Sheffield United: 'Why I believe Blades might have the edge over Wednesday in Sunday's Steel City Derby'

On Friday, he was in a hospital bed with a badly infected foot expected to keep him out for a fortnight. By Monday morning, he was a Derby Day hero in Sheffield United folklore.

Tuesday, 19th September 2017, 3:59 pm
Updated Wednesday, 27th September 2017, 10:53 am
Neill Collins, right, made his Blades debut against Wednesday at Hillsborough in 2006
Neill Collins, right, made his Blades debut against Wednesday at Hillsborough in 2006

What happened in between is something Neill Collins will never forget.

"I was in my early 20s at Sunderland, who were struggling at the foot of the Premier League," former Blade Collins writes in the latest instalment of his popular blog, serialised here exclusively by The Star.

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"I was battling to win a place in the first team, but my efforts looked like being stopped in their tracks as I lay in my hospital bed on a IV drip, trying to quell a serious infection that was tracking up my leg.

"Like a bolt out of the blue, my phone rang. It was Neil Warnock. "How are you doing son?" he asked. "How would you like to come and play in the Sheffield Derby tomorrow?" Despite my reservations about my fitness, I just couldn't pass up the opportunity to play in this game.

"After getting discharged - and against the doctor's advice - I made a mad dash down to Sheffield to sign the papers before the deadline passed on Friday evening. I made it in time and before I had the chance to think, I was sitting down to dinner with Neil in the local hotel. The phrase whirlwind was invented for days like this.

I met up with the team the next morning for the very first time. I was feeling as you would expect after three days in the hospital, but was quickly jolted out of any lethargy as I boarded the bus. My new mates were all arriving and I was greeted by the formidable figure of Ade Akinbiyi, who shook my hand and asked if I was ready. I nonchalantly replied 'yes' before he gripped my hand tighter, gave me the death stare and repeated "ARE YOU READY?" It was his way of making sure I knew this was for real. Do or die. They didn't want a young lad coming in on loan and screwing it up for them. If I wasn't quite ready before, I certainly was now. I didn't want to let this guy down."

Collins remembers Chris Morgan as a combative character, to say the least

By this point, United were second in the Championship and on their way to automatic promotion to the Premier League. In the earlier return leg at Bramall Lane, former Owl Alan Quinn had scored the winner in a 1-0 victory for Warnock's Blades.

"The team had been building up to this game for weeks. No matter where they went, they wouldn't have been able to escape the talk about this game," Collins adds.

"In the lead up to a derby, the surrounding fixtures can quickly get forgotten as fans and media all focus their attention solely on this game. I have experienced the big build up since and there is no escaping the tension or pressure. The game is never far from your mind. You would need to be blind, dead and dumb not to notice the emphasis being put on the game. In this case I was in the unique position of coming in from the outside uninhibited by any of the pressure in the build up. I didn't even have time to think of the pressure.

To make the assignment even tougher, the match was away from home at Hillsborough. I will never forget arriving at the old dilapidated but historic ground and stepping off the coach. The Wednesday fans were lined up and frothing at the mouth ready to hurl abuse and vitriol at us as we made our way to the dressing room. Always the pantomime villain, Warnock lapped it up.

Collins up against Wednesday's Chris O'Grady in his second spell at United

"By the time I reached the away dressing room, the hairs on my neck were standing on end. The adrenaline was coursing through my veins and I hadn't even got my kit on yet. It is moments like this that made me want to be a footballer. The opportunity to go into the lions' den, with everyone against you, and see what you are made of.

"Going in to a cauldron of hate is made much easier when you have a good team, and this particular Sheffield United team was certainly that. They sat second top of the league in March for a reason. We had some very good individual players including Phil Jagielka, a future England international, and Paddy Kenny, one of the best keepers in the division at the time. The team was full of experience and I was going to play beside team captain and no-nonsense centre-back Chris Morgan.

"My only previous dealings with him had been the previous season, when I faced him with Sunderland and he punched me square in the gut at a corner. That afternoon, I was delighted to have him alongside instead of opposite me."

United went 2-0 up before half-time with stunning strikes from Michael Tonge and Ade Akinbiyi, and held on for a 2-1 victory after Steve MacLean's penalty.

Collins remembers Chris Morgan as a combative character, to say the least

"In the second half we missed three absolute sitters that could have turned the game in to a complete rout and a really historic victory," Scottish defender Collins remembers.

"Winning handsomely away to your closest rivals is always extra special for the fans as they get to really rub their rivals' faces in it, right in their own backyard. In the end, we hung on for a 2-1 win and a day I will never forget.

"As we came back out for a warm down, the Blades fans were still in the ground and the delirium was evident as they went through the full repertoire of songs. The magnitude of the victory was confirmed when a half cut Sean Bean came on the team bus to congratulate us at the end. Perhaps if we had played his character from When Saturday Comes, Jimmy Muir, up front he would have stuck one of our chances away."

Collins played alongside current Blades skipper Billy Sharp during his time at United, and watched from Florida - where he now plays for Tampa Bay Rowdies - last season as Chris Wilder led them to the League One title.

"The Blades manager and captain both have red and white blood coursing through their veins and will be under no illusions of the task at hand," he added.

"Under Chris Wilder I would never count United out; his record has been nothing short of phenomenal and teams are struggling to handle their formation and style of play. With Billy Sharp leading them out, there will be no one on that field wanting to win more than him. Together Sharpy and Wilder have taken on all comers and won far more than their fair share. I hope this continues on Sunday.

Collins up against Wednesday's Chris O'Grady in his second spell at United

"One thing I know for definite; any player wearing red and white who's not sure what to expect will know exactly what is coming their way the second they step off the team coach on Sunday. I just hope that, come the final whistle, they are the ones smiling while the Greasy Chip Butty song echoes loud and proud across the city."

Neill Collins writes a regular blog on football, which is available at www.neillcollins.com. See Saturday's edition of The Star for your free 16-page Steel City Derby pull-out, featuring interviews with Owls and Blades players and managers, past and present​