Sheffield Derby: How 90 minutes of bloody-minded football between Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United revealed what makes the Steel City tick
Luke Wilkinson was loitering on the concourse beneath Hillsborough's towering South Stand three hours before kick-off.
Only a smattering of people, including car worker, chewing anxiously on the collar of his puffa jacket, had decided to brave the elements. Around thirty thousand more, as Storm Freya threatened to make her acquaintance, would leave it until the last possible moment before venturing out and making their way to the stadium. But the tension, the sense of anticipation, was already palpable.
"This means everything," Wilkinson said, staring into the distance as he contemplated what lay ahead. "For 90 minutes, it tortures your emotions. I honestly don't think you could over-exaggerate how big this is."
For a whole host of reasons, some sporting and others political, Sheffield's role in the shaping the game is largely ignored beyond the boundaries of South Yorkshire. Home of the world's oldest club, the world's oldest ground and first ever cup competition, it was also where, as its blast furnaces fired the country's economy, football's most influential set of rules were born.
Yet Leeds, with its slick PR and even slicker spin doctors, has positioned itself as the county's powerhouse. It is a claim at odds with both reality and history. So last night's match represented an opportunity for Sheffield to showcase its potential both on and off the pitch.
What transpired was an arm wrestle, which probably failed to capture the imagination of any neutrals tuning in to watch. But the action, the dogged resilience and sheer bloody-mindedness of those involved, summed-up perfectly the historic struggle for supremacy between these two bitter rivals. And the values upon which the city was built.
"I don't think either team did enough to win it," Chris Wilder, the United manager admitted, as his side remained third in the Championship. "We knew we had to bring our A game to do that. We didn't. But it wasn't for the want of trying on our part. The persistence was there."
Derbies are all about 'firsts'; the first tackle, the first assist and often the first red card. In this instance, coming on the back of two goalless draws at Bramall Lane, this meeting completed the first hat-trick of stalemates in the fixture's 126 year existence.
Over the weekend, as United and Wednesday prepared themselves for battle, Derek Geary explained what makes this derby different from the rest.
"It's not a tourist match, it's not a game where you get tons of people coming from elsewhere to have a day our or soak up the atmosphere," the Irishman, who represented both clubs during his playing career, said. "It's a match for the people here. And that is what makes it different. That is what makes it such an occasion. Because it matters, really matters, to every single person inside the stadium."
With the award of a corner sending people into a frenzy and even routine five yard passes drawing enthusiastic rounds of applause, Geary's description proved absolutely accurate. Unfortunately, at least from United's perspective, referee Peter Bankes' judgement was anything but when he elected not to penalise Michael Hector's foul on Gary Madine inside the penalty area after a quarter of an hour.
Although Wednesday's on-loan centre-half was fortunate to escape censure on that occasion, both defences barely put a foot wrong during the first period. There were flashes of inspiration, most notably from the magic infused boots of Oliver Norwood. But, for the most part, the contest was all about concentration and perspiration. Until some tinkering by the respective benches produced a more open contest.
United's decision to start with Madine rather than David McGoldrick alongside Billy Sharp in attack was a nod not only to the former Wednesday marksman's performances since arriving on loan from Cardiff City but also Wilder's suspicions the opening skirmishes would be a tug of war. It was the right call, as the hosts were considerably less compliant than in recent meetings between the two. But McGoldrick's introduction did coincide with United becoming more creative force, testing Wednesday's new-found resilience under Bruce.
During the interval, another fan, this time of a blue and white persuasion, was standing on the walkway outside the ground's reception.
"We're not losing," he muttered to no one in particular, as he got soaked to the skin and puffed nervously on a cigarette. "It would be great to win, to get one over on that lot, show 'em who is really boss, but we definitely can't lose. We just can't lose to them."
The fifty-something's soliloquy summed-up the feelings of most of those involved, either on the pitch or in the stands. They were understandable. The state of play in the Championship table, with United chasing automatic promotion and Wednesday still harbouring slim ambitions of reaching the top six, had afforded this game extra significance. But is it really possible to consider the bigger picture in a city where loyalties are not decided by religion or geography? Probably not. And, as Geary had reminded a couple of days earlier, the outcome meant something to everyone inside the ground.
The biggest and best chance, after a spell of United pressure, fell to Wednesday when Rolando Aarons turned on the rocket boosters and surged upfield. Sam Hutchinson bust his lungs to track the 23-year-old's run but, having got a touch on the cross, could not direct the ball beyond Dean Henderson.
"We all enjoy derbies," Steve Bruce, the Wednesday manager, said. "Because of the intensity, however, they are rarely great spectacles in the terms of quality. It's because the intensity takes over."
Although the scheduling frustrated folk on both sides of the divide, it at least delivered a nationwide audience. Unfortunately, one of the first things those tuning in saw was an object being thrown at United's Jack O'Connell as he prepared to take a throw-in. There were some chants, aimed at a member of the visiting manager's family, which crossed the line too. But the actions of a few moronic individuals could not spoil the atmosphere.
Before Hutchinson's miss, United had forged some chances of their own. Norwood, always demanding the ball and making himself available to receive possession, was at the heart of most of their good work. Indeed it was his centre which, but for Kieran Westwood's positional sense, would surely have created the opening goal of the game. Madine read the flight of the ball and met it with his forehead. But his effort bounced back off the Republic of Ireland international's chest.
Later, when Norwood thrashed another attempt into the six yard box, Sharp sensed an opportunity. Westwood, who spent the evening bending Bankes' ear whenever there was a break in the action, breathed a sigh of relief when United's captain could not quite connect.
"We were playing a team that, quite rightly, is up there towards the top of the division," Bruce said. "I didn't think there was anything in it."
He was right. It might not have been the most glamorous of spectacles. But the industry and application, the raw emotion, was still powerful and impressive.