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Apr 21, 2011

Ferguson's Black Wednesday

Thursday marks the 20th anniversary of Sheffield Wednesday's 1-0 victory over Manchester United in the Rumbelows Cup final - the last time a team from outside the top flight won a significant piece of silverware in English football. This is the story of Ron Atkinson's Wednesday side, and their unlikely triumph over Sir Alex Ferguson's United.

The story of the last lower-league side to win a major trophy is, in retrospect, fittingly quaint. Not only was the trophy not presented by a dignitary but by Rumbelows' employee of the year, one Tracey Bateman. Great controversy arose, though, when Yorkshire TV chose to cut short their coverage of Wednesday's post-match celebrations in order to broadcast War of the Monster Trucks - an event that spawned a fanzine of the same name.

This was an achievement from a pre-Premier League era: a time before the national game became an exportable commodity and a financial behemoth that isolated an elite and allowed them to monopolise the top competitions - a time when Manchester United, starved of success, had only 12 months previously considered sacking Alex Ferguson. It is 20 full years since a club last defied the league ladder to win a trophy, 20 years since the last success of a genuine underdog.

It was so long ago that Ron Atkinson was a highly respected member of the football fraternity. Because, after the departure of manager Peter Eustace in February 1989, Wednesday had turned to Atkinson, the man who had won two FA Cups with Manchester United and enjoyed a brief spell with Atletico Madrid. Larger than life, Big Ron was yet to become 'Bigot Ron', and upon arriving at Hillsborough he attempted to establish more of a passing game. Although his side suffered relegation in the 1989-90 campaign, they were a renewed force as the new season got underway. Gone was Dalian Atkinson, sold to Real Sociedad for a club record £1.75 million, as his namesake recruited Danny Wilson from Luton and Charlton forward Paul Williams.

With season-ticket sales increasing despite the club's relegation, Wednesday's new attack-minded side had popular backing in Sheffield, especially when they hit top spot in October. By the start of November, Brentford and Swindon Town had also been dispatched in the League Cup, with Wednesday's exuberance evident in the figure of striker David Hirst, a £200,000 signing from Barnsley in 1986. Hirst scored 32 goals in all competitions and finished the season by achieving international recognition under England manager Graham Taylor.

Though Hirst was of course an established member of the side, a summer recruit was also making an impression on Wednesday, and English football. John Harkes, a former ball boy for New York Cosmos, was recruited from the American Soccer League and at first slotted in at right back to replace the injured Roland Nilsson. Though admittedly unfamiliar with his new surroundings - "I thought I knew everything about English football, but I had never heard of a team called Wednesday or a place called Sheffield," he told The Guardian in December. "I had to look them up pretty quickly" - he quickly won over Owls fans.

Perhaps his most vivid contribution came in a League Cup win over Derby County that took Wednesday into the quarter-finals of the competition. Harkes beat none other than the great Peter Shilton from fully 35 yards with a wonderful effort that buried itself in the top corner. Atkinson was suitably impressed. Tongue, as usual, lodged in cheek, he said: "There was no element of luck about it. I always tell my players when they are 40 yards out against one of the world's great goalkeepers that they should try a shot".

Another First Division scalp followed when Coventry were defeated 1-0 in the quarter-finals, with defender Nigel Pearson converting following a pass from Hirst, ensuring Wednesday would meet Chelsea in a two-legged semi-final. The top-flight side were shocked when losing 2-0 at home to goals from Peter Shirtliff and Hirst, who claimed his 24th goal of the season when drilling a shot past Dave Beasant, while Wednesday finished the job at Hillsborough when recording a 3-1 victory. Their triumph prompted a pitch invasion. Wednesday were back at Wembley for the first time since a 3-2 defeat to Everton in the 1966 FA Cup final.

In fact, having won four league titles and three FA Cups by 1935, Wednesday had not won a single trophy since the 4-2 win over West Brom in the final of that year and few expected them to end that run against a Manchester United side that were the holders of the FA Cup having defeated Crystal Palace in the final at Wembley the previous season. It was the trophy that spared Sir Alex Ferguson the sack, ending as it did his trophyless spell following his appointment from Aberdeen in 1986.

United would also win the Cup Winners' Cup in 1991 with a victory over Barcelona, but they were only good enough for a sixth-place finish in the First Division that season. Though in December inspirational captain Bryan Robson had returned from an injury sustained at the World Cup in Italy, evidence of his powers being on the wane came with the news just two days before the League Cup final against Wednesday that Graham Taylor had ended his international career on 89 caps. Ferguson was a model of restraint, responding to the news with a curt: "I have to bite my tongue. Graham Taylor hasn't had an easy job."

Still, though, United were firm favourites, particularly with Wednesday missing the cup-tied former international defender Viv Anderson and the suspended future England midfielder Carlton Palmer. Atkinson, preparing to face the club that had sacked him in 1986 to bring in Ferguson, recognised the task in front of him, though he denied he harboured any desire for revenge. "I should think some of our lads have never even been to Wembley, even as spectators," he said. "Going to Wembley is a regular day out for Manchester United but it is something special for us. It's nonsense to say it is a grudge match for me against the club that sacked me. When we won the semi-final, I couldn't have cared less if it were Hartlepool playing us in the final."

But if the occasion was not particularly special for Atkinson, it certainly was for Wednesday midfielder John Sheridan. A native of Manchester, Sheridan had watched United from the terraces on the Stretford End as a boy, although he made his breakthrough in professional football with Leeds before being signed by Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest. Strangely, Clough never showed any faith in the cultured midfielder and Wednesday pounced in 1989 when signing him for £500,000 and promptly installed him as a key member of their midfield.

Despite his excellence with the ball - Atkinson described him as a "proper footballer" - Sheridan had actually been singled out for criticism by supporters that season after missing a penalty and being guilty of an error in a loss to Oxford as Wednesday struggled to maintain a title challenge. "You can't blame the crowd," Sheridan said. "They pay their money and they are entitled to be upset. But it hurt. I believe in my own ability. I know I will turn them round again." They were prescient words.

Protecting a record of only one defeat in their previous 26 cup ties, and having defeated the previous two winners of the league in Liverpool and Arsenal in previous rounds, United were fully expected to assume control but instead struggled to impose themselves at Wembley. Strike partners Mark Hughes and Brian McClair malfunctioned in attack, with Steve Curry in the Daily Express describing how Wednesday defenders Shirtliff and Pearson handled the pair "like a couple of nightclub bouncers tossing out tiresome troublemakers". Though exciting winger Lee Sharpe started brightly, Wednesday's accomplished Swedish right-back Roland Nilsson soon shackled the teenager.

After 37 minutes, Sharpe was penalised for a handball and when Pearson put Gary Pallister under pressure from a Nigel Worthington free-kick, the United defender headed the ball out to none other than Sheridan. The midfielder produced a brilliant half-volley that flew past Les Sealey and off the inside of the post, making a satisfying 'dink' sound which still resonates today with Owls fans and has become a part of the club's folklore.

Sealey later had his knee sliced open in a challenge and ignored the instructions of physio Jim McGregor to leave the pitch. He played in the Cup Winners' Cup final win over Barcelona in Rotterdam heavily bandaged. Wednesday's own goalkeeper Chris Turner - exiled from United by Ferguson in 1988 - denied McClair with a wonderful save to help orchestrate the downfall of his former side.

Wednesday had won silverware for the first time in 56 years. It was hardly a classic encounter, but that mattered little to the supporters from Yorkshire as their side upset the odds. David Lacey wrote in The Guardian: "Manchester United forgot yesterday that Owls can sleep with one eye open ... Sheffield Wednesday deservedly winning a Rumbelows final at Wembley which struggled to stay awake until John Sheridan scored."

Big Ron later revealed he had livened his players up prior to the match by inviting controversial comic Stan Boardman onto the team coach. Another unlikely detail from a decidedly dated cup triumph.

What happened next? Wednesday secured promotion with a 3-1 victory over Bristol City but Atkinson departed to take over at Aston Villa in contentious circumstances, having just days previously said: "I must be barmy to think of leaving here, I would have been leaving the best job in football". Under his successor, Trevor Francis, Wednesday lost both the League Cup final and the FA Cup final in 1993. Manchester United, meanwhile, went to on win the Cup Winners' Cup in the 1990-91 season, cementing Ferguson's position at Old Trafford once and for all.

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