The two Sheffield clubs share a long history of mediocrity. That makes their relationship all the more fraught, says Gary Armstrong
It cannot easily be argued that footballing success is the reason for the large number of fans in Sheffield who flock to watch both United and Wednesday. Historically neither side has been superior to the other for very long, and neither has won an FA Cup or League championship for over 50 years.
Recently Wednesday won the League Cup in 1991 and were beaten finalists in that cup and the FA Cup in 1993. Overall, however, the city has not seen much silverware, for United have not won a thing for 75 years. Considering this, the loyalty manifested in attendance figures is staggering. From a population of half a million people, the two clubs could attract a combined average of 50,000 per game when both were in the top division in 1991-94 and, needless to say, they had no problems packing Wembley in 1993 for the FA Cup semi-final
There is no obviously good social or historical reason why the United/Wednesday rivalry should be so strong, yet the bitterness often shown by both sides seems quite remarkable. One possible explanation comes from the Sheffield journalist, Jonathon Foster: “Sheffield is a uniquely insular city, the least cosmopolitan of all the large cities in Britain, with little apart from football in which jealousy or passion can be invested.” (Independent, April 1993)
The history of the two clubs does provide some clues as to the strength of the later rivalry. The Wednesday team was founded in 1867 out of a cricket club consisting of traders, whose day off was a Wednesday. The football team was established to keep members together through the winter. United came into being 22 years later after a member of the Sheffield United Cricket Club ground staff at Bramall Lane saw an FA Cup semi-final played there. The obvious appeal of the game, not to mention the revenue it grossed, persuaded him to suggest to the directors that another football club could be founded. The owners of Bramall Lane formed a football team (Sheffield United) and advertised for players, many of whom came from Scotland in the early years.
Regardless of the players’ origins, the foundation of the new club caused tension. The clubs met twice in 1895, when supporters of both sides produced funeral cards announcing the death of the rival side. Local football archivist Keith Farnsworth noted: “It is said that some families were so divided on this issue that fathers ceased to speak to sons and brother fell out with brother.”
United’s historian Denis Clarebrough tells of early hostility between the two clubs, founded on accusations that United were trying to poach Wednesday players. No doubt this was exacerbated when in 1890 United undercut Wednesday’s admission charges, and the fact that, at the same time, several Wednesday players joined United. Matches between the sides were sometimes violent occasions. One game in 1892 saw players leap into the crowd to fight spectators before 40 police restored order.
In origin, then, United fans were men who were not dyed-in-the-wool Wednesday fans, and who were drawn either from other declining clubs in the city or from the local population around the Bramall Lane ground. Some may have simply wished to be part of a new ground and new team, perhaps even the city’s nouveau riche. Wednesday was the older, more traditional club who, as a gathering of market traders, might be said to loosely represent the local male petit bourgeoisie.
However, the differences in the social origins of the two clubs were not great enough to leave a lasting mark. Both were identified first and foremost with the city’s major industry, as can be seen from the history of their nicknames. The term “Blades” was originally a journalistic cliche attached to any team from Sheffield (akin to speaking of the men from “Steel City”). As such neither club can claim to have originated the term. In fact, it was Wednesday who were originally nicknamed the Blades while United, like any other team from Sheffield at the time, were generally known as the Cutlers. It was only in the early years of the century, after Wednesday moved from Olive Grove to their new ground at Owlerton, that they lost the nickname Blades and were reborn as the Owls. United then became known as the Blades.
Wednesday’s status as the more established club in the city was enhanced when both clubs were admitted to the Football League in 1892. That year the First Division was enlarged from 14 clubs to 16, and a new Second Division of 12 clubs created. In a ballot, Wednesday were admitted to the First Division, United to the Second. Partly as a result of this, Wednesday have since been seen as the city’s premier club, giving the United fans an inferiority complex in respect of their more famous neighbours.
One way this feeling has been expressed is in the building of the two clubs’ grounds. At Wednesday’s Hillsborough, a magnificent cantilever stand was built in 1961, which helped make it an obvious choice to host matches in the 1966 World Cup. It was only a matter of time before United, whose Bramall Lane ground was still shared with cricket and had only three sides, had a similar stand. Completed in 1975, it crippled United financially for the next 20 years.
Whatever the roots of the rivalry, no one could doubt that it is still passionately felt. No one, perhaps, except the recent chairmen of United and Wednesday, Mike McDonald and Dave Richards respectively, who discussed a merger a couple of years ago. As United played at Wolverhampton, McDonald met the Wednesday chairman as a guest at the Owls game. Richards is a Sheffield-born businessman who, you would have thought, would know about local feelings. McDonald, however, is a self-proclaimed fan of Manchester City. The idea was for a super-club representing Sheffield, playing in a kit of red and blue stripes in a new stadium adjacent to the city’s airport and close to the M1, built on the site of a former open cast mine. A new club, in fact, no doubt full of shiny happy people who had no truck with the past.
No doubt the idea originated purely with the aim of giving the populace a wonderful team to enhance civic dignity. Profits from the proposed sale of Bramall Lane and Hillsborough surely had nothing to do with it, though United’s ground had planning permission which would allow a developer to build on it. Last year, shortly before his resignation, McDonald told of “feasibility studies” being conducted about the merger. Significantly, the day Richards resigned the chair at Wednesday to take over at the Premier League, McDonald stated that the merger would not happen.
Both sets of fans were totally opposed. The local evening paper produced a poll showing that 98 per cent were against the idea. In truth, most fans did not take the plan seriously. Objectively and economically it had some credentials. The Owls are currently some £12 million in debt after a disastrous involvement with the Charterhouse group. The coffers are similarly empty at Bramall Lane due to shenanigans too detailed to go into here.
Some Wednesday players earn as much as £30,000 a week and some of United’s reserves take home a weekly pay cheque of £6,000. Yet both clubs are poor. United are a mediocre First Division team and Wednesday will now join them after a disastrous Premiership season. Attendances for both clubs are down dramatically from a decade ago. The area is economically devastated and the city has failed to reinvent itself like its neighbours Leeds and Manchester.
The populace are still football mad but the money men have to learn that 110 years of footballing tradition cannot simply be bought and repackaged. Precisely because success has been so hard to come by, each club hangs on to its own identity all the more grimly.
Everything seemed set fair for South Yorks 100 years ago. Sheff Utd won the league in 1898 and the Cup in 1899 and 1902. Wednesday were champions in 1903 and 1904 and Doncaster reached the dizzy heights of seventh in the Second Division in 1902, their highest position. Since then it’s all been a bit of a struggle. The First World War interrupted a promising spell – the two Sheffield clubs were sixth and seventh in 1915, United won the Cup and Barnsley were third in the Second Division. Then it wasn’t until 1951-52 that all five clubs were in the Second Division or higher. The two Sheffield clubs had a brief bright spell in the early Sixties (fifth and sixth in 1962) and an even briefer one in the early Nineties, but it never got much better than their Cup semi-final in 1993, when they were seventh and 14th in the Premiership.
The highs and the lows
The Seventies were a nightmare. The three smaller clubs were all in the Fourth Division by 1973 (all in the bottom half in 1973-74) and the two Sheffield clubs sank in the second part of the decade. For one season, 1979-80, not a single South Yorkshire club was in the top two divisions, though Wednesday won promotion after a derby-packed year in the old Third. Barnsley, Sheff Utd and Rotherham were separated only by goal difference in mid-table.
Perhaps surprisingly, the best year (since the First World War) for the two Sheffield clubs is very recent. In 1991-92 they were the fourth (Wednesday) and 11th (United) best supported teams in the country. Compare that with 1978, when the top-drawing South Yorks team (Sheff Utd) averaged only 15,489, behind no less than 28 other clubs. Doncaster declined more or less steadily from the Fifties (they were the 35th most popular team in the country in 1951), while Barnsley have had huge peaks and troughs. Only six clubs in the league drew less than their 2,862 in 1972-73 (one of them being Doncaster), but less than ten years later Barnsley were the 21st best supported club (15,098 in 1981-82) – higher even than their season in the Premiership.
For most of their history Wednesday have been the biggest drawing club in the region, though not without some embarrassing exceptions. In 1978-79, when they were in the Third Division, Wednesday’s average of 10,860 left them adrift of Fourth Division Barnsley (11,048) as well as Sheff Utd. And in 1971-72, with United newly promoted to the First Division, their 33,189 was almost twice as high as Second Division Wednesday’s average. Sheff Utd have also had spells where they compare unfavourably to Barnsley, notably in the early Eighties and now: the Tykes have been ahead for the past three years.
From WSC 162 August 2000. What was happening this month