by Kieran Mather
The Steel City derby should have lost some of its lustre this year with both clubs residing in the third tier. Instead, stripped of the national media glare it became a parochial matter, a fierce tribal locking of horns and pride, a city turning in on itself. It was, in essence, what all good derbies should be; a local strop for local people.
In 2001, with both Wednesday and United a division higher in the Championship, only 27,000 watched the fixture at Hillsborough. In February, as both clubs fought bitterly for a promotion spot, the place was packed to the rafters with a capacity crowd of ten thousand more.
The battle to achieve promotion – and perhaps equally as critical to deprive the other of doing so – was a fascinating, enthralling grudge that engulfed all concerned with only a matter of points separating both fallen giants throughout. At times it resembled two legendary punch-drunk boxers on the canvas both desperately scrambling to raise themselves by the ropes.
Since the Owls’ demise from the Premier League in 2000 – coincidentally under present Blades boss Danny Wilson – the derby was in danger of becoming a normality, a twice-a-season right to brag and little else. It took shared plight and turmoil to revitalise it.
At one stage United had points to spare with games in hand and League One’s in-form striker Ched Evans blasting them in from all angles. Wednesday sacked their manager, Huddersfield sacked theirs, and it was all going to plan. However a dropped point here and there allowed their bitter rivals to haul themselves back into contention and a dramatic late burst for the line secured Wednesday the second automatic place behind runaway leaders Charlton. This meant United had to rely on the play-off lottery, their dreams succumbing beneath the Wembley arch in the cruellest fashion possible after 22 penalties.
As a Sheffield United fan that hurt, but what hurt more was the fact it was our rivals we lost the automatic spot to with a single game left. But oddly, the season’s events brought about a new found love for the game, an unprecedented level of banter across the city; the radio phone-ins were animated again; pubs buzzed with jibes, boasts and put-downs. There was a vibrancy and excitement around the city.
Of course a similar situation was occurring in Manchester over the top spot in England and that rightfully caught the lion’s share of the media attention but nobody could have predicted the state of football in Sheffield this season and how it gripped its fans. The fans deserved this season too; since their expulsion from the Premier League in 2007 United have missed the play offs by goal difference, reached the final and lost to Burnley and finally in 2011 were relegated to the Npower League 1. Sheffield Wednesday haven’t fared better with two separate spells languishing in League1 and the constant unfulfilled promise of returning to their glory days.
So with both clubs enduring a lifetime’s low why is it now that football in Sheffield has sparked back into life? The previously alluded to defiant pride is one factor certainly but more trivially the predominant reason is the habit of winning games once again. Each team broke the 90 point barrier and the quality of football on display was excellent on both sides of the Sheffield divide. Danny Wilson propagated an exhilarating, attacking brand not seen since the Warnock era whilst Dave Jones calmly implemented an expansive style that profited from exciting wing play.
Everything appears to be in place now at Hillsborough to ensure the years of false dawns have become a thing of the past and it is highly unlikely we will see them fall to such depths again. For United the hope is they will avoid the traditional play-off hangover and go again next term in a similar strong vein.
They may be no further derby games for a year at least but it shouldn’t be under-estimated what a positive impact these past ten months have had on the city and surrounding areas for both allegiances. In times to come it may yet go down in the football annals as “the season Sheffield fell back in love with football.”