For my last Capital One Cup game at Fulham talk was of how it felt unlike a match-day with a trek across London during rush-hour to witness a game in a ground less than half full.
This certainly couldn’t be levelled at the fixture I attended tonight as I took my place amongst a full to bursting Hillsborough for Sheffield Wednesday against Arsenal.
The Owls had reached this stage after a First Round 4-1 win over Mansfield Town, a Second Round 1-0 victory Oxford United and a giant-killing 2-1 win away at Newcastle United. Given their European commitments Arsenal only entered the competition in the Third Round and had beaten North London rivals Tottenham 2-1 at White Hart Lane.
Sheffield station was buzzing, with fans arriving from London mingling with the Wednesday faithful into the damp South Yorkshire night and as a result the trams making the short journey out to the ground were packed.
Wednesday fans were in a confident mood as their team had made a good start to their Championship campaign and “Hi Ho Sheffield Wednesday” rang out loudly as the trams rattled their way to the Leppings Lane stop.
There was a hint of fog in the night sky which swirled in the Hillsborough floodlights and added to the feeling that it might be a night to remember. A quick beer was had and then it was into the Kop, with the crowd, noise and anticipation levels building nicely.
The Owls made just two changes from their last outing at Rotherham, with goalkeeper Joe Wildsmith replacing Keiren Westwood and winger Jeremy Helan coming in for the ineligible Fernando Forestieri. Arsenal had some familiar names in their 18 man squad for the evening, but had six players who didn’t appear in the programme team listings – Glen Kamara, Alex Iwobi, Ismael Bennacer, Krystian Bielik, Matt Macey and Ben Sheaf.
By kick-off the crowd was pumped and ready to give the Londoners a loud and intimidating South Yorkshire welcome.
Arsenal had plenty of possession from the off but were forced into a change after five minutes when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was substituted for Theo Walcott. The Gunners were then hit with another injury blow on nineteen minutes when Walcott had to depart, to be replaced by 17 year old Ismael Bennacer.
Despite seeing plenty of the ball, Olivier Giroud was not troubling the Wednesday defence and the home side took heart from this.
Then on twenty seven minutes the ground erupted as The Owls went ahead. Barry Bannan played the ball to Daniel Pudil on the left and the Czech full back squared the ball to Ross Wallace. The Scot running onto the cross struck his shot into the bottom corner with Petr Cech rooted to the spot.
With the crowd behind them Wednesday started to rampage forward and were unlucky not double their advantage when Wallace curled a free-kick just over. However, the home team weren’t to be denied long and five minutes before the break had a second goal.
Lucas Joao ran at the Arsenal left flank before cutting in and forcing a save from Cech. From the resulting corner an unmarked Joao cleanly headed in with Cech once again flat-footed.
Hillsborough was delirious at the half-time whistle with discussions at the break centring on the fact that surely this was a lead that Wednesday couldn’t throw away.
They needn’t have worried as with six minutes of the restart Wednesday had a third goal. From a free-kick, Bannan fired it to the right where Tom Lees volleyed in a centre which Sam Hutchinson bundled over the line from close range.
The game was up for the Gunners and they should have been 4-0 down when an unmarked Joao headed wide from just eight yards out. As Wednesday eased off, Arsenal for the first time in the evening created a couple of chances. First Per Mertesacker headed against the bar from inside the six yard box and then Joel Campbell volleyed just wide from the right, but it was not to be for the Gunners.
It had indeed been a night to remember for the Wednesday faithful and it was a noisy journey back into the city centre with the jubilant Owl hordes. This had been an evening of atmosphere and passion and even the defeated Arsenal fans must have felt they had been part of something special.
Postscript: It was only after reflecting on the games that I’ve attended so far that a strange link became apparent. The four games so far all have a link to Fulham’s journey to the 1974/75 FA Cup Final.
First Round: Carlisle United v Chesterfield. Carlisle were beaten 1-0 by Fulham in the FA Cup Sixth Round at Brunton Park.
Second Round: Hull City v Rochdale. Fulham played Hull in the Third Round and went through 1-0 in the 2nd Replay at Filbert Street.
Third Round: Fulham v Stoke City. The link is about Fulham and the Cup run.
Fourth Round: Sheffield Wednesday v Arsenal. Wednesday’s ground, Hillsborough, was the venue for the Semi-Final game between Fulham and Birmingham City.