The latest instalment of the Steel City Derby gets underway at Bramall Lane on Friday night and ahead of the game, our sports writers got together to have their say.
Chaired by The Star’s deputy head of sport, Liam Hoden, James Shield and Danny Hall discussed United’s chances of completing a memorable derby double while Dom Howson and Chris Holt gave the perspective from the blue half of the Steel City.
HOW DO YOU ASSESS BOTH SIDES IN THE BUILD-UP TO THIS GAME?
DOM: The new boss Jos Luhukay said repeatedly at his unveiling, it’s about stability first for Wednesday. The fact is that Wednesday are on a poor run; they’ve won one of their last 11 games in all competitions, they’re six points from the relegation zone and have a heck of a lot of injuries. But still, I look at the team that started against Carlisle in the FA Cup at the weekend and think that those players should be performing a lot better, and Jos will be looking for an instant reaction in the Steel City Derby.
Personally, I think he’s got to look at next season now and rebuilding and reshaping the squad. Wednesday have a bloated team, there’s a lot of experience and quality at this level there but they haven’t delivered consistently. His first priority is to get to 50 points as quickly as possible and take it from there. Five clean sheets in 26 games is not good enough and given Jos’ sides are renowned for being hard to break down and beat, I expect Wednesday to be pretty conservative when they go to Bramall Lane.
JAMES: Throughout their recent run - I wouldn’t call it a blip - United’s performances levels have still stayed very, very high and they’ve showed a lot of guts and bottle, which you’d expect from a Chris Wilder side. I remember the game at Aston Villa when they were on a bad run and went 2-0 down very early on, but came back to draw 2-2 and could easily have won the game. I think they go into this game in pretty good psychological shape, although they have a few issues physically.
The big miss, of course, is Paul Coutts. They’re coping without him now but the truth is that he is a big, big player for Sheffield United and with the way he was performing before breaking his leg, he’d be a big miss for any team in the division. But they’ve brought a young player in John Lundstram in and the comparisons to Coutts were inevitable, if slightly unfair, because he’s a different type of player. The midfield with Coutts, John Fleck and Mark Duffy had a lovely rhythm to it and John coming in, through no fault of his own, did change the dynamic of it slightly and there was a period of adjustment for all involved.
They’ve had to tweak the way they play slightly but they’ve won games without Coutts now, which I think was a big psychological hurdle for them.
DOM: I’d like to think that whatever team Jos selects for Friday, they will have in the back of their minds what happened at Hillsborough, that they’ll be hurting and they’ll want to put it right. Wednesday do have a shed load of injuries but that team should be more than strong enough to compete with United and that’s why I think they will go with a cautious approach, with the onus on United to break them down. United, with the way they’ve performed this season, you have to show them a lot of respect. They have players who can really hurt Wednesday.
JAMES: I might be old-fashioned but whichever side you’re on, there’s an awful lot thrown on top of you in games like this and although I got slaughtered by the United coaching staff for not making a prediction last time, I won’t this time either. These games can hinge on the tiniest things at times, because of the atmosphere and the emotion that goes with them. There’s no doubt that United go into it in better shape, but I don’t think this game is black and white by any means. It isn’t the same United side that played at Hillsborough and Wednesday have their own injury problems, too, so the dynamic’s changed. I have less sympathy for Wednesday than United in terms of injuries because of the amount of money they’ve lavished on the squad. When you pay the wages that Wednesday are, to some exceptionally good players, and then they say ‘we’ve only got two centre-halves fit in the squad’, that should never have been allowed to happen. It’s still going to be a terrific atmosphere under lights, there’s two very different teams and two very different approaches, too, and I think that’s brilliant for the city.
DOM: Jos recognises the importance of this derby, and I think he’s not afraid to big it up more than Carlos Carvalhal did. And if you ask a lot of Owls fans, that’s what disappointed them in the lead up to the last derby; that he gave the impression that it’s just another game. It really isn’t. I think some of the players underestimated the importance of the game for the fans. Look at Barry Bannan; he’s played in the Premier League and for Scotland but he was blown away by what the derby meant. Since the derby Wednesday have won four times in 17 games. It was a turning point in their season so this is an opportunity to make amends. Everyone will be expecting United to do the business but I think, for Wednesday, this is a chance of getting some redemption.
CHRIS: I am fearing the worst for Wednesday. I genuinely fear that if United score as early this time as they did in the last derby, then Wednesday will get walloped. There is no character in this team whatsoever to be able to come back from that and if they go behind early on, I can’t see them coming back - especially with 28,000 or 29,000 Blades fans on their back in the atmosphere of a Steel City derby. This team will wilt if they do that, go behind early on. The most important thing they can do, as Jos has rightly said, is to stabilise, make them as hard to beat as possible and if that means playing the most boring, negative football possible then do it. Because if they go behind early, this team is finished and it might end up embarrassing. I think it’ll be 2-0 United, and that’s conservative. I’ve seen nothing to make me think differently.
DANNY: Before the change in manager at Wednesday, I’d have predicted another comfortable victory for United but the new boss ‘bounce’ is always dangerous. I still think United, with home advantage and Chris Wilder firing them up, will have enough but I think it’ll be closer than a lot of Blades fans are predicting.
DOM: I have no basis to think that this will happen, but I think it’ll be 1-1. Wednesday have a new man at the helm and I expect them to lift themselves and rise to the occasion. If they can get a few players back, even better.
JAMES: I’m staying on the fence again. But I expect Wednesday to improve, certainly from their recent form, and if not then there’s some serious problems there. They’ve still got some good players at their disposal and when they arrive at Bramall Lane and walk out in front of that crowd, you’d have to be pretty dim not to realise what the game’s about. If you’re a big game player, you should thrive on that. One thing I can say is that if Wednesday do win the game, with the way United go about their business, then you know Wednesday will have earned it. United give it a real go, they fight and battle and don’t know when they’re beaten, again as they showed at Villa when they could have easily felt sorry for themselves and folded at 2-0 down. Instead, they dusted themselves down and won a point. So even if they don’t play well, you can be sure that they’ll battle and fight.