Five long seasons it’s been but this Sunday, the derby matches are back... and as the spotlight of the UK football public shines on our city, Sheffield is a far better place for it too.
Yes, it’s been a while (Blades’ fault to be honest) but the football fans of Sheffield can FINALLY come together again in the same league at the same time as we eagerly await the very welcome return of our Steel City Derby. Let’s face it, we’ve missed the matches really. We’ve missed the rollercoaster ride of emotions they bring... the joy and the pain, the ecstasy and the agony, the excitement and the anxiety, and we wouldn’t have it any other way! No game on the fixture list will even come close to matching everyone’s nervous anticipation of what lies in store on Sunday. Yes, the derbies are back, and we can’t wait!
Not all parts of the country and not all teams enjoy the intensity of feeling that a true local derby can bring though, as I know only too well from my many experiences.
Playing for one of the many teams in London tends to dilute the special nature of a ‘derby’ game. Wimbledon versus near neighbours Brentford, Fulham or Charlton in the lower divisions don’t tend to get anyone involved overly excited. Even when Wimbledon made it into the top flight, a game against Arsenal, Chelsea or Spurs, although technically a local derby, didn’t have any particular local bragging rights attached. A move to Aston Villa gave me a taste of true derby matches as we had to put up with the attempts by Birmingham City to claim the title of the second city’s best and biggest club.
Some hope, as Villa had been recent League Champions and for good measure had also won the European Cup a few years earlier. In four games against Birmingham, we won three times, including a 7-0 win over two legs in the League Cup in which I scored three times from midfield! In fact the only really intense rivalry from Aston Villa seemed to be directed at WBA, who seemed to be intensely disliked by all Midlands teams!
In short, I’d never really experienced the explosive emotions that come with a true local derby match, and in November 1991 having joined from Villa, I certainly didn’t have to wait long. First game: Sheffield Wednesday at home!
I signed two days before the game and quickly realised from the chat around the club, and the attitude of the players just what the game meant to SUFC. The late, great Derek Dooley went out of his way to seek me out in the hotel where I was staying to introduce himself and I remember him saying that I will never have encountered a game like this before… it turned out he was spot on with his assessment! Even in training in the days beforehand, It was a bit ‘lively’ to coin a phrase, and my new team mates were flying around, throwing themselves into tackles and no quarter was asked or given.
I’d been part of the whole ‘Crazy Gang’ phenomenon with Wimbledon and we could put ourselves about a bit when needed, but we rarely did it to our own team mates in training! The local Blades lads Bradshaw, Ward and Whitehouse were straining at the leash and Dave Bassett was happy for them to set the tone for what was to come.
And boy, did it come! I watched as a sub as The Blades tore into a bewildered Owls team, who were hounded, hustled and harried into defensive howlers as we ran out 2-0 winners… cue absolute mayhem in the dressing room after as the whole of S2 seemed to want to join us and celebrate! It got even better later in that season as Bobby Davison got his two debut goals and the ‘Derby Double’ was well and truly done and dusted. The following season of course, they got revenge to a certain extent in the Wembley FA Cup semi-final and over the years the spoils were shared as we won a few times and had some great moments, and they also won some key matches, notably at Hillsborough a few years back in the last encounter as they pipped us at the promotion post.
It’s taken a while for us to catch up with our blue and white neighbours but we’re back... all revved up and, under Chris Wilder, certainly ready to go. After our excellent start to the new season, and with the momentum carried over from our the last one, this game really is too close too accurately call, and given our two away wins on the spin I don’t think home advantage even makes Wednesday favourites. Cue howls of derision from Owls fans everywhere, but even they would concede that the Blades have started the season very well, and are looking more than comfortable in this division.
It’s still relatively early days in a long season, but the signs have been good so far… very good actually. As for Wednesday, I think most knowledgeable and sensible Blades fans would also accept that their record under their current manager shows that they’re a decent side and certainly no push-overs. They’ve started reasonably well too in fact, so no-one can predict with any real authority about the outcome. It might come down to a bit of magic from someone somewhere, or it might be decided by a terrible mistake. I hope for all the players' sake, it’s the former not the latter as it must be a huge burden to carry around the city!
Both sets of players will obviously realise the importance of the game, but when all’s said and done and the whistle for kick-off goes, it really is ‘just another game’ for them in many ways. Correct, instant football decisions have to be made, and the basic technicalities regarding passing, heading, crossing, shooting, etc completed under intense pressure. Players would be expected to give 100 per cent effort every game anyway, so attitude, enthusiasm and energy levels should be at the absolute maximum, as per usual I’d hope. Where some lesser players may fail is the ‘fear factor’ and nervousness can indeed inhibit some inexperienced players, but given that all the players on show have had big game experience and regularly play in front of large crowds that really shouldn’t happen either. So in truth, I don’t think there’s much to differentiate between the two sides at this moment. They start as equals on the pitch, separated only by a few league places. Off the pitch however, it’s a different story...
Now I don’t profess to know Carlos Carvalhal’s innermost thoughts but I’m absolutely certain that the game will be more special to one of the two managers on parade. Chris Wilder is a Sheffield lad of course, and by grace of God (and with the eternal thanks of us fans!) had the good fortune to be brought up as a Blade. From a fan, a youth player and even a ball-boy at the Lane he made his way into the first-team and was part of all-conquering Blades promotion sides.
After cutting his managerial teeth around the country he’s now the manager of his hometown team, so as a Blade he’s been there, done that, and also got the t-shirt, the book, the DVD, the League One Championship medal, everything! In short, there won’t be a man in either of the two dressing rooms to whom this game will mean more, and believe me, that depth of feeling and desire will have filtered through to the Blades players, not just during this week, but over the whole period of Chris Wilder's management at the Lane. It what he does, and he does it superbly well.
Therefore, I believe the Blades players won’t need any extra motivation for the game from the manager. They will instinctively already know how much it means to him and then because he is one, how much it also means to the fans. After all, Chris is ‘one of our own’, and win, lose or draw, he always will be. But after the rewards and success his leadership gave the players last season, I hope the players in turn repay him in spades on Sunday with an extra-special performance to match this occasion, and a win will make it an extra-special day for him personally too. After what he’s done for our club he deserves no less.
The Sheffield derby is back and us Blades can’t wait because we’re ready, willing and I believe with this current team, definitely more than able.
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