Sheffield could – and should – be England’s Milan. Two clubs, considerable latent support, reasonable catchment area, passionate football folk, and a population of half a million. The two clubs, United and Wednesday, are part of football’s traditional heartland, early beneficiaries of the industrialisation of the sport in Britain, indeed the world. They need not be looking back at their best days, but sadly, they do.
United’s glory days were in the day of the gas lamp, horsedrawn carriages and Victorian values. Wednesday’s halcyon period was also long ago, although they flickered on the big stage in the 1980s and 1990s, almost regaining some of their lustre. But look at the facts: between them, they’ve spent just 11 seasons in the Premier between them. Wednesday are in the Championship, United in League One. Today’s sporting hero in the city is Olympian Jessica Ennis, who now has a stand named after her at Bramall Lane.
There are many reasons why the red and blue sides of Sheffield have declined. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Sheffield was an industrial powerhouse, built on the steel industry. You could walk into any house in the land and pick up a piece of cutlery that declared, “Sheffield Steel” or “Made in Sheffield”. The 1970s and 1980s saw a big slump in the city’s traditional livelihood, but in recent years, there has been something of a resurgence, apparently, with the city’s Gross Value Added growing well and making Sheffield worth some £9bn.
Of the city’s two clubs, I have a soft spot for United and their red striped shirts. I remember the great Tony Currie and others like Len Badger, a Springett or two, Alan Woodward and Stuart Scullion in the 1970s and the three-sided ground that was Bramall Lane. I also recall how they started the 1971-72 season in the old first division, rising to the top of the league.
I’ve also always like Sheffield as a city. If you are fond of real ale, it’s a great place and in the Rutland Arms in Brown Street, I found the perfect pre-match home. It looks classically northern from the outside and you don’t know what you’re walking into when you swing the doors open. It was packed with supporters of all ages, enjoying the beer and excellent food. I heard a few names from the past being discussed over belly port sandwiches and beer, names like Currie [of course], Brian Deane, Billy Dearden from the past and manager Nigel Clough’s recent signing Billy Paynter. Fans from both teams were sitting side-by-side, creating a good, mature atmosphere. Certainly, there was no need for the platoon of yellow-vested policemen standing on guard outside the pub when I left.
Trouble at Lane
High-vis jackets were everywhere. Sheffield United were hosting Bradford City, local Yorkshire rivals and a club that the Blades’ fans would consider to be their inferior. But the league table doesn’t lie – Bradford, before the start of play, were in 12th place following promotion from League Two in 2012-13, a season that saw the Bantams beat Arsenal and Aston Villa before reaching the Football League final against Swansea. They, too, have seen better days, but when they flirted with the Premier for two seasons, it killed them, sending them down three times before finding themselves on the brink of non-league football. They’re on the way back now and their fans are among the most voiciferous in the country.
With the mass presence of police – I saw two dozen march down a side street which evoked memories of the miners’ strike in the 1980s – I was wondering if trouble was expected. Then I saw some, but it had nothing to do with fan rivalry. A car approached a zebra crossing in Shoreham Street, two men scrambled across it, the car screeched to a halt. The driver flung the door open, raced across the road and started to assault one of the men. I was shocked, but not as stunned as the victim, who would have got more if the wife of the obnoxious middle-aged United fan had not intervened. “Are you all like that up here?,” I asked. Suddenly, I looked around, not a trace of high-vis yellow to be seen. Gathering my thoughts, I proceeded to Bramall Lane, being extra careful when I crossed the road.
Old money football home
Bramall Lane is what I would call a “proper old football ground”, with red brick terraced houses as neighbours and entrances on the street (how do people get in, though, with such narrow turnstiles?). It has the look of a ground that deserves a better stage than League One, but at the same time, despite its obvious redevelopment over the years, it is a ground from football’s past. In fact, Bramall Lane is one of the Football League’s oldest locations. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the club is looking to move from it, given it is an inner-city site that probably clogs up traffic in the centre.
Inevitably, the ground has a statue outside, in fact two: Joe Shaw and Derek Dooley. Shaw played for the Blades from 1945 to 1966, appearing 632 times at centre half. Dooley was a striker who scored 62 goals in 61 games between 1947 and 1953 – for Sheffield Wednesday. He sustained a double fracture of his leg and a subsequent infection meant he had to have it amputated. It was rumoured that some chemicals from the white touchline marking had got into the injury. The popular Dooley later worked for both Sheffield clubs and was chairman of United in the 1990s.
The average attendance at Bramall Lane has declined over the years. In the Premier, the club could call on 30,000-plus, but last season, crowds were around 18,000. It’s pretty much the same in 2013-14, consistently among the best in League One, but then for a club of United’s size, they should be. Only Wolves, another of the old guard, have better gates in League One.
In need of sharpening
Around 6,000 Blades’ fans went to Aston Villa for their third round FA Cup tie. Sheffield United’s season, best described as “under-achieving”, received a boost when they beat Villa 2-1 in one of the genuine surprises of the round. A few days earlier, Villa’s manager, Paul Lambert, had made some badly interpreted comments about the value of the FA Cup and they came back to haunt him. United will play Fulham in round four on January 25, and there’s no reason why they cannot repeat the Villa success.
Their league form is patchy, to be absolutely kind. After being Villa, they lost at Notts County. If it were not for their home form, United would be even closer to the relegation zone. Their away form is the worst in the division, with one win in 13 outings and scored just eight goals. Their only win on the road was at Bristol City, and they are seemingly heading for League Two. Before meeting Bradford, United had a mere one point between themselves and the relegation zone and occupied 19th place.
The game got underway with a curious rendition of John Denver’s Annie’s Song, with the words providing some insight to life in “steel city”.
You fill up my senses,
Like a gallon of Magnet,
Like a packet of Woodbines,
Like a good pinch of snuff,
Like a night out in Sheffield,
Like a greasy chip butty,
Like Sheffield United,
Come fill me again
And I even saw one die-hard close his eyes as he sang this…!
United started well, with new signing Billy Paynter and crowd favourites Jose Baxter and Jamie Murphy causing Bradford problems with their pace. They took the lead after just eight minutes, Tony McMahon’s low cross to the far post, finished off by Jamie Murphy.
Bradford responded almost immediately, with James Hanson hitting the crossbar with a powerful header and then Carl McHugh met the rebound with a volley that was cleared off the line by Baxter.
It didn’t look to be going Bradford’s way as the United frontline continually went on raids down the flank, giving the defenders a rough time. And then, on the half hour, they had Kyel Reid stretchered off with a nasty-looking injury. Nice touch from the tannoy announcer. “I’m sure we’d all like to wish Kyel all the best in regaining fitness.”
United scored again in the 40th minute when Harry Maguire headed home from a Baxter corner. It looked like job done for Clough’s men.
Or was it? Bradford came out fighting in the second half and in the 56th minute, Gary Jones’ low drive took a wicked deflection and rolled into the net. The City fans went berserk, a noisy bunch, and one or two spilled over the hoardings. Enter the high-vis brigade, dozens of them, who pulled people out of the crowd like predators. Very strong-arm, very aggressive and extremely unnecessarily.
It happened again in the 62nd minute as City drew level. A cross from Jones was aimed at Rory McArdle, but the ball bounced off the leg of United keeper George Long – “He’s got to go, he’s got to bloody go” – and Hanson shot home. More mayhem, more crowd suppression and people thrown out against their will. I witnessed three or four supporters trying to drag their pal away from a team of security men. Would it have been the same if the home side had not blown their 2-0 lead?
Needless to say, the Bradford fans didn’t waste the chance to goad the home fans. “2-0 and you ****** it up”. They had. But the final score of 2-2 was a fair one. Not so fair was the treatment of the Bradford City fans, who seemed to be merely over-zealous.
The three Yorkshiremen
I walked back to the police stronghold that was the railway station – noticing that there’s a Clough Road a few yards from the gound – with three locals who were bemoaning the performance of the referee. I said it had been a good game, very entertaining and I certainly didn’t feel the officials had bad games. “Aye, if you’re not a Blades fan,” came one response. “We didn’t play second half.” I guess that’s why they’re where they are. On the evidence of that first period, however, they will give a Fulham side low on confidence a game. I wished them luck and told them I would be watching. They’re still my favourite Sheffield side, after all.