Ian Rands brings us the story behind the Steel City Derby last weekend.
A game played out beneath a raucous noise and a constant buzz of police helicopter, the Steel City Derby is a match not necessarily high on quality (which Derby matches are?), but usually provides passion and excitement. Sunday’s game was no exception.
After what was perceived to be a poor start to the season, Wednesday came into the match in the ascendancy. Second in the league and on a run of four straight wins, their direct style of play proving an effective, if less than eye-catching, means to an end.
United, sitting just outside the play off places, share that same end goal, but with purse strings tightened and some vastly over paid players to move on, Danny Wilson has a more difficult task than his Mandaric funded counterpart Gary Megson. Having started the season successfully and with a more attractive style of play a priority, fans were cautiously optimistic. However three defeats in recent matches against Huddersfield, Charlton and struggling Wycombe exposed defensive frailties and mistakes only too familiar to fans from last season. Throw in an experienced goalkeeper who is less than convincing when it comes commanding his area and a creeping negativity was taking over Bramall Lane. Unfortunately, those frailties were back to haunt Blades fans again on Sunday.
The crowd of just over 28,000, higher than 4 Premier league attendances at the weekend, was reported as a capacity crowd. Certainly segregation issues led to areas of empty seats, but rings of empty seats around each block of away supporters – are they not trusted to sit with their own? However, there were other empty seats in home parts of the ground – a reflection possibly of how far both clubs have sunk in recent years and ticket prices. Top price tickets costing £31, which, whatever the opposition, is a lot of money for a League One match, or any football match. All a far cry from the last 3rd Division Sheffield Derbies, just over 31 years ago, when a combined gate of over 91,000 attended both games
Twelve noon on a Sunday is not a time to be playing a football match. Police advice rules on these occasions; they suggest it is safer for the public given Bramall Lane’s proximity to the city centre and Saturday shoppers. Yet with pubs open from 8 am, the shops open Sundays, does it make any difference? When Sky asked to cover the same fixture two seasons ago, the police had no issue with it being played at 7:45 on a Friday night, surely with enhanced possibilities of all day drinking and trouble both before and after.
The build up to the game seemed tenser than normal, with emotions running high, Wednesday moving ahead of the Blades in terms of league position for the first time in several years. I felt there was an air of nastiness about it all, one of the reasons why I chose not to take my six year old son to his first derby. Although you can avoid trouble, generally by applying common sense, there is always a rogue element slightly more indiscriminate in their actions and my sense of foreboding was confirmed when my brother arrived in the ground quite flustered five minutes before kick off.
A large group of Wednesday “fans” had marched up Shoreham Street (the road behind the Kop), untethered by the police and with no care for who they aimed their feral aggression at. I immediately tweeted about the incident, to which I received a reply from a Police Inspector who had clearly been monitoring social networks saying nothing had been reported and the helicopter was all quiet.
This was not a view shared on internet forums or on the local radio phone-in post match, both from those unfortunately caught up in it, or those watching from an elevated position at the back of the Kop as they finished their pre-match pints. Sadly it wasn’t an isolated incident. I have heard of indiscriminate group attacks on individuals from both sides of the football divide later in the day in the pubs and around town. A blemish on the city and its people.
The game itself had a frenetic start, Wednesday throwing the ball forward at every opportunity, like a rugby team trying to gain territory. United withstood the pressure, but never really retained possession, something they haven’t previously had a problem with this season. Niggly fouls saw free kicks conceded and any throw in the United half was as good as a set piece, with long throws arrowing towards the giant frames of Jones, Batth, Johnson and Madine.
The first goal came with United’s first real clear cut chance, Ched Evan cutting inside from the right side of the box and firing in a low shot which deflected off Owls’ defender Rob Jones foot and on to the post. Stephen Quinn made a timely surge into the box to meet the returning ball and guide in the rebound. The celebrations were intense and manic, the hugging of strangers, hugging of mates, hugging of family, losing all bodily control until light headed fans flopped back in their seats. After a not altogether convincing start the Blades fans were lifted, a mood lifted by the fact that many firmly believed that United had to score first to get anything from the match. United were to increase the advantage, but not before Wednesday were gifted and missed a great chance to equalise.
In front of the away following United keeper Steve Simonsen fell to his left to take a straight forward header by Madine, but then he just appeared to let go of the ball. Chris O’Grady pounced, but as Simonsen lurched towards the loose ball O’Grady hit keeper and post with his shot. A minute later and the Blades won a free kick in front of the home Kop. A perfect delivery by Lee Williamson to the near post and Ched Evans placed a perfect header in at the foot of the post. Cue more mayhem, but history shows that leads can be thrown away on these occasions and as much as you enjoy the moment, you don’t necessarily enjoy the rest of the match.
Two years ago United stormed into a 3-0 lead at half time, only for Wednesday to pull it back to 3-2 and provide a much more anxious finale than there should have been.
United had a chance of a third, but Richard Cresswell headed tamely at Stephen Bywater from a corner, but Wednesday created equally good openings. James O’Connor misdirected a free header over when he should have tested Simonsen, the keeper then pulled off a stunning save, tipping a close range shot from the impressive Ben Marshall on to the bar. Marshall, on loan to the Owls from Stoke City, was a constant thorn in United’s side; with good delivery from wide and an ability to cut inside that was difficult to contain.
At half time United had taken two of the three clear cut chances and scored from them. Whilst at the other end they had held firm with resolute defending, although the lapses in terms of marking and goalkeeping competency were still clearly visible. The Wednesday support had been quietened and the Blades fans were trying to keep a lid on expectations. The prospect of Wednesday introducing the enigmatic Jermaine Johnson out wide was another reason for concern.
The second half was strange; most Blades fans around me were clock watching from about ten minutes into the half. United never came out for the second half and despite some huff and puff around the box, I don’t recall Bywater having a save to make. Wednesday meanwhile saw a lot of the ball and it felt that, at some point, something would fall for them in the box. Failure to hold on to the ball and fussy refereeing saw Wednesday pick up a number of free kicks, each one raising tension levels amongst the Blades support. The best chance fell to League One top scorer Gary Madine who headed over the bar at the back post.
The introduction of Blackpool loanee Matt Philips gave Unitedites hope. Lee Williamson was having a good game up against cumbersome Wednesday left back Reda Johnson, but the introduction of Philips’ pace and direct running was an enticing prospect. However, one opening run where he left Johnson standing apart, Philips made little difference.
Still, with ten minutes to go, Simonsen hadn’t made a second half save of any note. Then it all changed. Another ball into the Blades box was cleared, but Rob Jones put it straight back in and as Simonsen dithered over whether to collect on the edge of his 6 yard box, O’Grady headed in off the bar. Suddenly, the Owls sensed that they could get something out of the game. Balls reigned down on the Blades box and within three minutes the Owls were level.
I haven’t watched the video of the match or the goals since. As I saw it at the time, the ball came into the box. Simonsen jumped for the ball with Madine, Reda Johnson and one other Wednesday player. He was offered little protection by his teammates. Still, from my view – sat right behind him as he jumped, he should have either caught the ball or at the very least punched it. Some fans and Danny Wilson claimed he was fouled. He possibly was, but at one point I clearly saw the ball was between his palms, but they never encased themselves around the ball. Madine met the ball and despite a scramble around the goal line the ball crossed the line.
Wednesday players charged to their manager’s technical area in a mass celebration. In the adjacent area Wilson berated the officials. Simonsen meanwhile was thumping the ground in frustration and copping for a dog’s abuse from fans have seen these mistakes too often over the last 18 months. With nearly 10 minutes left including added time, you sensed Wednesday could win it.
Buoyed by a now bouncing away support behind them they maintained a bombardment of United’s penalty area. Unitedites were watching on with a sick sensation lodged in the pit of their stomach and a feeling of shock at the rapid change of events. But at the final whistle the Blades had clung on.
As Blades fans politely applauded their players, there was a feeling of defeat around three sides of the ground. A mood exacerbated, by seeing the way in which Wednesday management, players and fans were celebrating as if it were a victory.
So that should be that. A draw, no one wins, no one has the upper hand, except Wednesday in terms of current league position (a rare moment in recent years and one that they seem to be enjoying). You move on to the next game and focus on improving league position, until the city prepares for battle again in February, except that it hasn’t been left that way.
There is an increasing war of words and opinions between fans, respective managers and even the players. Each day brings new story, a new angle. Gary Megson in particular is seemingly keen to be stoking the fires that a neutral result should have extinguished; his deliberately provocative comments and opinions to the media actually making him more like his former nemesis Neil Warnock than he would ever want to admit. It makes you wonder quite what the intensity will be like by the time we get to the 26th February 2012.