehiogu.

Attendance: 22, 964.

Man of the match: Hirst.