James Shield’s Sheffield United Column: Why supporters of both clubs must not be denied a say in how the derby is organised
Last week, a mate and I met up for a chat and a pint at a pub located in the shadow of Star Towers.
The pal in question, who holds down a steady job, campaigns for various charities and good causes and is what you might call a regular bloke, will be in the away end at Hillsborough on Monday night. Most of his spare cash is spent on following Sheffield United and so, quite naturally, derbies against Sheffield Wednesday are never games he likes to miss. But as the conversation flowed and the beers were poured, it was troubling to hear him admit that the thought of crossing the city actually filled him with dread. Not because he was worried about the result or being diagnosed with an acute case of shredded nerve'itis. Nor did the prospect of walking through thousands of home supporters bring him out in a cold sweat.
Instead, revealing he had already plotted a pretty tortuous route from his place of work near West Street to Wednesday's stadium, it was the thought of being herded about like a condemned cow that was causing him an issue. Something which, when confronted by lines of burly folk dressed in riot gear, would test the patience of Luigi Scrosoppi. (For those not of a religious persuasion, he is the patron saint of soccer. The Vatican's choice of wording not mine, I hasten to add).
Unfortunately, as most folk of a certain vintage can testify, being made to feel like a menace to society when we are simply en route to a match is something we can all identify with. Thankfully, in recent years, there seems to have been a move towards more consensual policing with some excellent best practice examples springing-up in certain areas of the country.
But nevertheless, and it is not my intention to either underestimate the challenges of controlling events like this or besmirch the reputation of rank and file officers, too many followers of both United and Wednesday feel as if their views are not being listened to enough in our region. Although I understand meetings have taken place between representatives of both clubs' fan base and South Yorkshire Police - something which should be applauded and encouraged like, as I reported ahead of November's derby at Bramall Lane, ACC Tim Forber's assertion that those under his command wanted to help people attending enjoy their evening - calls for fixtures between the two teams to only take place on weeknights only add to the sense of frustration on the ground.
Many, my friend included, feel as if they are being denied their say in an occasion which does far more good than bad for our city. And that is neither fair nor conducive to its smooth running.
Earlier this year it was revealed that DCC Mark Roberts, of SYP and the national lead for footballing policing, had called upon the English Football League to ensure fixtures between United and Wednesday only took place in the week.
"Policing football matches presents its own unique challenge and now we have teams in the same league as one another, a Sheffield derby twice a season is something we must plan for," he was reported as saying.
"We know that for the thousands of fans living in Sheffield and beyond who support United or Wednesday, the prospect of a derby is exciting and for this overwhelming majority, our policing operation is there to support your enjoyment of the match and to ensure you can do so safely, without risk of harm or injury.
"We must balance this type of operation and the resource it requires against our resilience to provide a service to the wider public of South Yorkshire, to ensure that everyone continues to receive the support and response they quite rightly expect from their local police."
It was added he had told the EFL that"this support is achievable and sustainable if derby fixtures take place on week nights" and that consultation will continue throughout the season.
Unfortunately many commentators, already complicit in souring how those of us who attend games are viewed by prefixing words like "lout" and "thug" with "football" whenever there is an issue in or around a ground, failed to question why this should be the case. Particularly when the Old Firm, surely the most febrile and emotive game in Britain, last took place on anything other than a Saturday or Sunday in 2011.
As I wrote at the time, after requesting and failing to secure an interview with those promoting this plan, there might be an "irrefutable case" for staging these fixtures in midweek. But it needs to be articulated in much more comprehensively. Likewise why, according to an investigation into the policing of derbies last year, Wednesday's meeting with United was the most expensive operation in England. After all, the overwhelming majority of those in the crowd pay the police precept on their council tax. Because, just like those in uniform, they are members of the public. The two clubs should also canvass opinion and then, despite the political problems it might cause, state their position.
Football is part of the fabric of our society. And if supporters are granted a say, treated like the responsible individuals most of us are, it gives us a stake and sense of responsibility. Which surely is better for everyone. Including fans, police and even those strange souls who couldn't give a stuff about next week's result.