Sheffield United 2 Leeds United 0

These Yorkshire rivals may yet head in different directions out of the Championship. But in a tense occasion on a sunny day the confident pre-match favourites fall to a chastening defeat. David Stubbs reveals all

Bramall Lane’s highest ever attendance was the 68,287 who witnessed an FA Cup tie against Leeds in 1936. The rivalry between the two clubs is intense but fitful, as both have bobbed up and down between divisions over the years. In the early 1970s, when Sheffield United climbed back into Division One under manager John Harris, I recall as a young lad in Leeds watching highlights of the home and away Sheffield fixtures on Yorkshire TV the following Sunday afternoon.

Leeds generally got the better of these but didn’t always have it their own way. Sports correspondent and part-time Methodist preacher Keith Macklin was always the commentator but even with his rising, carrying tones, he could never quite drown out the massed, unmistakable bellows of “YOU’RE GONNA GET YOUR FOOKIN’ HEADS KICKED IN!” from the Leeds end, which flooded every parlour room in Yorkshire after Sunday roast whenever the Blades had the temerity to score.

Prior to this fixture, Sheffield United were third from bottom of the table, on an abysmal streak of 13 matches without a win, broken only by victory over Nottingham Forest, their first under manager Micky Adams. That was followed by a 3-0 shellacking at Watford, however. As for Leeds, they’ve been challenging for their second successive promotion and looking a shoo-in for a place in the play-offs at the very least. A case of the irresistible force against the moveable object, on paper.

Certainly, that’s reflected in the mood and body language of the visiting fans. Leeds’ nickname the Peacocks has never really taken – they’ve tended to incline towards the menacingly dour the Whites or United. Contrast Sheffield Utd, who are far more often than not simply the Blades, including on their own stadium scoreboard. Still, there’s a strut in the step of the visiting supporters today.

They’re crowded and cordoned into a pub just outside Sheffield station, supping long before the appearance of the sun over the yard arm, with four visored, mounted police stationed feet away from the entrance as if ready to charge the saloon bar at the first sign of trouble. But Leeds fans are merely noisy and smug, still bristling with joy at last season’s third-round victory over Man United: “We dumped the scum out the FA Cup/We’re Super Leeds and we’re going up.”

The police, who advised that this fixture was moved to 1pm, are out in startlingly vast numbers, as is their wont nowadays – at an eight-person demo outside Boots in Brighton recently I counted some 32 officers. So for a fixture like this you can expect, and get, an invasion force in luminous yellow and flak jackets. A droning helicopter sits static above the city centre. Cops line every possible walkway to the stadium, chasing a pitiful looking bunch of landfill ne’er-do-wells down an underpass for no discernibly urgent reason other than to stretch their legs. You can find your way to Bramall Lane simply by following the trail of horseshit.

Like many major northern cities, including Manchester and Leeds itself, Sheffield is in what you might call its post-post industrial phase. No longer the traumatic, menacing and broken cityscape that launched a thousand Cabaret Voltaire albums back in the 1970s and 80s, the mile between station and stadium is a clean and untidy mélange of surviving small business concerns, vestigial blocks of grand, 19th century architecture, eye-catching modernistic sculpture such as the sweeping water feature outside the station, multi-storey car parks, destitute fossils of pubs, and various civic heritage and commercial initiatives dating from the Blair years. It feels neutralised, Full Montied.

Considering that it is the oldest ground in Britain, opened in 1855 as a cricket club, Bramall Lane merges nowadays anonymously and imperceptibly into its immediate surroundings – built into it is the swanky-ish Copthorne Hotel, opened in 2008. As recently as 1973, the Lane doubled up as a cricket ground, unclosed at one side which meant a long slog to fetch the ball for throw-ins. Today, dismal green stripes on the pitch indicate its modern day fate, to share with the rugby league club Sheffield Eagles. Promises to improve stadium capacity are on hold until such time as the Blades re-establish themselves as a Premier League club. Chances of that look currently scraggy indeed.

The away end is packed out with jeering, expectant Leeds fans. As for the home fans, they have not filled out the place, the patches of empty seats a sign of flagging faith. In the programme, a fan’s column opens in Ian Curtis-like tones: “As the clouds grow darker and the atmosphere gloomier, we are left with nothing so much to look forward to but an end to the season from hell.” In a reverse of the pathetic fallacy, however, the sun is shining, the sky an almost fatuous blue. That the pre-match soundtrack consists variously of Judas Priest’s United, Sham 69’s If the Kids are United and John Denver’s Annie’s Song points further to some internal sense of wrangling, terrible confusion.

Following a minute’s silence for victims of the Japan tsunami, impeccably observed save for a single, wet belch, the match kicks off and something of the lingering, melancholic air of recent tragedies and poor results does pervade the air. During the opening 15 or 20 minutes, ball and ground are rarely acquainted, though given that the pitch looks like it’s barely survived potato-picking season, that may be understandable. As both teams labour, scrap and hack, a sense of the underlying sadness and futility of human existence steals over the ground. A goal from either side seems as remote a prospect as democracy in Saudi Arabia. If Tony Currie, who features prominently in snatches of nostalgic pre-match Tannoy commentary, were on hand to see this, he would doubtless find a spot by the side of the pitch and dig himself a grave solely in order to turn in it. (There’s a nice, soft muddy patch by the left touchline.)

But then amid the green stripes, green shoots. Leeds’ Max Gradel, their liveliest wire, has a couple of chances. But then, down the other end, Daniel Bogdanovic finds himself clear in front of goal. However, at the crucial moment, seemingly paralysed by some ingrained sense of guilt and lack of entitlement, he shoots tamely and Kasper Schmeichel is able to smother. Still, the burgeoning Sheffield spirit is personified by Stephen Quinn. Short and ginger, rarely a benign combination, he’s busy and involved in the Blades’ best work, forcing Schmeichel to parry a long-range shot around the post.

 As the sun steals across the pitch during half-time, it slowly occurs to the home fans that they’ve had the majority of the play, the best chances and that Leeds, who have struggled in games they’ve been supposed to win, haven’t been all that. Confidence continues to transmit across the pitch in the second half and around the 54-minute mark, Sheffield United thread together their first bit of coherent approach play across the ground, with some neat work from Quinn resulting in a cross which Leeds’ Eric Lichaj prods into the back of his own net. Hardly a comedy DVD item as own goals go, but an enormous mood changer. The away fans are silent, penned in and crestfallen as arcs of derisive abuse rain down on them from three sides of the ground. The red and white worm has turned.

Leeds do respond immediately, with a strike from distance from Barry Bannan, but not much thereafter. It’s hard to believe this is the same side who terrorised Arsenal at the Emirates; they seem to have internalised all of the uninspired diffidence which has recently plagued the Blades, who are now playing with gusto and long-pent-up psychological energy, with panache where formerly there was merely an ache. Backheels, dummies, triangles, it’s almost pretty. Substitute Bjorn Helge Riise, brother of John Arne, comes on midway through the second half with an aura of the Riise dynasty. More fine work from undoubted Man of the Match Quinn and the Norwegian is freed to lash in a second for Sheffield United from what’s actually quite a narrow angle – but he dispatches with cool inevitability.

Thereafter, Leeds offer urgency but little penetration, and in terms of atmosphere, the mood has transformed from Joy Division to Russ Abbott. Leeds win free-kicks but fans below me banter unworriedly with a steward with mutton-chopped whiskers that would be the envy of Emmerdale’s Amos Brearley. Laddish home fans make aggressive human Y-shapes at the deathly morose away end. Leeds almost grab a consolation but following a goal-line scramble that no slapstick choreographer could hope to emulate, Sheffield clear. The game has one last turd to squirt down on Leeds’ hopes, as Billy Paynter is given a straight red card for a stamping offence. And that is that.

If there were about 3,000 police on duty before the game, their number appears to increase to 6,000 afterwards. Sirens wail, phalanxes of bobbies break into a jog towards troublespots and there are points along the road so thickly lined with batoned officers I wonder if we’re about to be kettled. This doesn’t stop some verbal exchanges. “You wish you were Leeds fans,” jeers an LUFC scarved female, which on reflection, is an odd observation. If you did have a football wish-o-meter and intended to use it solely for the purposes of glory hunting, would you not set the dial a bit higher than Leeds United? The recipient of the taunt retorts along different lines: “Piss off, yer fat slag.”

What the remark also reveals is that although Sheffield are the more southerly, they are somehow more northern than Leeds. The female taunter reveals a certain well-heeled, almost Cockney-smug, superiority that wreathes some Leeds fans, certainly in relation to their local inferiors. In this sense, they are the Peacocks. With a relatively wealthy catchment area all to themselves they are more likely to reascend to their former lofty heights while Sheffield, with two clubs to field, seem destined to continue to plough their respective furrows of struggle and strife.

But who knows? As the crowds file out of the ground, the Sheffield MC has one last jibe with a built-in time-delay before detonation: “To the travelling supporters – we look forward to seeing you next year.” Maybe they will.

From WSC 291 May 2011