"You don’t get over it..” “Utter relief..” former Sheffield Wednesday men Darren Purse and Dave Cusack describe the highs and lows of last day survival shootouts

When Sheffield Wednesday supporters lean back to think of previous do-or-die last day relegation clashes, there are probably two matches that immediately spring to mind. And they conjure up contrasting emotions.

By Alex Miller
Thursday, 6th May 2021, 5:49 pm

One of joy; black-and-white memories of goals by Mick Prendergast and Eric Potts that earned them a famous 2-1 win over Southend United in 1976 that saved them from relegation to Fourth Division football.

And one of pain; a painful techicolour 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace in 2010 that consigned them to the drop from what is now known as the Championship.

On both occasions only a win would do, on both occasions that win would consign their opponents to relegation. This weekend, of course, Sheffield Wednesday go through it all over again. What side of the emotional see-saw they land on remains to be seen.

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The highs and lows of football are experienced at Sheffield Wednesday in 2010 and 1976.

Two of the men who have some idea of the pressures current Wednesday players will be facing at Derby on Saturday are Darren Purse and David Cusack.

Purse, Owls armband wrapped around his bicep, scored the late equaliser that only served to make the 2010 date all the more agonising.

Cusack, he too a strapping, no-nonsense centre-half, put on a famous performance in the famous Southend win 34 years earlier.

“I don't remember too much about the build-up to the weekend,” Purse told The Star, “but there was obviously a lot of pressure on it, we all knew that.

“We were told by the Thursday it was a sell-out at Hillsborough, they'd opened up all the corners of the ground and all that.

“It's a tie I try to forget if I'm totally honest, but the day and the support we had that day was unbelievable. It wasn't the point we got that day that did us, we drew so many games that season and it was the culmination of the 45 games before it.”

There will be no supporters at Pride Park of course, the sad reality of the ongoing coronavirus crisis meaning the what many are billing as the biggest game in the modern history of both these proud clubs will lack any semblance of atmosphere.

And Cusack, 64, says that alone will bring its challenges to both sets of players on what is a major date in their careers. The atmosphere at Hillsborough on April 29 1976 was the finest he ever experienced either as a player or supporter.

It’s the fans, he said, that should be at the forefront of the players minds as they cross the white line in Derbyshire. It was in his all those years ago.

“It was a massive game,” he said, “the biggest of my career and one of the biggest and most important games that club has every had. I remember players, fans, kit men, washer women, the cup of tea people at half-time, we all gave everything on that day. It was a special feeling.

“The supporters were absolutely fantastic. It was the old ground and set-up. To me, everyone single one of them was as much a part of that success that day as any of us.

“They wanted to win as badly as we did, the whole ground felt so uptight before the game, but they pushed us on all the way.

“I can't imagine it at all [playing in front of empty stands]. A lot of the game will come down to the manager and his staff, and how they go about getting the players on their toes like supporters do.”

Now a coach at Oxford United, Purse remembered the approach of Alan Irvine in the Palace match-up was no different to any other match and believes his old West Brom teammate Darren Moore – and his staff – will follow suit.

Players know the magnitude of the match, he surmised, but the win will likely be taken by the team that carries out their game plan best.

He said: “Late on in the game you start taking risks, but you can't fall into the trap of taking too many risks too early in the game.

“They can't go gung-ho early doors and to try win the game in the first 10 or 15 minutes, it's rare you do that, but you can make life hard for yourself by conceding an early goal and then all of a sudden that task you have is even harder.

“You have to have the players that have that experience of playing in big games, big occasions. It'll be strange for them because it's a such a big game with no fans in. The added pressure of a full house can bring the best out of players on a day like that and while the players should be used to it by now, you lose something.

“I’d tell them now, it's one of the hardest things I experienced in my career. I took it personally. I think back on it now and it still hurts. You don't get over it.

“Hopefully they can right the wrongs of 11 years ago.”

Rotherham could render the whole game pointless. A win for them at Cardiff will see Wednesday, and possibly Derby, relegated.

But it could well be that in decades to come the likes of Barry Bannan will look back on this weekend’s clash in one of two ways; like Purse, or like Cusack.

“The feeling was complete and utter relief,” Cusack remembered warmly. “Grown men were shedding tears in the changing room, it was unbelievable. Being a Sheffield Wednesday supporter all my life as well, wow, magnificent

“We knew exactly what we had to do. There could be no excuses. You could say that about every game, but it brings something out in you, an occasion like that. Forget the club, think about the people who spend their best and worst days watching in the stands. It's their lives. And the players need to remember that.”

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