At the time of writing there are 37 hours to go before the 142nd Steel City derby commences and it still hasn’t appeared yet. It will because it always does; like clockwork. The ‘it’ in question is a newspaper article proclaiming the meeting of the Sheffield clans to be as fierce, passionate and meaningful a derby as any of its peers, from Manchester to Glasgow. Every year the nationals feel the need to reiterate this incontestable and obvious point and by doing so they only serve to cast erroneous doubt upon it.
The reason why they deem it necessary to talk up a local dust-up that is entirely capable of talking for itself is due to elitism, nothing more and nothing less. The fourth largest city in England is located not only in the far-off alien landscape of the north but lies a whole Peak District away from the modern media hubs of Merseyside and Manchester, which is just enough distance to quantify patronage in its coverage. This partly explains the following sentence published in the Daily Mirror last September as Wednesday and United prepared to go toe-to-toe for the first time in five long years: “As with other industrial cities in the north of England Sheffield is a largely working class location with football at its very core”. Regrettably they failed to accompany their preview with a helpful map of the UK nor even a guide on how best to calm stray whippets should one wander off from a striking miner.
There is another reason besides geography for the media’s snobbery of course, towards a fixture so rich in intensity that it never fails to electrify neutrals into taking sides, and that is because the last all-Sheffield affair to take place in the Premier League was just shy of a quarter of a century ago. You know how it works: if anything occurs beyond the all-encompassing glare of the top flight then it must, by extension be niche and fair game for a pat on the head. It must be small.
It is immensely tempting here to elucidate exactly why the Steel City derby is anything but small, but that would only be re-enforcing the patronising slant taken by others. Instead let’s concentrate on a delicious irony in that the game’s two most defining times post-war have been forged beyond the Premier League and its earlier incarnation the First Division: one way down in the third tier, the other on a bright spring day at Wembley.
The latter is remembered for a moment despite the occasion itself deserving to overshadow any individual magic. In 1993 both the Blades and the Owls finished their seasons in close proximity to Arsenal, Spurs and Chelsea (with Wednesday topping all three) and navigated their way past the Gunners, Manchester United and others to each reach the FA Cup semi-final. Fate naturally drew them together; Chris Waddle naturally tore them apart with a typically brilliant dipping free-kick two minutes in. Throughout their long cup run United striker Alan Cork had refused to shave off his greying beard out of superstition and so the expertly dispatched equaliser appeared to come from an aging steward imposing on the pitch. Nearly an hour later, deep into extra time, after an enthralling and emotive contest, Mark Bright sent Wednesday to the final and Cork to his pack of razors.
Fourteen years earlier during the Christmas of 1979, 49,309 Sheffieldites packed out Hillsborough for an 11am kick-off to witness what would become known as the Boxing Day Massacre. With both teams languishing in the old Division Three (which makes the near-fifty thousand attendance all the more remarkable) an Owls side managed by Jack Charlton and containing the irascible Terry Curran blitzed their neighbours 4-0, a result and performance that has gone down in local folklore.
That is not to suggest that Wednesday have enjoyed the baulk of the glory days. In 1951 Bramall Lane erupted in joy as the Blades ran out 7-3 winners with the great duo of Alf Ringstead and Derek Hawksworth riotous throughout while this Friday evening sees them start as favourites and the only team from the city with a realistic shot at promotion.
This is a contest that’s given the wider world 125 years of drama, ferocious dispute, fantastical score-lines and folklore and all from a place that first thought to form a club. From a personal interest the Sheffield Independent was also the first newspaper to treat the game seriously enough to pen and publish a match report.
There are now 36 hours to go before the 142nd Steel City derby and even as a neutral the excitement is kicking in. It is not necessary for the media to explain why.