Saturday sees one of the most crowded football programmes bar the festive period. We travel to Sheffield Wednesday for our FA Cup third round looking to afford what looks like a bit of a banana skin and record our first away win of the season in our first match of the new calendar year.
You might not know it from their rather modest position in the Championship, but Wednesday are a big club with an illustrious history. They are one of the world’s oldest football clubs, having been founded in 1867 (the name comes from the day their games were played), but all of their four league titles and three FA Cup wins were before the Second World War. Their League Cup triumph in 1991 was the Owls’ first trophy since 1935, though they reached before domestic Cup finals in 1993 only to lose each final to Arsenal.
Their descent down the Football League began as we were almost on the cusp of a return to the top flight. They were relegated from the Premiership after Danny Wilson, who had previously performed miracles to keep Barnsley in the top flight, was sacked in 2000 and caretaker Peter Shreeves couldn’t keep them up. They struggled to find a long-term successor to Wilson and were relegated from the First Division after failing to beat Brighton on the final day of the 2002-03 season. Paul Sturrock masterminded their return to the second tier of English football, guiding the Owls to play-offs, where they recorded a thrilling 4-2 extra-time victory over Hartlepool.
Wednesday almost immediately found themselves at the wrong end of the Championship table and it took another new manager to reverse their fortunes. Laws steadied the ship but had to endure a torrid start to last year, their six-game losing streak from August, was the club’s worst start to a league campaign in their history. They eventually saved themselves from relegation with a thumping home win against Norwich City on the final day of the season. Board room turmoil has left the club without a chairman since Dave Allen resigned in November 2007 and a proposed takeover of the club has been put on hold.
Despite all that, Wednesday will still be a formidable obstacle to our progression come Saturday afternoon. Goalkeeper Lee Grant used to be a regular in the England Under-21 side and has established himself as a top class performance at Hillsborough, with Wednesday fans particularly grateful for a fine save on that nervy final day of last season. Last year, Laws described him as ‘probably the best goalkeeper in the league on current form’.
The Owls are struggling with an injury crisis and might be dependent on parent clubs generously offering to allow their loaned players to appear in the Cup games so suggesting who will line-up for them is quite difficult, although I’m going to try and take an educated guess. Grant is pretty much a nailed on certainty in goal and I’m going to go with a back four of Lewis Buxton, a right-back currently on loan from Stoke City, Tommy Spurr, captain Richard Wood and Mark Beevers. In midfield, lively winger Jermaine Johnson might return from injury, alongside Irish midfielder James O’Connor, former Everton man Steve Watson – who could be rested for the league campaign though – and Wade Small. Up front, watch out for Bartosz Slusarki, a Polish on loan from West Brom, and Marcus Tudgay, although Francis Jeffers (remember him?) could make an appearance.
Wednesday are currently on a poor run of four games without a win, their narrow victory over QPR was their only success in their last six matches. They have failed to score in their three of their last four games, although I’m sure we’ll be charitable enough to boost that proud record. They haven’t won an FA Cup tie in five years, since beating non-league Salisbury in round one back in 2003-04.
Our own Cup record isn’t too clever and defeat against the Owls would be the third time in four years we have bowed out at the third round stage to lower-league opponents. That’s why it is encouraging to see Hodgson and his coaching staff saying that they will take the competition seriously. Another solid away performance would help and goals for the luckless Bobby Zamora, who has been rather anonymous on his travels so far for the Whites, would come in handy. It would be nice to field a full strength side and try and score some goals away from the Cottage for a change. Now would be a good time to break our 35-year losing streak at Hillsborough, indeed you have to go back to November 1982 for our last win against the Owls. Plenty of old faces seem to be making the journey up to Sheffield tomorrow and Jack will be there to give you an eye-witness report, although sadly I can’t make it.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hangeland, Hughes; Bullard, Murphy, Dempsey, Gray; A. Johnson, Zamora. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Stoor, Baird, Andreasen, Etuhu, Davies, Nevland.