Date: 24th March 2009 at 9:08am
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Defeating Chelsea in the semi-final, Wednesday were back at Wembley for a cup final for the first time in 25 years, facing the might of Manchester United.

Ticket demand was enormous. The administrative effort was in overdrive but Owls secretary Graham Mackrell managed to find time to take a valuable few hours out in the peace and quiet of the Derbyshire countryside before returning to the fray. The sky was broad and blue, the silence almost overwhelming, and he could relax for a moment or two, remote and alone. No one around as far as the eye could see.

Save for one almost invisible speck in the distance.

Slowly, very slowly, the single speck grew in size. A man approached. Mackrell watched his only companion on the moors that day move towards him. Inexorably, terrifyingly, on he came until they were almost face to face. Mackrell had never seen him before. The man spoke.

‘You haven’t got a spare Cup Final ticket have you, Graham?’

Phil King: ‘We’d played Newcastle midweek and we were crap. Ron threw loads of tea cups around the dressing room afterwards, saying things like ‘You lot were thinking of Wembley. Half of you can think again’.

In London, astonishingly, two days before the game, manager Ron Atkinson let the players loose at a party on the Friday night to celebrate Trevor Francis’ birthday.

Nigel Pearson: ‘It was a good social night. It kept us away from the pressure. For most of us it was our biggest ever game and Ron tried to protect us. There would be plenty of time for nerves’.

Saturday, and time for some scheming from Big Ron at training.. when United were in possession, the Owls were to push them and make them play up the right through Neil Webb, regarded as a weak link. And sit back in midfield.. Hirst and Williams would be left very much on their own up front at Wembley. Roland Nilsson and John Harkes worked on a plan for Lee Sharpe, but Wednesday were sure of stopping the speedy, flashy winger. They were right to be so confident.

Jimmy Greaves (on the day): ‘You’ve got to look at Nilsson and say he’s much more experienced a player than Lee Sharpe. And everyone’s expecting Sharpe to perform miracles and Nilsson’s the man with the bigger pedigree.’

Atkinson trained them hard that day, much harder than usual. It was all part of Big Ron’s plan – train ’em hard, tire ’em out, make ’em sleep, no time for nerves. He had one or two other tricks up his sleeve, including booking a mercurial Scouse funnyman for the coach to Wembley.

Physio Alan Smith: ‘It was a marvellous piece of management to introduce Stan Boardman at the time he did. The players were having their meal, the enormity of the occasion was beginning to hit home, but Stan just relaxed everyone.’

As the coach passed down Wembley Way that Sunday, Boardman inadvertantly gave Big Ron’s team talk for him:

‘This is it, lads. This is it. It doesn’t get any better than this. Look at this, f***ing brilliant. you’re not gonna let them down today, you can’t let this lot down. They want to see you with the Cup’.

The match kicked off: for half an hour, not exactly classic football. But the Wednesday boys felt at home.

John Sheridan: ‘We played very well for the first ten minutes and that settled us down. I thought we worked hard for each other. We really had to do that. Just our passing wasn’t going to win it for us’.

On 37 minutes, the breakthrough. A free kick to the Owls on the right, Lee Sharpe handling. Played in long by Worthington, the ball is cleared by Pallister but falls straight to Sheridan.

Nigel Worthington: ‘We’d worked the free kick on Saturday. We thought that if United had done their homework they’d would cover Harkes (on the wing). It was supposed to fool them so they wouldn’t mark properly in the box.. but Shez got it in off the post and then he was a haze running from the edge of the area to the touchline. It was a great sight to see the fans celebrating’.

Nigel Pearson (and indeed everyone who saw the match that day): ‘I will never forget the sound of the ball hitting the post’.

The second half saw better football and chances for Worthington, Mark Hughes (fouling Turner, goal disallowed) and Brian McClair (a wonder save from Turner) but Wednesday were not to be denied. A towering defensive effort snuffed out the United strike threat.

Chris Turner: ‘The two centre backs were superb, we had the pace of Hirst, the work rate of Williams, Wilson and Harkes and the passing of Sheridan. For my save, I remember the ball going from left to right.. McClair met it full on with his head.. I flung myself and tipped it over’.

Owls stalwart Lawrie Madden replaces Harkes with four minutes to go as Wednesday try to hang on.

Brian Moore’s commentary: ‘And Madden just brings it away. .the wily old professional keeps it in play.. he’s not gonna waste this ball.. finds Hirst with it.. Williams just ahead of him.. United really stretched as Williams goes into overdrive – but Sealey’s there. Four minutes of time added on..’

And the game ends.

Man of the match Nigel Pearson: ‘When the whistle went, the emotion took over. It was only then I realised how tired I was..’

Alan Smith: ‘There was sheer delight at that moment. We had won a major trophy, against all the odds, against Manchester United, and at Wembley. It was schoolboy stuff.’

David Meek (Manchester Evening News): ‘..the usally boisterous travelling army from Old Trafford were strangely muted and apprehensive. Even their half-hearted rallying cry of ‘Hughesie, Hughesie’ was drowned out by the deafening Owls response of ‘Who’s ee? Who’s ee?”

Roland Nilsson: ‘This was better than winning the UEFA Cup with Gothenburg, with the atmosphere and the crowd. They were incredible. I’m walking on air, it’s just fantastic.’

Manchester United: Sealey, Irwin, Bruce, Pallister, Blackmore, Webb (Phelan 56), Robson, Ince, Sharpe, McClair, Hughes. Sub not used: Donaghy

Sheffield Wednesday: Turner, Nilsson, Shirtliff, Pearson, King, Harkes (Madden 87), Wilson, Sheridan, Worthington, Hirst, Williams. Sub not used: Francis

Attendance: 77612

Thanks to ‘A Quarter Of Wednesday’ for the aide memoire.

Read more about classic Wednesday matches and memories in our Archive here.