Sheffield Wednesday v Rotherham United Remembrance feature: The Owls v Millers derby when poppies meant more than players

Remembrance tribute at the South Yorkshire derby
Remembrance tribute at the South Yorkshire derby
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The abiding image of this game wasn’t Rotherham United midfielder Paul Green with his head in hands after missing a header to give his side a first-half breakthrough.

It wasn’t the frustration etched across Sheffield Wednesday left-back Jeremy Helan’s face as Millers keeper Adam Collin denied him with a fine second-half save.

No, it was children and poppies.

Youngsters, innocent and untainted by the world and its wars, gathered around the Hillsborough centre circle with members of the Armed Forces before the match kicked off. The soldiers wore uniform, the kids sported white T-shirts with big, bold red poppies in the middle.

Some of these were large T-shirts on small bodies. Hanging down like dresses, they somehow made the scene even more arresting. No fashion statements, just the sweet, pure, unfettered symbol of a sobering truth: that without the sacrifice of millions of brave souls during two world conflicts days like Saturday wouldn’t exist.

Dark skies and slanting rain added to the sombre mood.

The Owls’ treatment of the Remembrance derby was poignant and classy. The cover of the programme was just a red poppy on a black background with the simple message underneath in white: ‘Lest we forget’.

Then came the small matter of a football match between two intense South Yorkshire rivals. Every tackle was fiercely contested, every loose ball was fought for, every dodgy decision was questioned and supporters traded chants with unconcealed hostility.

When Rotherham boss Evans thought Chris Maguire had hit the deck too easily to win a foul and his own man, Ben Pringle, was sent to the ground and given nothing, he was apoplectic in the technical area.

When Owls substitute Kieran Lee went down in the visitors’ area under fire from Kirk Broadfoot right in front of the kop, the home supporters bayed in vain for a penalty

It mattered hugely. But it wasn’t life or death.

The minute’s silence was immaculately observed, bringing praise from home manager Stuart Gray afterwards for both sets of fans. He wasn’t asked the question by journalists. He offered up the words himself.

“The respect shown was absolutely fantastic,” he said. “Rotherham United and Sheffield Wednesday supporters deserve a lot of credit.”

Evans had predicted the atmosphere would be electric before kick-off. It was good but it didn’t quite hit those heights. Millers fans sold out the away end and were as noisy as you’d expect, but the Owls followers, having experienced too many draws and not enough goals in recent weeks, were muted by their apprehension. The battle of the supporters was won by the ‘Small Town in Sheffield’.

Stevie May, the striker who had been courted by the Millers only to chose S6 right at the end of the chase, knew what was coming, just the mention of his name as the stadium announcer read out the teamsheets bringing the biggest boos of the day from the S60 brigade.

May did all right. He didn’t score the goal many were predicting and Rotherham fans were fearing, but he was a threat at times with his quick turns, and he certainly puts in a real shift, turning easy balls for full-backs into throw-ins for his team with his relentless hounding. You could see why he’s Evans’ type of player.

Broadfoot, playing for the first time against an opponent who could have been a teammate, rated him.

The Owls lost new boy Gary Taylor-Fletcher to an eye injury in the first half and on wandered the hulking, slightly shambolic figure of Atdhe Nuhiu, with his long, unkempt hair and outsized shorts worn too low. My mum would have had a field day tidying him up.

His 6ft 6in frame was bigger than his influence on a match which swung both ways, both teams exerting penalty-area pressure but not testing the keepers enough.

Green’s first-half header was the chance of the game, the penalty incident the main talking point.

The Hillsborough Press box is right in the middle of the South Stand faithful and their frustration was evident. These were good fans, reasoned people, not one-eyed members of The Massive, but they are desperate for a return to the standards which lit up the early part of their season and raised hopes perhaps artificially high.

At the end, there were boos from some home fans while the away end stood to applaud their team.

And later the Owls boss said again he was looking to sign a striker.

With peace restored, Gray and Evans lightened the mood.

As the Owls head coach was leaving the Press room, his opposite number was just coming in.

“I’ve just told them in there it was a nailed-onpenalty,” grinned Gray. “I’m sure you’ll tell them the same.”

For the record, Evans didn’t!

Gray thought it had been a hard-fought contest between two committed teams and that the Owls might have nicked it had the spot-kick verdict gone their way.

Evans thought his side created the better chances, dominated for spells and could have come away with a victory to add to the four on the trot the Millers had previously enjoyed at this stadium.

Both had a point.

So some near-misses, some dogged individual performances, plenty of spirit, but no match-winners like Rodger Wylde, Joe McBride or Darren Garner to go down in the folklore of the rivalry between these two clubs.

This wasn’t a day for derby heroes, this was a day for fallen ones.

It seemed very in keeping with the afternoon but wrong in the grand scheme of things that serving soldiers should give sportsmen a guard of honour on to the pitch. One group risk death in their line of duty, the other compete in an arena which is a merely a metaphor for life.

Too often we link the words of war to sport. This report mentions ‘battle’, ‘hostility’, ‘under fire’ and ‘peace’ to tell the story of what was essentially a football occasion.

So remember the bugler during the silence. Remember the Last Post. Remember what it stands for.

Lest we forget.