Date:Wednesday August 16 2006
From museums to cheerleaders, the sublime to the ridiculous: a day out in Preston with Wednesday...by Jeff Gold
Pele controlled the ball instantly, stood for what seemed like an age, then invited Carlos Alberto to slam the ball into the far corner.
"We`ll see plenty more of that this afternoon" said the lady next to me. She was joking, of course.
I was at the National Football Museum in Preston, enjoying some glorious moments from football`s past. In a matter of minutes I would be just next door, enduring moments from its present: Sheffield Wednesday`s season-opener with Preston North End. This wouldn`t be just like watching Brazil, not even the clueless collection of corpulent clowns that sullied this summer`s World Cup in Germany. My expectations suitably managed, I made my way to the turnstiles.
The fans in the away end were inexplicably buoyant. Pre-season, Wednesday had been battered 4-0 by Mansfield and had turned injury into something of an art form. This was their first competitive fixture for three months, yet seven players were unavailable. It was quite some achievement and, in honour of England`s World Cup campaign, they arrived at Deepdale with just one fit, adult striker. Still, at least it wasn`t Peter Crouch.
The home crowd was a little more subdued. Preston`s successive play-off appearances had largely been thanks to its rock-solid defenders but, now, three of them were lost: two to the Premiership, the other to long-term injury. The manager had also gone, acrimoniously to Derby, while David Nugent, a talented striker, remains the subject of Premiership interest and may not see out the month. New manager, Paul Simpson, promised a more attacking approach. However, the fans remained sceptical. The atmosphere was a mixture of pessimism and apathy. "Go on then, bloody well entertain us" seemed to be the unspoken message.
The club rewarded them with cheerleaders. Not in any apologetic way but as though it was the newest and freshest thing imaginable, that the very idea had just been conceived, that day, by them. It was a crime compounded by the choice of accompanying music, Eye of the Tiger, which was pumped through at a volume sufficient to grind the speakers to dust. In terms of pre-match entertainment, the contrast with the museum could not have been more stark.
Fortunately, even before the girls managed to arrange themselves into some kind of bizarre pyramid, let alone form a desperately sad guard-of-honour at the tunnel, the players took matters into their own hands by interrupting the performance and insisting on some football. Wednesday started brightly. As the away side, their enforced 4-4-1-1 formation suited them. On a couple of occasions it looked as though keeper, Brad Jones, had been introduced to his defenders just the day before but, seeing as he had, that was probably fair enough. Otherwise they looked solid.
In midfield, Folly was outstanding, repeatedly nicking possession to supply the unlikely, lightweight forward partnership of MacLean and Brunt: one resembling a fey Scottish artist, a member of Travis perhaps, the other a truculent teenager, all head-down and uncommunicative. They combined well but didn`t get much support, Wednesday`s wide men having been selected partly for their ability to walk without the aid of crutches, but mainly for their defensive capabilities. As for the full-backs, well, in the whole history of the world, perhaps only Denis Thatcher can have had less enthusiasm for entering the other half.
All of which meant that Wednesday were restricted to half-chances, none of which went close. The exception came on the stroke of half-time when Brunt`s exquisite lob nestled in the corner of the net. Sensing the opportunity for a therapeutic release of adolescent angst, the referee disallowed it, citing the use of Brunt`s hands, an unlikely offence for someone who spent most of the game with them rammed in his pockets.
Preston were neat and tidy but appeared to lack conviction. Although he put this down to them being "a little bit nervy and rusty", it looked as if they didn`t quite yet believe in new manager`s system. Nevertheless, they created all the clear openings - one in the first-half and three in the second - and had a goal of their own disallowed. McKenna was their key man: a bustler and scurrier, he kept them ticking over and was always involved. Whaley and Nugent provided the threat but Dichio was disappointing, a human pinball machine, the ball bouncing off him at improbable speeds and angles.
All in all, it was a thoughtful, cagey affair. Players rarely resorted to the aimless hoof, there was very little crash or bang, and the only wallop came from Lee Bullen`s studs-up challenge as Wednesday continued their tribute to the national team by having a man sent off early in the second half and setting their sights on a 0-0 draw. To achieve it, they retreated still further. Brunt withdrew, both positionally and mentally, and looked ever more sullen as the game progressed. His stoop became a slouch and his feet began to drag. Eventually he was substituted, if only to prevent him slumping against the corner flag, pulling out his Gameboy and grunting a bit.
Despite a few scares, Wednesday held on. It wasn`t so much a festival of football as a carnival of competence, a Mardi Gras of the mundane, but as they filed away into the late-afternoon sunshine, both sets of supporters could hold on to their dreams of glory, their hopes of an unbeaten season. For a few days at least...
Date:Wednesday August 16 2006
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