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Watford v Sheffield Wednesday, 3/1/98
Shut it, Lineker
By Matt Rowson

There's a massive gap between the Premiership and even Division 1 these days. Everybody says so. Wednesday belong to a world of shiny stadia, Sky TV and big-money sponsorship. The world that the national media are interested in. The Holy Grail that we are all supposed to aspire to.

There's no denying that the gulf between the Premiership and Division 2 (or even Division 1, where we hope to be next season) is huge. With increased financial clout, not to mention the offer of playing at the top level, comes the ability to attract and build a squad on a completely different planet. Wednesday, for example, have a French international (Patrick Blondeau) and a one-time Northern Ireland captain (Jim Magilton) killing time in their reserves.

The media's view of football in this country is, nonetheless, more polarised still. Evidence of this is provided by the attention stubbornly afforded to Kev and Ray's travelling circus in the face of tedious football, disappointing results, and rumbles of discontent amongst the Craven Cottage faithful. Kev and Ray have blundered in, swept the largely home-grown promotion side under the carpet and bought a cartload of players who, even if they are largely Premiership rejects, are obviously of a far higher calibre than the riffraff of the Nationwide League. Kev and Ray, of course, like Chris Waddle, and Bryan Robson, "belong" to the Premiership. Hmmmm.

Despite the indisputable supremacy of all things Premiership, you can bet your life that this one wouldn't have been top of Big Ron's third-round wish list. Even Manchester United away could hardly have yielded an outcome as humiliating as defeat to a lower Division side, and I don't need to tell anyone reading this how imposing our record is this season... if any lower Division side is a potential banana skin, it's us.

The first battle to be won, however, will be a vocal one against the travelling Yorkshire hordes, who not without justification are claimed to be the most vociferous away support in the country on owlsNET ( The cartoon character that "Tango Man" has become is a figurehead for a very, very noisy bunch and every decibel will need to be drawn upon in the build-up to kick-off. An interesting sub-plot will be the employment or otherwise of the "Derdly-der" song, first employed in this country by Sheffield Wednesday to great effect... Watford, as others, have adopted this since, but it's surely the Owls' anthem, should this one be shelved for one game only ?

Opinion seems to differ on the strength or otherwise of the Wednesday side at the moment. A caller to 606 on Saturday suggested that the Owls were roughly "eleven players short of a team", despite (or because of) the recent and overdue disposal of the services of David Pleat. Big Ron has been seeking to address this problem with the signing of midfielder Niclas Alexandersson, as well as being linked with Carlton Palmer, Andy Hinchcliffe, David Burrows, and Rapid Vienna's mercurial striker Sammy Ipoua, amongst others. Interestingly, the number of more "experienced" players in this list suggests that Ron may be seeking to repeat his Villa Park trick of putting together a side with an average age that matches his own.

Certainly, Wednesday's current weaknesses are at the back... Saturday's shambles at Chelsea led to much frowning and shaking of head from Alan Hansen on MOTD. Des Walker (remember him ?) has been extremely successful and popular at Hillsborough, but contract wrangles over the summer may have contributed to a below-par first half of this season. Peter Atherton is a very strong marker, Jon Newsome, when fit, is an excellent central defender, but the Owls have real problems at full-back. Ian Nolan is an international, but acknowledged by OwlsNET as the least defensively-minded defender ever, and Wednesday have long had a real weakness at left-back, the stroppiness of the aforementioned Blondeau contributing in no small part.

In midfield, the ever popular "Ginger Ninja" (oh please) Mark Pembridge will stand out, but possibly the biggest threat is provided by the Norwegian Petr Rudi, hailed as the new Chris Waddle. One assumes that this is a reflection on playing style, rather than a talent for steering a side geared for promotion to the nether-regions of the division.

Highest profile amongst Wednesday's foreign stars are the Italians Benito Carbone and Paolo Di Canio, both immensely talented and popular amongst Wednesday followers. Carbone, however, has been repeatedly linked with a move back to Italy with Atalanta. Di Canio, who owes his incredible poise to the balancing effect of his massive sideburns, was a huge success at Celtic before getting all Mediterranean and walking out... one wonders if, even after time in Scotland, he's ever been confronted by anything quite as scary as Paul Robinson.

The historical odds, admittedly are slightly against Watford... it's 9 years since Neil Redfearn's Shilton-defying banana shot saw us dispose of a top-flight side in the F.A.Cup. Still, we've upset longer-running jinxes than that this season. And if any other incentive were needed, a win for the Golden Boys in our first game of 1998 might force Lineker to swallow his inane grin and his Mickey Quinn-sized ego and say something nice about Graham Taylor on MOTD.

I hope he's cringing already.