Sheffield Derby: One bald fan and two gobby s****s – getting under the skin of English football’s most passionate fixture
The Star’s Sheffield United writer James Shield discovers what it is like to play in the Sheffield derby, from someone who has experienced life on both sides of the divide.
He remembers every moment of his six Sheffield derbies. The highs, the lows and some of the previously untold stories are all indelibly etched into Derek Geary's memory.
But as we investigate his relationship with the fixture, a process which elicits a series of revealing admissions and amusing anecdotes, it dawns on the 38-year-old when he truly realised this was an occasion like no other. The trouble is, nearly two decades on, Geary still does not know the identity of the person responsible for his eureka moment.
"I was still playing for Sheffield Wednesday and the ball had gone out in front of The Kop end which was full of Sheffield United fans," he recalls. "I was only a young lad and went trotting over to get it back. This big stocky bald bloke was holding it out for me and I thought 'That's nice.' Then, when I went over to collect it, rather than handing it back, he bounced the damn thing right off my head."
Being the butt of Brown’s jokes
Geary laughs as he describes the incident, which took place during United's win over their neighbours at Bramall Lane in 2003. Likewise how Michael Brown, the scorer of a quite magnificent goal as Neil Warnock's side powered to a 3-1 victory, later thanked him for playing so poorly it helped pave the way for his move Tottenham Hotspur. For the most part, though, the Irishman's recollections paint a picture of a game which shreds the nerves of players, coaching staff and supporters alike.
Having represented both clubs before finally succumbing to injury, Geary boasts a unique insight into a rivalry he insists is as big and as passionate as any other game in English football. So, as Chris Wilder's squad prepares for Monday's visit to Hillsborough, the former defender and now United's under-18's coach appreciates what those set to be involved are going through. How, as kick-off beckons, the tension inside the dressing rooms will increase. What happens when the result is decided and, unless honours remain even, the respective teams will react.
"To be honest, from my point of view, when you came out on top the over-ridinng emotion was relief," Geary, who won two, lost two and drew two of his derby encounters, admits. "Seriously, it's not joy. That comes later. It's just relief that the whole thing's over and that you didn't get beat.
"It's always intense in a dressing room before a game but more so when it's a derby. The big characters get bigger. They're not just shouting 'Come on.' It's 'Come on, we really need this.' There's more noise when you arrive at the stadium and more noise during the warm-up. Then, when it's time to get out there, you feel like a boxer walking to the ring. That's probably the best way I can put it."
‘I felt more hated than ever’
Despite being born in Dublin, Geary has spent his entire adult life in South Yorkshire. Signed by Wednesday in 1997, he made 121 senior appearances before signing for Stockport County seven years later. It was then, after only 12 weeks at Edgeley Park, that he transferred to United, going on to feature 115 times and win promotion to the Premier League. Earlier that season, both Alan Quinn and Lee Bromby had made the short journey across the city, swapping the blue and white of Wednesday for red and white stripes.
Geary explains it was only politics which prevented him from also making the move directly but, tracing United's interest back to his first ever derby, refutes the suggestion he was simply parked in Greater Manchester.
"Quinny's agent was my agent and he told me the manager (Warnock) wanted me but he really needed a centre-half so I went to Stockport. I think he would have taken me straight away but my agent said he thought it would be difficult to bring the three of us in at once. As it happened, pretty soon after, Stockport drew United in the League Cup. I ended up on the losing side, United were far better, but did okay myself and it went from there.
"One of the reasons the gaffer liked me was because, apart from that one time, I'd always done well in the derbies for Wednesday against United. The first one I ever took part in, I was up against Paul Devlin who was going great guns at the time. He was a gobby s***e and I was a gobby young s***e. So I had to stand my ground because I knew he'd try to intimidate me."
Although Bromby and Quinn had helped smooth the way forward, being a former Wednesday player in United colours initially proved tough. Even before, 16 months later, he was a member of the United team which triumphed 2-1 at Hillsborough.
"When I first came in, Neil kept referring to me as 'The Wednesday Lad' in training," Geary says. "He knew I didn't really like it but, looking back, he was doing it to provoke a reaction. To make me knuckle down even more. He knew how I'd respond to it."
"Going over there, Quinny and Brombs were also in the side but the Wednesday fans seemed to come for me even more," he adds. "Because I was a full-back, they were throwing things at me and I could hear everything some of them were saying. It was 'You Irish this' and 'You Irish that'. I was thinking 'not so long ago you were cheering me' and I felt more hated that day than in any other game. It wasn't nice but it is what it is. It also made me even more determined to try and prove a point.”
Why comic timing helped
Like the one Wilder will lead into battle, the United squad Geary joined was full of big and complementary characters.
"We had Paddy (Kenny), Morgs (Chris Morgan) and all the others in there," he continues. "It was like that when I came in at Wednesday when Des Walker, Carlton Palmer and Kevin Pressman were around.
"But there was a great mix, like you can tell there is now, because Keith Gillespie was brilliant too. He had this lovely way about him because he'd inject some humour just to break the tension if he thought people were getting too wound up. If someone was walking around spouting rubbish he's start shouting 'cliche alert' or something like that.
"It was one of Neil's biggest strengths too, knowing when things were getting too intense and then cracking a joke."
Despite emphasising the importance of comic timing, Geary knows derbies are a serious business. And, contrary to what some people think, they get tougher with experience.
"For me, they went they other way," he says. "The more time you spend in the city, and I've spent so long here some people are still surprised to hear I'm Irish when I speak, the more you realise what it means to people. Personally, I didn't really like them. I loved winning them. But I didn't like everything else because you know what's riding on it."
‘The biggest achievement of my career’
United have prepared for next week's contest ranked second in the table, 10 places and 17 points above Wednesday. Although the result will have a bearing on their hopes of achieving automatic promotion, Geary knows no one in the away dressing room will be considering the bigger picture.
"This is a game for the fans and you really want to go out there and do it for them. Seriously, the proudest achievement of my career, bar none, was winning the United supporters over. It meant, still does in fact, so much.
"When I lost one at United, I don't think I left the house for two days. It was horrible because I felt as if I'd let people down. The way the boys are going now, though, no matter what happens, that's not something that could ever be levelled at them. They're doing brilliant."
Making a difference
Even though United's top two aspirations are not riding on the outcome, Geary understands how derbies can help shape the remainder of a season.
"When we went to Hillsborough in 2006, February I think it was, that was the year we went up to the Premier League.
"We were already pretty confident, a few of the lads had been convinced we'd do it after a couple of games, but when we won that match, with goals from Ade Akinbiyi and Michael Tonge, that's when we all started to believe it. Because the 2-1 scoreline didn't reflect how well we'd done, the knowledge we'd played really well cemented it in our minds."
The biggest and best match there is
Despite now pinning his colours firmly to United's mast, Geary acknowledges the part Wednesday play in making this match what it is.
"People like Keith, who'd been at Manchester United and Newcastle, and Unsy (David Unsworth) all came into United and said 'This club is huge.' Unsy had been at places like Everton and Aston Villa but, with the following and the commitment of the fans, that left an impression on them here.
“Wednesday are like that as well and, for me, this is as big a derby as there is. As big as Liverpool and Manchester. The only thing it hasn't got it the right stage, the Premier League, and all the stuff that goes with that. But trust me, there's nothing bigger or better. Nothing at all."