The Steel City Derby: A Neutral’s View

Although I’ve lived in Sheffield for the best part of seven years, this weekend’s Steel City Derby was only the third I’ve been around for, an indication of the two clubs’ hitherto diverging paths. It was the first time since April 2010 that they’d met in the second tier of English football, Wednesday having escaped League One at the first time of asking back in 2012, a feat that eluded United for six long seasons. But despite Wednesday’s impressive promotion pushes in the past couple of seasons, early evidence seems to be pointing towards the balance of power in Sheffield shifting in the Blades’ favour.

Disclaimer: even as a non-local, I’m not sure if it’s possible to be 100% neutral in Sheffield if you’ve lived here a while. Heretical as it might sound, I tend to wish both clubs well. I’ve enjoyed long and successful Football Manager careers with both, and I’ve been to Hillsborough and Bramall Lane plenty of times (admittedly I’ve seen United play more often, but that’s more to do with location and the cost of tickets than anything else).

Anyway, that is the mindset with which I watched the Steel City Derby: as a fan of Sheffield football in general. A Wednesdayite friend of mine had a spare ticket going, and I was delighted to be able to catch one of English football’s most storied derbies first-hand. I’d spoken to acquaintances on both sides in the days leading up to the match and the overriding feeling seemed to be one of nervousness. Walking through Hillsborough before the game, however, there was something of a festival atmosphere, with fans in decidedly high spirits sinking cans in the street and spilling out of pubs under the watchful gaze of police forces bussed in from all over the country. 

But there was scant opportunity for this mood to take hold at Hillsborough Stadium, with Sheffield United scoring a well-worked free kick only a few minutes after the match had started. David Brooks rolled the ball back to John Fleck, who smashed the ball past a bewildered Westwood. Then, at 15 minutes, a simple clearance from Enda Stevens found its way through the slipshod Wednesday defence to the feet of Leon Clarke, who dutifully steered it home with a journeyman’s finish.

For Wednesday, the rest of the first half followed a similar pattern of shaky defending, bad crosses and long balls that went nowhere. The players looked somewhat shellshocked and, to their credit, the home fans recovered quicker from the early double salvo to contribute to the derby atmosphere. As a West Brom fan, I was struck by how much time Westwood took on the ball: you’d think that he was Ben Foster safeguarding a hard-fought 0-0 against Newcastle, not a goalkeeper 2-0 down in the biggest game of the season.

When Wednesday scored just before half-time, it was against the run of play. Gary Hooper wrapped his foot around a smart Ross Wallace cross and gave the hosts some hope. On the other side of half-time, Wednesday continued their mini-resurgence, passing the ball reasonably well and introducing Lucas João, who looked more mobile than the other forwards. Some tricky footwork by Kieran Lee in the middle of the park paid off, setting up Adam Reach’s cross for João to slot home.

Alas, the Wednesday renaissance was short-lived. Hillsborough had been bouncing for barely a minute when Mark Duffy turned van Aken inside out and beat Westwood at his near post. The goal was something of a deathblow, and I felt for the Wednesday fans around me (but I can also appreciate how great it must have been for those Blades who waggishly dubbed it the ‘Bouncing Day Massacre’). Leon Clarke compounded their misery ten minutes later with another goal, shrugging off the attentions of the two Wednesday centre backs far too easily.

The rest of the match was a foregone conclusion and Wednesday never looked likely to complete another two goal comeback. I was impressed by Sheffield United: it was the first time I’d seen them under Chris Wilder, and they had an attacking fluency that was often lacking under Nigel Clough. The main source of this was young David Brooks, who tormented the Sheffield Wednesday defence and looked incredibly assured on only his second league start. As for Wednesday, they seemed heavily reliant on long balls and crosses but struggled to make them work. Dare I say it: perhaps Atdhe Nuhiu and his velcro chest could’ve helped them out if they were so set on pursuing Pulisball in this game.

It’s only the start of a long Championship season and there are a lot of games left to play (not least the next Steel City Derby in January). But if Sheffield United can keep this up, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were this year’s Huddersfield, thriving in spite of (or perhaps because of…) a lack of big name signings, instead working well within their own system of play.

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