STANDFIRST: Sheffield United defender Martin Cranie tells James Shield why it would be a mistake to pretend the derby is just another game.
Martin Cranie, by his own admission, has waited 13 years to experience something like this.
Little wonder then, as he contemplates the prospect of facing Sheffield Wednesday, a smile spreads across the Sheffield United defender's face.
"The south coast derbies were always pretty tasty but I've heard these games are something else. Seriously, who wouldn't want to be a part of it? But, after all the build-up, they're only good if you win, because nothing else matters does it."
Cranie was still a callow young defender with his first club Southampton when, in 2015, they were drawn against Portsmouth in the FA Cup. Despite watching the drama unfold from the bench, the match, which The Saints won in added time, provided him a taste for the big occasion and a wealth of knowledge. Over a decade on, despite making nearly 400 career appearances, Crainie's wide-eyed enthusiasm remains undiminished.
Chris Wilder will look to channel that passion into a positive result when Wednesday enter the Bramall Lane bear pit tomorrow night. The United manager, who prefers to overwhelm opponents with relentless attacks, does not subscribe to the theory that emotion is an enemy. Instead, when combined with intelligence, he is firmly of the belief it can be a force for good.
Cranie, now older, wiser and vastly more experienced, adheres to the same school of thought.
"Yes, of course, you've got to keep a clear head. There's instructions to follow and a game plan as well.
"So, if it totally takes over, then admittedly that's not good. But, at the same time, you can't ignore the atmosphere and everything that happens in the build-up. So what you do it use it; use it to help you focus, help spur you on and help you win your individual battles. Because if you do that then, the chances are, you're going to come through.
"You've got to soak everything up, being around the city in the week, but also get ready properly and concentrate. I do think it's possible to do both."
Although Chris Basham's return from suspension could force him out of the starting eleven despite impressing on his debut Cranie, who deputised for his fellow centre-half at Nottingham Forest last weekend, will play an important role in United's preparations. Moving to Fratton Park, after progressing through the ranks at St Mary's, taught him how to handle pressure. Likewise, following spells with Coventry City and Barnsley, helping Huddersfield Town win promotion from the Championship 18 months ago. Having subsequently joined Middlesbrough, and working under Wilder's friend Tony Pulis, he arrived at United on a free transfer earlier this summer.
Despite being invited to train with West Bromwich Albion, it transpires Wilder did not have to work too hard to convince Cranie that United represented his best option.
"I remember when Middlesbrough came here last season and although it was a tight game (United won 2-1), I was really impressed with how the boys here played," he says. "You could tell they bought into it and that the manager here encourages people to play in a way they'll enjoy. So, when the chance to come here arose, I knew it was going to be a good place for me."
"I'd been at West Brom for a while but nothing was really going on move-wise," Cranie continues. "Then, the call about the interest here came out of the blue. I'd been training on my own just before that and it's tough. It's not quite the same. So, even though it was good to get back on board properly, it was even better than it was here because, like I said, witnessing that match last season and how the lads here play, that left a real impression on me."
The meeting with Wednesday promises to be a test of wills, wit and character. But United's approach under Wilder, which has turned them into promotion contenders, also emphasises the importance of expression and enjoyment. It is something, with one or two notable exceptions, which makes them stand out like beacons in this era of rigid systems, cynicism and mind-numbing tactics.
"No matter what the system," Cranie says, "You know the overall attitude here, with the lads and the manager being like they are, isn't going to change. And that's about playing good attacking football and always trying to win games."
Martin Cranie's presence at Bramall Lane provides Chris Wilder with greater tactical flexibility at the back than he enjoyed last season, writes James Shield.
Vastly experienced, the former Middlesbrough and Huddersfield Town defender can play either as a full-back or centre-half; a role he performed on his debut for the club against Nottingham Forest last weekend.
Because he is used to working in wide positions, Cranie is perfectly suited to a role on the right hand side of United's rearguard, where his team mates Chris Basham and Jack O'Connell are tasked with bursting forward to help supplement attacks. The knowledge he gleaned during Town's promotion from the Championship last year, combined with spending the second-half of last season under Tony Pulis at the Riverside, also means Wilder can use Cranie to help United negotiate safe passage through the closing stages of tight games.
"Martin has substantial experience in the Championship, he has a great attitude and ability," the United manager said after securing the 32-year-old's signature three months ago. "He is versatile and can cover us in a couple of positions."