The sights and sounds of a ritual paused for 513 days unfurled as, at last, a crowd descended on Hillsborough for a Yorkshire derby in a cup disrespected and abused for so long by the visitors. Not today.
Cars seeking out parking spaces around the venerable, yet haunted, South Yorkshire stadium, a waft of fried onions from a van from the outer edges of the street food fad, the anticipation on faces young and old with the latter wearied by experience but still clinging to hope, programme sellers doing brisk trade, lines clutching tickets for a game which would normally just attract the obsessed. Even concourse culture seemed acceptable (for now).
The welcome, if endlessly frustrating, distraction provided by iFollow through the long months of crisis was replaced by the real thing.
Around 2,000 Town fans packed the upper tier of the Leppings Lane end and proceeded to be as loud, crude and (occasionally) funny as ever.
It wasn’t difficult for either set of fans to single out a villain, with Jack Hunt’s parentage regularly questioned by the visiting support (much to the amusement of his former team mate, Ward, at one point), while Rhodes taking the first penalty of the shoot out which decided the affair rightly infuriated Owls’ fans who remember him conspicuously ducking out of the rather more important one in 2017.
The individual targeting Barry Bannan, for reasons known only to himself, provided more idiosyncratic amusement.
Who knows what disruptions lay ahead but, for now, let’s rejoice that, however disconcerting the return to old norms was for some, perhaps many, the long awaited event actually took place. Town reached the 2nd round of the League Cup.
Despite their travails, Wednesday provided tough opposition, literally and figuratively, though their threat was largely absent as Town controlled and dominated an entertaining first half long on the visitors’ possession but rather short on end product.
Scott High, who impressed again, forced a decent save from Bailey-Peacock and two other chances were created by effective pressing to force less demanding stops.
Defensively, Town coped comfortably with Wednesday.
Colwill’s clash with Paterson was excellent experience for a young player with undoubted class in possession but still developing to meet the demands of facing aggressive centre forwards. Alongside him, and one unpunished error aside, Pearson provided strength and know how.
A better team than Wednesday would have exploited Toffolo’s high position far more effectively as Town left too much space behind him at times, though Turton concentrated more on defence on the other side, providing a third central defensive presence when Toffolo was bypassed.
O’Brien, watched by Bielsa’s from the stands, was outstanding throughout. Last season’s poor preparation through injury and enforced positional changes diminished his obvious ability but, sadly, it looks likely that Leeds will benefit from the stable pre season he has enjoyed, if they are prepared to meet Town’s high price.
Up front, Ward looked sharper and fitter than at any time during his return and had some lovely touches but only one half chance late on when a shot on the turn was never going to bypass the number of bodies between him and goal. Encouraging though.
In contrast, Koroma was a little flat and not quite up to speed and his replacement, Thomas, continued his good form in pre-season with an eye catching cameo only slightly tainted by missing a good opportunity when put clear by High, though Bannon’s recovery and tackle was excellent.
Holmes provided some good balls through to front positions though carelessness in passing at times could’ve been costly.
Other than a ten minute spell in the second half, which brought one decent save from Nicholls, Town were largely on the front foot and regularly tested the Owls’ resilience. It will have encouraged Moore to see his side stand up to the pressure, though Rhodes, on as a substitute in place of Ward, found space in the area twice and should have won the tie for the Terriers.
His first header would have been routinely saved, but Hutchinson intervened unnecessarily and was relieved to see his sliced clearance loop over the bar. The second, however, was a golden opportunity provided by Thomas with an excellent cross. Rhodes’ disappointment was clearly evident, though this didn’t affect his composure in the shoot out.
It barely needs stating that Town won the penalty competition; the success over the years is nothing short of remarkable and this one was achieved with no German influence (unless Hefele’s presence inspired).
Every penalty was a good one with Wednesday’s keeper standing no chance with any of them. In contrast, Nicholls saved two meaning that the full complement of spot kicks were unnecessary. The chanting of a certain Argentinian’s name, which will surely accompany every Owls/Terriers clash down the decades, twisted the knife.
Despite failing to score, rather emphasising the fear that the defensive strengthening may be undermined by the lack of goals in the squad, the performance provided some hope for the season ahead and bringing the tie forward a very useful innovation for both clubs.
For the many who have waited so long to witness professional football in a stadium again, the event was always going to be bigger than the result. Let’s hope the recovery doesn’t stall; the near normalcy was hugely welcome and refreshing.
Now on to the season proper….