O'Donnell throws the game away

IN THE build up to Super Bowl XXX it was suggested to Neil O'Donnell, who looks like the bassist in a country and western group…

IN THE build up to Super Bowl XXX it was suggested to Neil O'Donnell, who looks like the bassist in a country and western group, that if he shaved off his beard it might improve his marketability. He declined the offer, and perhaps it was just as well. As the game showed, it would need more than a trip to the barbers to turn the Pittsburgh Steelers' quarterback into a superstar.

O'Donnell has endured more than his fair share of critics in six with the Steelers, but as a key are in their route to this years his supporters argued, he had now done enough to be regarded the sport's elite. His performance in Sunday night's showpiece made the suggestion seem ridiculous.

O'Donnell crowned a spy unconvincing display with the two interceptions that settled a compelling if somewhat unsatisfying, Bowl. As a result, the Dallas Cowboys won 27-17 to claim a third title in the last four years, but this was the least impressive of their recent triumphs and can only complicate, rather than settle, the debate surrounding the gifts (or lack of them) of their head coach Barry Switzer.

Twice in the second half the Steelers fought their way back into a game that should have been beyond them, and twice O'Donnell hijacked their hopes. There are occasions when quarterbacks are unfairly blamed for ceding possession but there can be no O'Donnell's culpability.

In the third quarter, just as their appeared to have seized the initiative and the Steeler attack was threatening an equalising score, the Steeler director threw a bewildering pass straight into the hands of the Cowboys' Larry Brown. There wasn't a Steeler within 10 yards of him.

Brown returned the ball to the Dallas 18 yard line, and a couple of plays later Emmitt Smith plunged over to give the Cowboys an apparently commanding 20-7 lead.

Still the underdogs were not done, and with four and a half minutes remaining they took possession on their 33 having cut the lead to 20-17. One of the great Super Bowl finishes seemed a possibility until O'Donnell, again intimidated by a posse of blitzing Cowboys, threw wildly to his right and once more found Brown. This time the Dallas cornerback made it to the seven, and Smith's second short range TD ended the contest.

O'Donnell's performance may prove expensive. His contract expires next month, and with an annual income of $2.8 million 5 one of the less well rewarded of a lucrative calling. An Impressive year suggested it was time for him to join the 4 million club, but his unhappy Sunday may change all that. It may even persuade the Steelers to allow him to move else where.

The Cowboys so utterly dominated the early stages that for a while it was difficult to see the game staying competitive until half time let alone the finish.

On his first carry, Smith, freed by a block by Larry Allen on Greg Lloyd that should have carried its own assault charge, dashed for 23 yards. The Cowboys were no less successful through the air, with Aikman happy to find the underneath receiver when the Steelers shut down the deep options. By the end of the first quarter the Cowboys, clearly at home in Arizona, were 10-0 ahead and poised fur another rout.

That the Steelers were able to mount a response speaks much for their heart, and also some shrewd coaching adjustments. Projected as the Cowboys' inferiors in just about every regard, they began to thwart Smith, largely thanks to the efforts of linebacker Levon Kirkland. A scoring drive was limited to a field goal, and the next one, for the first time, produced a punt.

Then, as the half came to a close, the Steeler offence belatedly generated some momentum, culminating in a scoring reception from Yancey, Thigpen with 17 seconds left that combined two unlikely scenarios a perfectly thrown ball from O'Donnell and Deion Sanders being beaten for a touchdown.

At the break the Steelers were entitled to be delighted that they only trailed 13-7. And the sense that this might, staggeringly, be a victory for the common people grew in the second half as they continued to thwart the Cowboy attack.

O'Donnell's indiscretions changed all that (though Barn Morris three yard plunge kept the contest alive until the death), but hardly alter the impression that the Cowboys under Switzer are considerably less threatening than under his predecessor, Jimmy Johnson.

Switzer has a reputation as a laid back, players' coach, but it is difficult to imagine a Johnson team having to take a timeout when Pittsburgh switched to the no huddle offence, muffing a kick off or fluffing an on side kick. Switzer's Cowboys did all three on Sunday and failed to make the most of their awesome armoury (Smith rushed for just 49 yards).

Brown was voted the game's Most Valuable Player, an arguable award given that his two game breaking interventions were straightforward plays that required no great skill.

The choice of the game's least valuable player was presumably less difficult.