Sunday, December 27, 2009

Yorkshire puddings

Sheffield Wednesday 2 - 2 Newcastle Utd

No manager. In the bottom three. No win in ten. Five straight defeats home and away. Five straight defeats at home. Six games without a goal. A good time to be playing Sheffield Wednesday? So it seemed.

Of course, what we'd neglected to remember was the date of the fixture, 26th December. Yesterday's 2-2 draw extended our winless streak on the road on Boxing Day to 21 years - the last time we picked up maximum points on our post-Christmas travels was coincidentally at Hillsborough in 1988.

It can't have been long after kick-off that Chris Hughton - whose only change from the starting XI that lined up against the Smogs was enforced, Nicky Butt coming in to replace Alan Smith - was rueing both the decision to give the squad Christmas Day off and his pre-match comments about the solidity of the defence. Wednesday set about us much as Barnsley did on our last trip to south Yorkshire - "spirited" was Hughton's description of the Owls' performance, not an adjective you could apply to ours - and when the opening goal arrived thanks to lax closing-down and marking it was no surprise. A half-cleared corner was played to James O'Connor who, allowed time and space in the area to pick out a cross, found Luke Varney who headed home unchallenged.

The home side's joy at finding the back of the net for the first time for 631 minutes was short-lived, though, as we equalised soon afterwards with a very similar goal. This time it was Danny Guthrie who had the freedom of the right side of the penalty area, and he reprised his delivery man role to perfection, picking out the unmarked Kevin Nolan who guided a beautiful header into the top corner.

While 'keeper Lee Grant had no chance with that goal, he and his defenders were right to feel aggrieved when we took the lead three minutes later. Retreating from a clearly offside position, Big Lad collected Spiderman's pass, touched the ball clear of a challenge and fired home with Grant unsighted. Much to our delight, the linesman's flag wasn't forthcoming, leading me to declare grinningly - and stupidly, with hindsight - that we're benefitting from the poorer standard of officiating as well as of finishing and defending in the Championship.

Having gone in front without much effort, we elected to keep it that way and, despite controlling the game, never appeared unduly concerned to extend the lead. Big Lad claimed in the wake of the Smog victory that our biggest enemy is complacency - and so it proved.

The Owls, roused by caretaker manager Sean McAuley's half-time team-talk, began the second period much as they'd begun the first, on the front foot. It didn't help, of course, that we gave them encouragement. Butt's grip on the midfield started to slip; Big Lad and Homer - a boisterous, bullying force in the first half - were muzzled; and Jose Enrique and Fabricio Coloccini refused to do the simple things, instead insisting on fannying about fancily in dangerous areas and conceding unnecessary corners.

Even then, though, Wednesday couldn't score without assistance - Mark Beevers heading wide and Jermaine Johnson making a hash of another decent opportunity - and needed a helping hand from the officials to draw level. Varney clearly impeded Steve Harper in heading a cross onto the bar, the increasingly influential O'Connor slamming home the rebound. "It was most definitely a foul", said Hughton afterwards - but, having profited from the linesman's myopia for our second, we were hardly in a position to complain.

It could have been worse had Steve Harper not pulled off a remarkable point-blank stop with his shoulder to deflect Marcus Tudgay's header behind for a corner - as at nearby Bramall Lane, his heroics were crucial. Homer's afternoon - his last appearance before the expiry of his loan - ended prematurely, his replacement Bigger Lad almost making an immediate impact only to find Grant equal to his firmly struck right-foot shot. Fellow substitute Fabrice Pancrate, meanwhile, seemed to be in a generous mood - repeatedly blazing high and wide, he was apparently intent on giving each and every fan in the away end a football for Christmas...

A point it was, then, so the title of this post is perhaps a little harsh. But it was a game we fully expected to win and for the second time in two away games our defence was unsettled with worrying ease by a simple but effective aerial assault. Forest couldn't take advantage, scraping a point at Watford, but West Brom cruised to a predictable win over Peterborough to close the gap to eight points.

At least we've got an immediate opportunity to make amends with tomorrow's home game against Derby. The Rams are in poor shape and slumped to a 2-0 home defeat to Blackpool yesterday - but, as the trip to Hillsborough proved, complacency can be costly.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian


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