James Shield's Sheffield United Column: Heritage, history and the hidden danger of Premier League football
First, before identifying arguably the biggest and most important challenge facing Sheffield United over the next nine months, let me tell you a story. The two - the task and the tale - are not entirely unconnected.
Earlier this week, as the interest in Chris Wilder's side shows now sign of abating ahead of Sunday's Premier League fixture against Crystal Palace, I was interviewed by a well-known news agency commissioned to produce a feature on Bramall Lane. It was the latest in what has been an almost incessant series, as journalists from outside the patch attempt to discover - and then relay to their audiences, listeners or readership - what makes the 51-year-old's team tick.
Understanding that players and coaching staff are best qualified to provide the tactical insights, aware that only lifelong supporters, whose hearts still bear the scars of past failures, can truly speak about the emotions provoked by the team's recent success, I decided to take a different angle. So after being asked what securing top-flight status means for United, my response focused on what United's rise to the highest level means for the top-flight. It seems for once I touched a nerve because, after warbling on about why their home city can justifiably claim to be the cradle of the modern game, the television crew asked if there were any monuments or statues within driving distance of Star Towers which celebrate its footballing heritage: The world's oldest club, the world's oldest ground, the world's oldest professional stadium still in use and the world's first every football tournament. Little, inconsequential things, like that.
It was only after telling them no, there wasn't, it dawned on me how ridiculous that is. That the place which shaped the sport as we know it does so little to shout about its history.
Now don't get me wrong, there's something quite endearing about Sheffield's refusal to dance to the PR people's tune. Football belongs to the fans. It touches folk in a way no spin doctor, especially those who discovered it when the PL was born, could ever understand. But with the eyes of the world now on the region following United's march through the divisions, its politicians, powerbrokers and yes, its two clubs, should exploit the opportunities which now present themselves. After all, despite the rivalry which exists between them, Sheffield Wednesday are part of the story too. The message - that Bramall Lane and Hillsborough are situated in the true home of football - must be spread across the globe. Starting, perhaps, with a signpost at the beginning of the Parkway reminding visitors of that fact.
Speaking of fans, it was heartening to discover that United's squad had spent the morning before last weekend's draw with AFC Bournemouth mingling with their followers who had also travelled to the south coast. That relationship, between the players and the folk who pay to come and watch them, is something to be cherished. And protected. Because, make no mistake, the longer United spend in this increasingly corporate competition, there is a danger their personality will change. It is not inevitable. So long as folk behind the scenes remember where they have come from and always put supporters, not big business, sponsors or rights-holders, first.