26 February ~ With both clubs vying for promotion from League One, today's Sheffield derby holds more significance than normal for United and Wednesday. For the clubs, sitting second and third in the table, the fixture represents a pivotal moment in the campaign. Under Danny Wilson, a former player and manager with Wednesday, United have impressed of late and are well placed for a win this afternoon. With 11 wins in their last 13 games, United have opened a five-point lead over their city rivals and gained on league leaders Charlton, who looked likely to walk away with the title until recently.
Thanks to a few promising youngsters such as Harry Maguire and Kevin McDonald, the dangerous striker Ched Evans and the experience of Richard Creswell (another to have crossed the city divide), Wilson’s team seem capable of sustaining their automatic promotion bid to the end.
Wednesday, by contrast, have lost their last three and taken only eight points from 24. Their domineering form that saw United looking up at them earlier in the season has evaporated as the goals have dried up. Striker Gary Madine's inability to rediscover his goalscoring form since returning from injury has not helped, nor has the loss of loanee Ben Marshall, who supplied many of Madine's goals.
The intensity of a Sheffield derby could play into the hands of a passionate Gary Megson and spur his team to recovery, dragging the Blades back in the process. Another defeat would make the table sorry reading for the Owls. A win for United would put them eight points ahead with two games in hand.
Both clubs are in need of a return to the Championship. Since his takeover last year, the Wednesday chairman Milan Mandaric has supported the club financially. First he cleared the mountainous debt that had built up under the previous regime, then covered last year’s £5.5 million deficit. Such losses cannot continue, however. His plan to get the club back towards the Premier League before, in all likelihood, selling it on for a decent profit, as he did with Portsmouth and Leicester, relies on a return to the second-tier.
As Mandaric said this week: "We desperately need to get back on a winning streak. We want to beat our neighbours. I want us to be promoted." That he also denied having any interest in troubled Rangers means that he should be around to see through his current "project".
United, meanwhile, have recorded losses of £32m over the last two seasons. Initially a model of a "well-run club" under chairman Kevin McCabe, the Blades' business plan relied on consistent Premier League football.
Now in the third tier, following a drop even more rapid than Wednesday's, United are increasingly reliant on McCabe’s corporate empire. Last year one of his businesses bought the hotel next to Bramall Lane, thereby relieving a large amount of debt from the club itself.
Keeping high-earning players such as Evans, alongside new signings like Will Hoskins on loan from Brighton, has shown that United are willing to gamble on promotion to the Championship at the first attempt. Like Wednesday, another year in League One could prove too painful both on and off the pitch. Tom Whitworth