Behind enemy lines

One Friday over ten years ago, I was sitting in a hospital bed in Sunderland receiving treatment for a badly infected wound on my foot. The doctor advised me it would keep me out of action for at least two weeks. Less than 48 hours later, I was playing in one of the biggest, best and most bitter derbies in England. The Steel City Derby. Sheffield United v Sheffield W%#+€@&Y.

British football is home to some of the most famous derbies in world football. Think Rangers v Celtic, Manchester United v Liverpool, Sunderland v Newcastle and of course Killie v Ayr (I had to put this one in as it means the world to me). These type of games highlight everything that is great about our game; the passion they generate is second to none. Fantastic stadiums packed to the rafters with two sets of fans desperate to earn bragging rights, and even more desperate not to suffer the embarrassment of defeat. The football anthems can be heard in full symphony, sung back and forth between opposing fans. Tribalism, history and dislike for each other on full show. The crackle of electricity as the teams come out. Players and fans feel that extra sense of nerves as they know what is at stake. Players realise that a winning goal makes them a life long hero. A mistake? A villain for eternity. As a fan, the desire for your team not to lose to your closest rivals is so strong it makes you anxious. The thought of losing and having to face your neighbour or workmate gloating for the foreseeable future is enough to make your skin crawl. The dislike and hatred for your rivals is indescribable; so deeply ingrained from battles experienced over a number of years, that you can’t shake it.

The Sheffield Derby returns on Sunday, after five years away, and will bring everything I have mentioned above and more. Five years is a long time to wait for a shot at your nearest and dearest. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. In this type of scenario I think it makes the hate and resentment grow stronger. The atmosphere will be electric and nerves palpable in the lead up to kick off.  The sides would have met earlier a few years ago in an FA Cup quarter-final, but the team from the dark side of Sheffield bottled it and lost in a replay to Charlton; robbing us off a chance to face off in front of a national audience, with the prize a trip to Wembley.

We were in the middle of our fifth-round tie to Nottingham Forest when the quarter-final draw was made. At half time as we trailed 1-0, our manger Nigel Clough told us we had drawn either Charlton or Wednesday at home in the next round. It was the only team talk we needed. The atmosphere in the second half was one of the best I have experienced; I could see fans with veins bulging out their necks trying to urge us on. When the ball went out for a set-piece or throw-in, you could see and hear fans trying to relay the news of the draw.  They were desperate not to miss the opportunity of a derby game. We stormed back and ran out 3-1 winners and as the final whistle blew, the noise streaming down from the stands left me in no doubt about who the fans wanted to face in the next round. The cup draw taking place when it did had such an effect on the outcome of the match that Forest manager Billy Davies made the point afterwards that it should not be made until all ties had been played. He was right, but it’s not like Billy to look for an excuse when his side lose. The Blades fans were deprived of their wish that time. Two years later, and the time is eventually here.

Unbelievable scenes after the third goal against Forest. The fans thought we had sealed a Quarter Final clash against our most bitter rivals.

The magnitude of the Steel City Derby was first brought to my attention as a young lad, watching the two sides from Sheffield face off in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley. Unfortunately the Blades were on the wrong side of the result but it seems I was always destined to play for the Blades. They were on my radar from a young age. I grew up having a soft spot for them thanks to Sean Bean and the film When Saturday Comes. Granted, not the greatest sports movie ever made, but Jimmy Muir’s rags to riches story definitely endeared the club to me. It is a proper football club with a passionate fans and a glorious history.

Fast forward to my early 20s and a player at Sunderland. Sunderland were struggling at the foot of the Premier League and I had spent the first half of the season out on loan at Hartlepool and was now back, battling to win a place in the first team. My efforts to earn a spot looked like being stopped in their tracks as I lay in my hospital bed on a IV drip, trying to quell a serious infection that was tracking up my leg.

Like a bolt out the blue the phone rang and on the end I could hear the dulcet tones of Neil Warnock. “How are you doing son?” he asked. “How would you like to come and play in the Sheffield Derby tomorrow?” To say I was taken aback was an understatement. One minute before, I had been thinking about heading home to Scotland for some TLC from my mum. Now, I was being asked to go in to battle in one of the fiercest derbies in England. Despite my reservations about my fitness, I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to play in this game.

After getting discharged – and against the doctor’s advice – I made a mad dash down to Sheffield to sign the papers before the deadline passed on Friday evening. I made it in time and before I had the chance to think, I was sitting down to dinner with Neil in the local hotel. The phrase whirlwind was invented for days like this.

I met up with the team the next morning for the very first time. I had only ever played against these guys and now I was going to be playing beside them in one of the most important games of the season, as we tried to consolidate second place in the race for promotion to the Premier League. I was feeling as you would expect after three days in the hospital, but was quickly jolted out of any lethargy as I boarded the bus. My new mates were all arriving and I was greeted by the formidable figure of Ade Akinbiyi, who shook my hand and asked if I was ready. I nonchalantly replied ‘yes’ before he gripped my hand tighter, gave me the death stare and repeated “ARE YOU READY?” It was his way of making sure I knew this was for real. Do or die. They didn’t want a young lad coming in on loan and screwing it up for them. If I wasn’t quite ready before, I certainly was now. I didn’t want to let this guy down.

Would you want to disappoint this man? I certainly didn’t.

The team had been building up to this game for weeks. No matter where they went, they wouldn’t have been able to escape the talk about this game. In the lead up to a derby, the surrounding fixtures can quickly get forgotten as fans and media all focus their attention solely on this game. I have experienced the big build up since and there is no escaping the tension or pressure. The game is never far from your mind. You would need to be blind, dead and dumb not to notice the emphasis being put on the game. In this case I was in the unique position of coming in from the outside uninhibited by any of the pressure in the build up. I didn’t even have time to think of the pressure.

To make the assignment even tougher, we were going into enemy territory. The match was away from home at Hillsborough. I will never forget arriving at the old dilapidated but historic ground and stepping off the coach. The Wednesday fans were lined up and frothing at the mouth ready to hurl abuse and vitriol at us as we made our way to the dressing room. Always the pantomime villain, Warnock lapped it up. By the time I reached the away dressing room, the hairs on my neck were standing on end. The adrenaline was coursing through my veins and I hadn’t even got my kit on yet. It is moments like this that made me want to be a footballer. The opportunity to go into the lions’ den, with everyone against you, and see what you are made of.

Going in to a cauldron of hate is made much easier when you have a good team, and this particular Sheffield United team was certainly that. They sat second top of the league in March for a reason. We had some very good individual players including Phil Jagielka, a future England international, and Paddy Kenny, one of the best keepers in the division at the time. The team was full of experience and I was going to play beside team captain and no-nonsense centre-back Chris Morgan.  My only previous dealings with him had been the previous season, when I faced him with Sunderland and he punched me square in the gut at a corner. That afternoon, I was delighted to have him alongside instead of opposite me.

As the teams lined up for kick off, ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ belted round the stadium and I couldn’t hear myself think. I wondered for a split second if I had bitten off more than I could chew. Should I have stayed in the hospital and let the doctors nurse me back to full health, instead of jumping two feet first into a dog fight? Thankfully I settled in to the game quickly and the team got off to a storming start. We went 2-0 up before half time with two quality goals from Michael Tonge and Akinbiyi. In the second half we missed three absolute sitters that could have turned the game in to a complete rout and a really historic victory.  Winning handsomely away to your closest rivals is always extra special for the fans as they get to really rub their rivals’ faces in it, right in their own backyard. In the end, we hung on for a 2-1 win and a day I will never forget.

Sean Bean playing Jimmy Muir in “When Saturday Comes”.

As we came back out for a warm down, the Blades fans were still in the ground and the delirium was evident as they went through the full repertoire of songs. The magnitude of the victory was confirmed when a half cut Bean came on the team bus to congratulate us at the end. Perhaps if we had played his character, Jimmy Muir, up front he would have stuck one of our chances away.

As I look forward to watching this weekend’s game as a fan instead of player, I can’t help but think the Owls will be a far different proposition than they were all those years ago. In my time in English Football I faced them a total of eight times and lost only once, in the last derby the clubs played. A bitter 1-0 defeat that still rankles. For years Wednesday were the also-rans of the Championship. Home or away, it was usually a guaranteed three points. I hate to say it but they are a different challenge these days. Their wage bill dwarfs United’s and they have been challenging at the top end of the Championship for the past two years. Building a squad to try and reach the Premier League has seen them spend millions of pounds on wages and transfer fees.

Going to Hillsborough will be no mean feat for the Blades this weekend as they sit proudly in the play-off spots after a fantastic start. When I look at both squads there won’t be many players or staff in either squad that will have experienced this game before and while some will have played in other derby games, they will be blown away once they line up for kick off on Sunday. What United do have in their favour are two men that know exactly what this game entails.

The Blades manager and captain both have red and white blood coursing through their veins and  will be under no illusions of the task at hand. Under Chris Wilder I would never count United out; his record has been nothing short of phenomenal and teams are struggling to handle their formation and style of play. With Billy Sharp leading them out, there will be no one on that field wanting to win more than him. Together Sharpy and Wilder have taken on all comers and won far more than their fair share. I hope this continues on Sunday.

One thing I know for definite; any player wearing red and white who’s not sure what to expect will know exactly what is coming their way the second they step off the team coach on Sunday. I just hope that, come the final whistle, they are the ones smiling while the Greasy Chip Butty song echoes loud and proud across the city.