James Shield's Sheffield United Column: Why Gary Madine's arrival must not be allowed to overshadow the biggest story at Bramall Lane...and Sheffield Wednesday too
No owner, manager or player is bigger than the club and so, with that in mind, the most important piece of news at Bramall Lane this month is not Gary Madine's arrival on loan but rather South Yorkshire Police's call for matches between Sheffield United and his former employers Sheffield Wednesday to be prohibited from taking place at weekends.
The announcement, after it emerged March's derby at Hillsborough is being staged on a Monday night for television purposes, is unlikely to have sent shockwaves through either club's support base. Both have learnt, often to their cost in terms of worthless train tickets and hotel bookings, to only pencil the Championship fixtures into a diary when they are first published.Â
But the realisation these schedule changes could become part of something much wider, that their local police force wants to officially abolish the tradition of staging this match on a Saturday or Sunday, should be a source of upset among fans. Indeed, other than the fact all eyes will be on Madine when United next travel across the city, opposition to the idea is probably the only thing they can actually agree on.
The proposal, outlined in a statement by Deputy Chief Constable Mark Roberts last week, raises several important questions. And, in the absence of further detail or in-depth explanation, some potential causes for concern.
The first, which can perhaps be attributed to a poor choice of words, relates to the admission SYP must balance the policing of matches with "maintaining our high levels of service for the public whom we serve". The vast majority of those who attended November's meeting between United and Wednesday might wonder why, despite living under SYP's jurisdiction, this appears to infer they are viewed as distinct from the rest of the community. Football fans pay the same police precept on their council tax as, say, wine bar goers or half-marathon runners. They are husbands, sons, daughters, wives and residents. Or, to put it another way, every bit a part of the 'public' referred to as folk who enjoy a jog around their local park of an evening or quiet glass of Malbec.
Another aspect of SYP's plan requiring further exposition is why the Steel City derby is seemingly a special case. In Manchester, only four of the last 14 games involving United and City have taken place on a week night. One of those, it is worth pointing out, was a League Cup tie. Thirty-five miles to the west, 16 of the previous 24 meetings between Liverpool and Everton were staged on a weekend while in Glasgow, the home of the Old Firm, the last time Rangers and Celtic locked horns in midweek was 17 games and eight years ago.
It must be acknowledged that policing such events is far from easy and requires considerable preparation. Likewise the fact that SYP, like their counterparts elsewhere in the British Isles, have suffered a reduction in 'real terms' funding since 2011. There might well be an irrefutable case for banning United and Wednesday from facing each other on a Saturday or Sunday. But it must be articulated in much more comprehensive fashion before being accepted. With DCC Roberts also serving as the National Lead for footballing policing, supporters in other areas of the country are also likely to listen and read with interest.