Wednesday 1 United 2

A Sheffield derby matches two sides with eyes on other divisions, one team playing in hope of a reawakening and the other living in fear of a continued slumber. Pete Green reports

 They populate the middle divisions of English professional football. They draw four or five times more supporters – who invariably believe themselves to be the longest- and hardest-suffering of any in the world – than most of the teams who beat them. They average one managerial sacking per year. Their snores roar through the midlands and reverberate round the hills of Sheffield. They are the sleeping giants. 

“Sleeping giant” is a useful bit of football shorthand. It stands for “big town, big ground, rubbish team”. It often also implies “fans running short of patience”. To wake a sleeping giant you need a charismatic, inspirational manager – an O’Neill, a Clough, a Keegan – and a golden tit never goes amiss. While you’re waiting, you might expect a game against your local rivals to throw up enough spice and spark to distract you briefly from your woes. Sheffield is no ordinary city, however, and its two professional clubs contest a far from typical city derby.

At a quarter past two the Queen’s Ground pub on Langsett Road is both very loud and very busy. As sweating masses of Yorkshire manhood squeeze to the bar and back, Caravan of Love plays in the background and United and Wednesday fans mingle amiably. The Sheffield Star has done its best to awaken some tension, publishing a separate 24-page preview with Steel City Showdown smelted across the front and a smirking Sturrock montaged face to face with a furiously gurning Warnock. As a Wednesday fan in the Queen’s explains, though, the Sheffield derby is special because “the fans actually get on”.

Maybe any mutual disdain is outweighed by civic pride. Memories are fond of the 1993 FA Cup semi-final, when both sets of fans crammed into Wembley, and Sheffield is riding one of those high tides of self-confidence that seem to surge through provincial cities now and again. Conspicuous regeneration work, a perky property market and an exhilarating indie scene (it’s not just the Arctic Monkeys, people) have lately complemented Sheffield’s enduring low crime rate, pretty semi-rural panoramas and distinctively green, low-rise, friendly environment. The absence of top-flight football is beginning to feel anomalous: the giants must be stirred.

Wednesday fans believe they can return to the top half of the Premiership – and if Mark Hughes thinks he could take Blackburn into the Champions League, why not? They are often accused of “arrogance” – a charge levelled blindly these days at any supporter who dares voice a little optimism, but isn’t a slightly skewed perspective simply part of being a fan rather than a spectator? And much as the modern, Freudian obsession with stadium size is to be deplored, you can start to get your head around Owlie frustration when you look at Hillsborough. It’s a decent owd ground, is this – and it’s not so long ago that the Trevor Francis side featuring Waddle, Sheridan, Bright and Hirst were playing some of the cutest football in England. If Paul Sturrock’s current team looks more rudimentary in approach, the fans are happy to trade artistry for second-flight survival – this season, at least.

Today, though, fear is the key. Wednesdayites are afraid that their youthful, injury-hit side could wilt and take a thrashing, haemorrhaging confidence ahead of the relegation run-in. Many would celebrate a draw like a win, despite – or perhaps because of – looking good for a point at Bramall Lane in December only to lose 1‑0. United’s recent inconsistency has their supporters anxious not to slip up today, particularly given Leeds’ ominous rise through the play-off places (locals complain bitterly of media bias toward the West Yorkshire city despite Sheffield being the larger – or so they say in Sheffield). Pre-match, the atmosphere is fervent but not intense, the chants drowned out by the tannoy – and perhaps muted by the fans’ trepidation.

Hi Ho Silver Lining fades out and players and officials gather in the centre circle as Hillsborough commemorates two Wednesday fans killed on the road back from their midweek match at Coventry. Blue-and-white balloons drift poignantly in the breeze. Some feel that the minute’s silence has grown devalued by overuse, but it’s hard not to feel that this immaculate stillness communicates something admirable about this city’s sense of priorities as well as comprising a genuinely touching tribute.

The whistle blows and the balloons bang underfoot: no more tenderness. Chanting resumes and a few fans exchange wanker gestures. The business begins. Wednesday rush forward. Leon Best picks up a ball heaved to the edge of United’s box and scoops it miles over the bar.

Nick Montgomery then Paul Ifill push down the Blades’ right. A pattern is set. Crosses arrive; Wednesday take two or three attempts to clear their lines and lose possession again in their own half. Only Chris Brunt offers a reliable attacking outlet for the home side and he is less-than-comfortable playing on the right. The fears of the fans seep into the sinews of the players, who struggle to thread three passes together. “You couldn’t sell all your tickets,” chant the United fans, referring to the thin, geometric streaks of empty seats in the Kop. “You’ve only come to see the Wednesday,” is the response. The volume level drops. United warm up some subs, who include former Owl Derek Geary. The two sets of fans greet them in the expected manner, then request and receive waves from Warnock as the football melts gently into the sunshine.

“Game’s fucking awful, i’n’t it?” observes a home fan. His team briefly find midfield coherence and land a hopeful shot on target, then a daft tussle between Bruce Dyer and Graham Coughlan reanimates the snoozing thousands. United win a free-kick way out on the left and Michael Tonge pilots it gracefully beyond Chris Adamson to give the game the goal it needs. Three rogue United fans in the South Stand stand up and cheer, then sit down. There is no trouble.

The teams continue to toil optimistically, United dominant in wide areas, and far into stoppage time Chris Armstrong emerges on the left, crossing for Ade Akinbiyi to settle the match with a genuinely world-class volley. Akinbiyi seems a case study in the concept of a player finding his level. Mostly unconfident and clumsy in the Premiership with Leicester – if sometimes harshly singled out by the media – he looks too good for this game, assured and skilful, and Burnley already miss his technique. What are the circumstances that feed through his brain, nerves and muscles to determine the soundness of his touch? If Wednesday can hardly boast a top-flight defence, many more spectators are scrutinising his performance here than have populated Craven Cottage or Ewood Park recently.

But if some Blades fans are unconvinced of their club’s ambition by the transfer-window signing of a 31-year-old who struggled at the highest level, they are perplexed as to why Bruce Dyer, who also arrived in January in an unlikely switch from Stoke, is keeping Steve Kabba out of the team. Warnock, like Peter Taylor, is a manager who changes his strikers like any man with reasonable standards of personal hygiene changes his socks.

While they sleep, the giants dream of gold. United have tried to “create a new revenue stream”, as chairman Kevin McCabe depressingly if unsurprisingly puts it, by buying a club in China’s Sichuan province (population: 90 million, “although I do not expect them all to become fans”, admits McCabe humbly). Here at Hillsborough, companies shell out to sponsor the chairman’s programme notes – brought to you in association with “Nick and everyone at Classic Business Forms” – and, astonishingly, the tannoy announcement of injury time. I make a mental note never to use the hotel responsible (and, while we’re at it, companies who advertise in pub toilets, that includes you as well).

Sheffield unites again as the clubs’ mascots are joined by those of the city’s basketball, ice hockey and rugby league teams for a penalty shoot-out (sponsored by Love 2B, whatever that is). Jimmy, a bright red Sheffield Eagle, scuffs one, then a big blue thing scores. At the end Ozzie Owl and Captain Blade have a hug. This is how you take the heat out of a rivalry: personify it with comic names and big foam feet.

Unfortunately the match, when it restarts, has also gone cold. With three-quarters of an hour of football to play, Wednesday’s slumbering fans have given up, their players have given up, and the matter becomes chronic and self-fulfilling. Sensing the surrender, United adopt a touch of swagger, languidly fluffing chances to finish it, like a showboating armwrestler prolonging the bout.

The only one not buying the drubbing is Sturrock, who finally sends on the Liverpool trainee Richie Partridge to take up the right midfield slot. Brunt switches to the left. The effect is immediate. For the first time the Owls have some width and the Blades’ underworked back four are suddenly stretched. Gaps open up and Glenn Whelan, tackled just inside the area, wins a penalty with a distinctly sub-Premiership tumble. Steve MacLean scores and Hillsborough wipes the sand out of its eyes.

For ten minutes the ball arcs elusively above United’s box, as if in volleyball or water polo. Nigel Miller had refereed well until the penalty and now rebalances his karma by dismissing a much stronger case for another. Warnock’s side is just about clear-headed enough to see out the sponsored minutes of injury time. Thirty-three thousand people agree that the final score does not reflect the match, but a little more belief from the home side could have nicked them a vital point.

A few overexcited boys rush off to scuffle in the city centre, but even the insults are almost endearingly lame (“Piggies”?). The temperature has suddenly dropped five degrees, as if the spectre of relegation has settled over Owlerton with a supernatural cliche. Wednesday are good enough to stay up, but not too good to go down. United should ride out the challenge of Watford and Leeds, and, if “doing a Wigan” may be too much to ask, they look organised enough to pull off a Birmingham or a Fulham. Perhaps crucially, they’ll be unencumbered by the kind of expectations that burden their neighbours – so they should enjoy it whatever happens.

At ten past five the number 53 bus back along Penistone Road is neither loud nor very busy. Two or three Wednesdayites look glum, but not too glum, as they ride it into the gathering night. One sits alone in the rearmost seats. He’s not particularly giant, but he is sleeping very soundly.

From WSC 230 April 2006. What was happening this month