Sheffield United: The most emotive fixtures of the season will not be the ones the PR agents think
The marketing men and PR executives will trumpet Tottenham Hotspur's visit to Liverpool. But for football supporters of a certain vintage and substance, West Ham versus Sheffield United is set to be the most sought-after ticket on the final weekend of the Premier League's October schedule.
It was 12 years ago when United last enjoyed top-flight status, making a commendable fist of what was always destined to be a battle for survival before being relegated on the final day of the campaign. The circumstances of their return to the Championship, after being promoted 12 months earlier, were as controversial as they were heartbreaking. A defeat at home to Wigan Athletic, when a draw would have been enough to prolong their stay for at least another season, ultimately sealed United's fate. But behind the scenes, a legal battle every bit as furious as the one now being waged for sole control of the club was unfolding as United, after West Ham had been found guilty of fielding ineligible players, argued the Londoners should have been preparing for life in the second-tier rather than themselves.
Although they faced each other in the Cup five years ago, October 26th's match at the London Stadium will be the first time United have faced their rivals from the capital in League competition since the 'Carlos Tevez Affair'.
Eight months earlier, before Alan Curbishley's side were beaten 3-0 in South Yorkshire, Tevez and his fellow Argentine Javier Mascherano had stunned commentators, supporters and fellow players alike by moving to the capital from Corinthians. Although the latter rarely featured, Tevez excelled in claret and blue; even after it emerged the two men's agreements breached PL rules. West Ham, who stayed up by the skin of their teeth, were fined £5.5m. United argued they should have been deducted points instead. An independent FA tribunal agreed, with its chair Lord Griffiths arguing: "We have no doubt that West Ham would have secured at least three fewer points over the 2006-07 season if Carlos Tevez had not been playing for the club." The trouble was, that ruling came in 2009, after United's efforts to be reinstated had failed and their slide into League One had begun. The £20m in compensation Kevin McCabe clawed back was deserved but, by his own admission, small beer compared to the fortune in TV rights and solidarity payments United might have earned in the meantime.
McCabe is now embroiled in a dispute with his fellow co-owner HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa'ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud following the collapse of their partnership. Although he adopted a conciliatory tone when United travelled to the Boleyn Ground at the beginning of the 2014/15 season, those on the terraces have been less forgiving. Indeed, there have been claims on social media that some West Ham fans are planning to wear Tevez masks when they host Chris Wilder's team and journey north in January. If they prove correct, doubtless United's followers will conjure a suitable response for what could be two of the most emotive fixtures of both clubs' seasons.
Those games will be unaffected by the Premier League's decision to introduce a mid-season player break, which takes place after Christmas. United begin their campaign with a trip to AFC Bournemouth on August 10 but the return match will take place on either the weekend commencing the 8th or the 15th of February, with the governing body electing to split that particular round over two weekends. All of those fixtures will be televised.
United also host Crystal Palace and Leicester City before travelling to Europa League winners Chelsea on August 31. The festive period pits them against Watford, Manchester City and Liverpool with Arsenal and title-holders Manchester City following West Ham's appearance at Bramall Lane. United conclude the season with a visit to Southampton on May 17.