It’s been five years since Sheffield Wednesday played Sheffield United and a lot has changed, though power doesn’t tend to stay on one side of the city for too long
22 September ~ Even after Chris O’Grady had headed in Sheffield Wednesday’s winner over Sheffield United at Hillsborough in February 2012, few could have foreseen the power shift that was to come over the next five years of football in the Steel City.
Wednesday won ten of their remaining 13 matches to leapfrog their rivals and take automatic promotion and have since been sold to Thai tuna magnate Dejphon Chansiri, whose financial clout has transformed the Owls into serious promotion contenders. Having suffered two failed play-off campaigns in a row, sealing a return to the Premier League this season would be the perfect way to celebrate their 150th birthday.
Fortunes at Bramall Lane during that time could hardly have been more different. Having lost the play-off final in 2012, a succession of managers oversaw five years of treading water in League One as discontent grew in the stands. Then, just when it seemed Wednesday would be Sheffield’s dominant force for the foreseeable future, United struck gold. Former defender and lifelong Blade Chris Wilder was appointed and brought with him some lovely flowing football as they romped to the League One title with 100 points.
Suddenly, after five years operating in different worlds, the two Sheffield clubs find themselves resuming their topsy-turvy rivalry this Sunday. In 140 competitive matches spanning 124 years the record stands at 48 wins apiece and 40 draws. Few major one-city rivalries are so even and each club can claim multiple periods of dominance in pasts arguably littered with underachievement on both sides.
Ahead of Sunday’s game Wednesday are rediscovering that Steel City superiority is liable to change rapidly. The moneyed, star-laden, experienced Championship promotion challengers find themselves two points and three positions behind sixth-place United, and it is now fans in the Hillsborough stands showing signs of discontent.
Despite Wednesday’s recent league finishes they have good reasons to be frustrated, which have only been amplified by the resurgence of United. Among them are unjustifiably high ticket prices, which rightly cause outrage among some home and most away fans, and Chansiri’s determination to control every aspect of the club himself, including shirt production, means Wednesday’s 150th anniversary kits are not yet on sale.
If these complaints seem petty, mistakes have also been made with player recruitment. A scattergun approach has seen the Owls waste vast sums on marquee signings such as Jordan Rhodes rather than focus on what they needed: pace and defenders. The club used the excuse of Financial Fair Play for an inactive summer but it’s hard for fans to have sympathy when they already feel ripped off.
Chansiri has done many good things but these missteps have been unnecessarily divisive for a fanbase who should be more together than at any point over the past two decades. As a result Chansiri has backed himself into a corner – run the club like a business rather than a community asset and the customers will expect a decent product. Provide that, and these problems will likely fade into the background.
Despite the fourth-place finish that wasn’t the case last season, with the stale performances a sharp contrast to manager Carlos Carvalhal’s first year of cavalier football. It caused grumbles but got results and after a tricky start this season recent signs are that Wednesday might have found a happy blend of the two.
Wednesday have not lost since the opening day, have had their best start to a season under Carvalhal and only a stoppage-time Cardiff equaliser last weekend prevented them from jumping above United. The return from injury of Kieran Lee in midfield combined with the flourishing partnership of Gary Hooper and Steven Fletcher up front, plus the industrious full-back-cum-winger Adam Reach finding his feet and the belated addition of classy centre-back Joost van Aken, has finally made the talented squad of last season look like they have what it takes to threaten the automatic promotion spots.
On paper Wednesday are favourites for Sunday but a United team who feel they are underdogs are the most dangerous kind. Just ask any Wednesdayite who remembers 1991-92, when a stylish Owls team finished third in the top division but were battered by a supposedly inferior United both home and away.
This, however, is not the scrappy, physical United team of the Dave Bassett era. Instead Wilder has a Warnockian aura about him, and Wednesday fans are rightly wary of the latter even to this day. United are playing confident and aggressive attacking football, and if Wednesday cannot match their intensity at Hillsborough the hosts will be in for a shock.
Yet United’s biggest strength could play into Wednesday’s hands. The Owls have shown themselves far more adept at picking apart attacking teams than those who sit back, and their best performance of the season so far came when they beat Nottingham Forest 3-1 at Hillsborough. Then, the away side set up in a 3-5-2, not dissimilar to the system Wilder employs at United, and it allowed Wednesday to stay solid in midfield while their full-backs caused havoc down the flanks. If United make the same mistake, Wednesday could cut them open.
Whichever way it goes, at the final whistle on Sunday the winning set of fans will be in ecstasy while the losers will face an agonising wait for the return fixture in January. By then the fortunes of both Sheffield clubs may have shifted again, but the one thing it’s safe to assume is that the gut-wrenching mixture of excitement and nerves that accompany the Steel City Derby will never change. Tom Hocking