James Shield: Sheffield is in danger of losing the PR battle with Leeds to spearhead Yorkshire football
Football is all about seizing the moment. On and off the pitch.
Sheffield United have been reminded of this during their first three matches of the new season, creating chances during their Premier League games against both Wolverhampton Wanderers and Aston Villa but losing both when all of them went begging. Sandwiched in between, last week’s Carabao Cup tie at Burnley followed exactly the same pattern. Unfortunately the opposition, who admittedly boast greater reserves of top-flight experience, were not minded to be so generous.
But another opening, one which has also been passed up, is the subject of this column. And the finger of blame, as ‘Yorkshire’s Club’ prepares to arrive at Bramall Lane on Sunday, can not be pointed at Chris Wilder’s squad.
My tongue was planted firmly in the middle of my cheek when I typed that. Leeds United are no more the county’s team than United, Sheffield Wednesday, Doncaster Rovers, Barnsley, Bradford City, Rotherham United, Huddersfield Town, Hull City or Middlesbrough, who many people seem to forget are located within the Broad Acres.
They are, without wishing to sound resentful and petty, no more important to other followers of the game than, say, Grant McCann’s side if you follow Chris Wilder’s men or Neil Warnock’s for supporters of The Bantams.
But that is exactly how Marcelo Bielsa’s employers have positioned themselves since being promoted from the Championship last term. And fair play to them for that.
They spotted an opportunity, talked-up their history, made the most of the spotlight that was inevitably on them and, aware of the cliched old narratives being peddled out by those in the media who refuse to believe there is life beyond the PL but were desperate to ingratiate themselves with Leeds’ fan base - “They’re massive, they deserve to be here, the division is better with them in it” - grabbed it with both hands.
The end result is that folk in other parts of the country are now of the opinion that Marcelo Bielsa’s squad are now flying the White Rose flag. (If you don’t believe me, ask them).
I don’t actually have an issue with Leeds for doing this. In fact, I say ‘Fair play’. What I do take umbrage at is the fact that community leaders and politicians in our city, with a few notable exceptions, didn’t spot or care enough about the potential rewards when United regained elite level status 17 months ago.
Yes, I get that it’s easier for their counterparts in Leeds to get behind their team because there’s only one within their city, unlike here in Sheffield where there’s two. But you play with the cards you’re dealt, not worry about revealing a Royal Flush because it might upset the person seated across the table.
And because of the economic benefits having a PL representative can bring to an entire region, in terms of profile on the world stage, Wednesday would also have received plenty of rewards if United’s achievement had been exploited more.
They are, after all, a proud and historic institution in their own right. The incentive to join United in the PL would, arguably, have been even greater had officials at Hillsborough seen their arch-rivals used to front a campaign highlighting everything the city has to offer rather than effectively forgotten about, in a PR sense, when the civic reception they were handed was over and the last glass of champagne drunk.
If Wednesday had got the hump, then tough. Get on with it and get your act together, because guess what? That’s life. I’d say exactly the same thing if the boot was on the other foot.
Everyone moans about where they live. Yes, Sheffield is far from perfect. But as someone who wasn’t born here but has chosen to make it my home, I can say, without fear of being labelled biased, it’s got so much to shout about.
The only trouble is, unlike its neighbour just up the M1, for some inexplicable reason those tasked with representing it choose not to.
That might be an admirable trait for some. But in an era of devolved administrations and to some extent economies, it isn’t advisable.
It’s also why Leeds, which adopts the opposite approach, seemingly gets better treatment from government. They view it, wrongly, as being more influential and therefore a better investment.
When United reached the PL, one councillor, Ann Murphy, clearly spotted the possibilities. As chair of the Sheffield Home of Football Group (SHOF), she helped devise a campaign to “claw back more than 160 years of lost history” by reminding people that Sheffield is the birthplace of the sport as we know it today.
At its launch, SHOF spoke about erecting sculptures across the city, detailing its relationship with football, establishing a Football Archive Centre and even putting goalposts on motorway signage to pique the interest of drivers, who might not know they are passing the home of the world’s oldest club, oldest ground, oldest professional stadia and first ever cup tournament.
Well done Ann. More power to your elbow. The only trouble is, and I don’t blame her for this, I’ve yet to see any of these ideas actually come to fruition. If they have, then they certainly haven’t been publicised, so I can only guess that others, those in positions of power and influence, don’t really have the will.
I appreciate the Covid-19 pandemic has changed things. I get that money is tighter than ever and things which once seemed important are now relatively trivial. But that is no excuse for inaction or poor preparation, because things will eventually return to normal.
I hope, if the desire to ensure the story of Sheffield’s relationship with football reaches a global audience does exist, that Leeds’ aggressive maneuvering does not mean the window of opportunity hasn’t passed. It would be a crying shame, for its teams, the region and everyone who lives here, if it has.