Alan Biggs’ Sheffield Derby Column: Nerve, skill and tenacity will help decide this clash between Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday

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A few weeks ago, as a radio presenter stoked up the season’s first Yorkshire derby, I was asked on air who were the “hard men” on each side.

The teams were Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United. Cue a slightly startled pause. 

“Well ... no-one,” came my answer. This followed a quick sweep down the teamsheet for a “hard man” of the old physical variety.

Nothing wrong with the question itself, albeit unexpected these days. It proved quite thought-provoking actually. And here comes the same answer ahead of Bramall Lane tomorrow: “No-one.”

To be strictly accurate, I can think of one. He’s in the blue-and-white half of the city - but will he be playing? There is a strong case for Sam Hutchinson to add drive and personality to a wilting Wednesday - and has been for a while.

But even if he was called up, Hutchinson, also a player of high technical skill, is far outside the bracket of the enforcers of old. And, as he has learned to his cost in suspensions, those players could not do their thing in 2018.

However, there is a collective force that can be legally imposed on these occasions. And to be brutally honest, Sheffield United have far more of that than Sheffield Wednesday at the moment.

A home win - in what is effectively a cup tie - doesn’t necessarily follow. But the first Steel City derby of this campaign will, in common with all the most recent, be decided by forms of strength other than the literal.

Nerve is one. Skill is another - and there is no shortage of that on either side. Or tenacity, as two of the most skilful, John Fleck and Barry Bannan, regularly demonstrate.

Or character, as in both teams being capable (the Owls much less so at the moment) of plucking points in dramatic circumstances to give the city brief flickerings a few weeks ago of a double promotion dream.

Brute force, any type of intimidation, call it what you will, won’t provide a defining edge unless it’s psychological. Modern refereeing sees to that. Nor would fans expect it to. Derbies are different these days, though certainly no less exciting.

But, as the Owls discovered in last season’s first meeting, a fierce resolve (of the collective kind) still counts for a lot. United had it, with a more positive mentality from the start. Wednesday did not, eventually subsiding to a 4-2 defeat.

Strangely, it was lacking from the Blades in the goalless return at Bramall Lane; one of very few (maybe only) occasions under Chris Wilder when I felt a United team didn’t really go for it - right down to Billy Sharp remaining on the bench which, as the manager later acknowledged, was a mistake.

I think that rare lapse will be prominent in the psyche of the Blades’ management team and players this time. It’s a very important ingredient in this column’s view. As at Hillsborough, they’ll be keen to draw blood.

Wednesday, for their part, have aimed to be a much tighter and more resilient unit than last season when Jos Luhukay, after surviving a derby baptism, began steadying the ship. Yet, after one good run, they have become flakey and erratic, undermined by constant changes of system and personnel.

I very much doubt the Owls head coach would endure the backlash from another heavy defeat, following last Saturday’s shambolic cave-in to Norwich. 

Under Luhukay, the Owls have tried to adopt a more positive approach this season, although the way they start games - and leak goals -  remain among infuriating concerns.

For all that, you’d expect a close contest. It’s against all current logic but is usually the way of it. 

What you can’t anticipate is Luhukay’s selection and approach. Whereas Wilder has his way, without deviation from what works, his opposite number is inclined to spring surprises, sometimes even to his own players as he admitted to me recently.

That’s what makes this game even harder to call, although I’d expert him to revert to the back three system of the better performances this season. 

Added to that, Wednesday must see this as a big chance of a turning point - and maybe Luhukay’s last one. A way of upsetting the odds, starting to bring disenchanted fans back onside and rekindling the season as a whole. One game - if it’s a derby - can do all that. It is a huge extra incentive. 

Only an idiot would call it with confidence. But let’s put it this way. The fool in front of you would be much more surprised if Wednesday won than United. 

The Blades’ memory of a missed opportunity (of a derby double, no less) might just be an added tipping factor. Taking individuals out of it - and the fact Wednesday’s squad cost more and is paid more - United have unquestionably the better team in the truest sense of the term.

They play with freedom and emotion but usually without excess. There is a calmness and composure, too, important in highly-charged affairs.

Against that, for all their shortcomings, I have no doubt Wednesday players do try and do care, whatever some fans might think. Their pride will be hurting, including the pride of individuals capable of hurting any opposition.

You can’t legislate for what a Reach, Bannan or Joao might do in a split second. But then there’s a Duffy, a Fleck or a Sharp. I think that the “better team” will win on this occasion, although not by a landslide. I’ll be here next week to say I’m wrong.

What it will almost certainly be is fast, on the edge and, in the main, fair. Fully capable of being a great advert for football and rivalry in the Championship.

But that certainly won’t be a high priority for either set of fans! Winning really is everything.