It’s Sunday morning, and some of those that have travelled from South Yorkshire to the Lancashire coast could be forgiven for nursing sore heads. In Sheffield Wednesday’s recent history there hasn’t been a great deal to smile about, and things may yet get more difficult for the club before they get any easier. They could well be in administration in the next ten days or so and, set against such problems, a trip to Southport to play the Blue Square Premier side in the First Round of the FA Cup surely falls into the category of being just about the last that the club needs at the moment. Wednesday have failed to win their last three league matches and, with League One being such a tight division this season, this has meant a drop to tenth place in the table. The niggling suspicion, however, is that they will have bigger fish to fry than this match over the next couple of weeks.
Southport FC have a story of their own to tell, of course. They were the last club to be voted out of the Football League, replaced by Wigan Athletic in 1978, and a year later missed out on a place in the newly-formed Alliance Premier League. They finally made it into non-league football’s top division (which, by this time, had been rebranded as the Football Conference) in 1993 and have had a couple of relegations and promotions since then, culminating in winning the Blue Square North. Their ground, Haig Avenue, is one of the best non-league venues in the north-west. Although improved in recent years into a well-equipped non-league venue, it retains a sense of its scale as a former Football League venue from the main stand that sits on one side of the pitch.
It’s a crisp, dry, sunny autumn morning on the coast and the teams, rather wonderfully, take to the pitch to Southport’s club song, The Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron”. Any hopes that the home side may have of creating a wall of sound (we’re here all week, try the fish, etc), however, are diminished with an early goal. It’s scrappy, a set piece which is turned across the face of goal by Clinton Morrison and bundled in at the far post by Gary Teale, but it will settle Wednesday nerves and, when you’re a little down on your luck, aesthetic concerns have to, by necessity, take second place to the cold black and white of getting a score on the proverbial doors. Southport initially respond positively to the goal, pushing deep into the Wednesday half, but they look somewhat blunt in attack and Wednesday have the clearer of the few opportunities that do present themselves. A well worked free kick leads to Giles Coke rattling the Southport crossbar from twenty yards out. Wednesday look comfortable, but will not truly reach anything approaching the comfort zone without a second goal. As the half wears on, though, they start to look more and more confident. Half-time comes just in time for Southport.
Southport start the second half with a little more urgency than they finished the first, and it only takes six minutes for them to find a way through the Wednesday defence. Liam Blakeman flicks the ball through to Paul Barratt, and Barratt lifts the ball over the Wednesday goalkeeper Nicky Weaver to bring them level. Suddenly, the game springs to life, and within two minutes Wednesday are back in front when Southport fail to deal with another ball into the penalty area. Clinton Morrison hits the base of the post from six yards out but the ball falls fortuitously for Neil Mellor who drives the ball in from close range. The drama continues when, within four minutes, Matthew McGinn takes the field as a substitute, runs straight into the Sheffield Wednesday penalty area and drives the ball into the bottom corner of the net to bring them level again.
Again, however, Southport’s concentration lets them down and this time it proves calamitous. Clinton Morrison scores twice in quick succession, and then Tommy Spurr drives the ball in from four yards out to make it five. We’ve had six goals in twelve minutes, but the match is all but over as a contest with more than twenty-five minutes left to play. Haig Avenue feels like a deflated balloon, and the Southport defence really only has itself to blame. With their second equaliser, they completely lost their discipline and, to put it bluntly, they have made things easy for the visitors. Equalisers are something akin to the football equivalent of a Get Out Of Jail Free Card. They allow a team that has been chasing a game a route back in and they change the psychological shape of the game. Southport had two of them, and they let the match slither away from on both occasions.
Perhaps the kick-off time was too early for Southport. The gap in standards between players and clubs isn’t necessarily as great as we might sometimes be led to believe, and small differences can make considerable differences on the pitch. All human bodies require a period of time to come around in the morning. Is it stretching the bounds of credibilty to put forward the possibility that the full-time, professional player may be advantaged by an earlier kick-off time? Southport, even though they scored twice, during that period, will rue that twelve minutes of craziness at the start of the second half. Sheffield Wednesday, for whom this is a first win in the FA Cup in seven years (a statistic which in itself says a lot about the last seven years of the history of the club), have greater issues that they need to deal with than winning this particular match, but this lunchtime day out at the seaside was a banana skin that has been successfully negotiated and the revenue generated by their continued involvement in the competition will bring in money at a time when they need it more than most. In a season of gloom, today has been a good day for Sheffield Wednesday.
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