What a game. Seriously - What. A. Game!
Rolling up to the Amex to late news that Baldock and Bruno were out was far from the reassurance required, on an already nervy night. What is it with Wednesday that we are seemingly never able to put a full strength side out against them?
After the ridiculously poor luck in the play-off games last season, surely we deserve better this time round? That a squad featuring the likes of Inigo Calderon and Liam Rosenior could end up abandoned by Lady Luck against such a frankly horrible side, surely dispels the concept of Karma. Every squad needs an edge somewhere - an Ashley Barnes or a Dale Stephens. Wednesday seem to value it over all else - with the whiny Ross Wallace and the filthy Sam Hutchinson, now supplemented by the perma-angry Steven Fletcher and newly-arrived scouse head-case Callum McManaman. They seem more set up for a pub fight than a Championship football match. Throw in the snide cheat Forestieri and you've got yourself a hugely unlikeable group of players.
As an opposition though, positively ideal, frankly. Pure pantomime. Imagine being a youngster having to choose your hero from amongst them though? Depressing.
A minute in, we'd established one solid fact - that Daniel Pudil was utterly unable to live with Anthony Knockaert. The little Frenchman led him to the corner, and via a drop of the shoulder and a nutmeg, left him there like the class dunce, before teeing up Glenn Murray. The Albion top scorer's side foot effort calm and controlled, but lacking in power - Westwood diving to make the save. Thereafter Wednesday stationed two men permanently on the Albion's star man. Just conjecture of course, but had Bruno been rampaging on the overlap to add to the threat, Wednesday could have been swept away here. With stand-in right back Connor Goldson looking a fish out of water going forward, Knockaert was left to maraud alone.
The sides probed at each other, traded a couple of long shots - no real drama until 30 minutes in. A minute after the unfortunate Jack Hunt (announced in the line-ups by Richard Reynolds VERY carefully) had been stretchered off, after high, but clearly unintentional contact from Pocognoli, the home side were ahead. The ball won by the sliding Norwood, picked up and carried 50 yards by Tomer Hemed, then slipped into the path of Knockaert, with three in chase. Knockaert rounded Westwood, checked back onto his left, and lifted the ball into the roof of the net, past the three helpless Owls defenders on the line. Genius. Please never take this guy for granted, Albion folk - we are so lucky to be watching him constantly produce wonders.
A preview of this game I came across somewhere, billed it as Knockaert v Fernando Forestieri - and in some respects Forestieri is indeed Wednesday's Knocky. Some respects. Take Knockaert's stature and skills, then remove his work ethic and any concept of playing for the team - add in a big dose of theatrics...
On the cusp of half time, with the Albion controlling things, the recent Wednesday anti-karma struck once more. Norwood stretched to reach the aforementioned Italian's cross, and succeeded in volleying straight at his own goal - Dunk craned his neck to attempt a block, only to divert the ball past the helpless David Stockdale.
So, into the second half and with the sides level, the Albion exerted further pressure - Shane Duffy, absolutely peerless in the air on defensive duties, twice found wanting from set pieces at the other end - beautiful deliveries from Norwood and Knockaert respectively.
And then, with no discernible cause, the game swung. Suddenly all Wednesday. Untold pressure on the Albion box. Corner after corner after corner (10 on the night for the visitors all told / none for the home side). Barry Bannan at the base of the Owl's midfield, now running proceedings - an invisible force field apparently affording him a constant 15 yards of space to spray the ball around. From a position of Albion strength earlier in the game, a Wednesday goal now seemed inevitable. Something had to give - and so it came to pass.
Pinball in the box. A fierce half volley at goal from Loovens, blocked by Glenn Murray with both hands - in front of his face. Referee Mr Atwell in no doubt, in pointing to the spot. Wednesday players - Hutchinson to the fore - in the official's face, demanding further censure. As the Amex held its collective breath, Mr Atwell acceded - disaster for the Seagulls - not only this crucial game surely slipping away, but the top scorer and focal point missing for the next. Sake.
As most of the away end waved cheerio to Murray, a hundred Yorkshiremen readied their camera-phones to record the winner. Forestieri - who else? - stepped up to oblige, but one more Yorkie had other ideas - David Stockdale diving to his right to beat away the ball, then astonishingly, to his left to palm away the Italian's follow up effort. An unbelievable double save. The watching Ben Roberts will have been proud and delighted in equal measure -the keepers work relentlessly at exactly this kind of recovery save. Quite brilliant. A very special moment in a very special season. In the context of this game at least, the very definition of pivotal. As Stockdale regained his feet, he was mobbed by his team-mates - as the Amex screens showed a close up of Glenn Murray celebrating in the mouth of the tunnel. Together.
The Wednesday pressure, with an extra man to boot, continued, but the defending seemed a little less frantic - the Seagulls regaining a little control, and even offering a sporadic threat on the break - the now-isolated Tomer Hemed ploughing a heroic lone furrow. Wednesday coach Carlos Carvahal had the power at this stage to define proceedings. The Albion would have gladly accepted a backs-to-the-wall draw, if Wednesday had settled for such, but understandably Carvahal went for the kill - sending on another winger in McManaman to run at the Albion back line, and crucially, pushing his full-backs right forward, absolved of defensive duties. When the Albion did wrest possession, it was into these voids they aimed - the excellent Pocognoli, surprisingly full of running, on the overlap, and delivering an absolute beauty of a low cross, that evaded Hemed's outstretched foot by a few agonising inches.
Into the last five minutes, the tireless Hemed, outnumbered, chased a long ball, fought off the attentions of two, and laid the ball into the path of late sub Steve Sidwell. As SIdwell took a touch, momentum looked to have stalled, but he rolled it out wide to Pocognoli, who delivered another absolute peach of a cross - teasing Westwood, but beyond his reach. As the ball dropped at the far post Loovens dithered - Knockaert did not - sliding in to meet it, four yards from goal, to send the Amex into disbelieving raptures. As we like to say in these parts - absolute SCENES.
With a few minutes plus injury time remaining, an utterly horrible, gut-wrenching, buttock-clenching finale seemed inevitable. But it never came - Wednesday were shell-shocked. Visibly spent. A collective loss of control was to follow - first Fletcher dismissed for aggressively squaring up to Stephens, then Hutchinson following him down the tunnel after a disgraceful studs-up lunge at Solly March. For a player who'd himself believed his career had been ended by injury at 21, to take such risks with the career of a fellow young pro was hugely disappointing. What an absolute ********. Shame on Mr Atwell, too, for taking the soft option of second yellow rather than a straight red.
March was happily unhurt, and soon celebrating with his team-mates at the final whistle. Bedlam all round. An astonishing win. I still struggle to embrace the ultimate goal as anything more than just a possibility - but this squad just keep finding ways to win football matches, whatever is thrown at them. Heady, heady times.
Hard not to carried away. Just in case you were, however...