Thursday, 11 January 2018

The Sheffield Derby - All about not losing

I don't like Derby Days. There, I have said it. A massive game, the biggest crowd of the season, a raucous, sometimes volatile atmosphere and I don't enjoy it one little bit.

For me Sheffield United v "the team from S6"  turns me into an anti-football fan. Derby Day for me is not necessarily all about winning, although clearly that is what I really want. The important thing for me is not losing. As long as "they" don't have the upper hand, the bragging rights, I don't care. The imperative following the match, is to focus on finishing above them in the league table.

Don't get me wrong, Sheffield Derby days are special occasions, something perhaps never properly recognised by the national media; although Sky Sports seem to be building the hype this time. Maybe as much to do with the scoreline and ebb and flow of the game at Hillsborough earlier this season as the occasion itself. The intensity of noise and the atmosphere generated within Bramall Lane (or even dare I admit, the other place)  could easily be compared with the other derby matches traditionally viewed as the standard bearers; Merseyside, Manchester, Glasgow. In fact the intensity is probably up a notch from Manchester and Merseyside.

The build-up leaves you twitchy, distracted, running over scenarios in your head, imagining the joy of victory, fearing the heartache of defeat. You look forward with a mix of trepidation and excitement that leaves you nauseous. You cling to the clips of past successes, reliving the joy and the moment, thinking back to wherever you were watching from at the time. The people you hugged the life out of, the people you fell over, the smell of the beer that went flying through the air and soaked into your top. You hope that recent success and league position count for something, but then the gnawing doubt kicks in and you remember that this is more of a cup game and it is all up for grabs on the night.

You admire how a fellow fan and now manager has channelled that adrenaline, that excitement, into something positive with your team. You hope that they respond in the same way again and thrive in a more positive, but no less hostile atmosphere at home. With these special occasions being of such rarefied intensity, just what is my problem?

My negative feelings arise for three reasons. My formative football watching years saw "them" generally have the upper hand in terms of league standing. I grew up in an era where United and "the other lot" were in different divisions, derby games were reserved for a pre-season friendly, the County Cup, a testimonial match or a Zenith Data Systems Cup game. Rarely did we win, or so it felt.

Most of my friends were not United fans, they knew how to gloat, they knew how to belittle. Even then delusions of grandeur were visible; the first signs of the self-belief that have led to the proclamations of how massive they are today. But bigger, older, better can just as easily be read as bloated, decrepit and under-performing. In those days I didn't want to play "them", I just wanted "them" to fail. I wanted them to swap divisions with us. To fall away into a long decline.

The second reason comes from an earlier stages of my life and my first real Sheffield Derby memory. I was 4, but I wasn't at a match. United, ahead in the Division 3 table, lost 4-0 at the other place on Boxing Day 1979. I remember the anguish of my father and grandfather as they arrived home to continue a family Christmas marred by events on the football pitch. All that frustration was kept for posterity on an audio cassette by my mum. The click of play/and record as the front door clicks open and then bangs to. My running footsteps out of the lounge into the hallway; "4-0 Grandad!" I say in surprise and slight indignation. "I know….they were rubbish…." he mutters forlornly. Voices then tail off as both my father and grandfather head into the kitchen to vent their frustrations, out of view and out of earshot of the children.

By the time we looked to gain revenge at Bramall Lane in April, we had fallen away from the top end of the table, whilst they were heading for an inevitable promotion. A 1-1 draw was played out, remembered more for Terry Curran's goal for them, rather than anything the Blades achieved. I think I was there, I can't say I remember. As a 5 year old, the games I attended blurred into one a little, even those with 42,000 in the ground.

These initial memories of Sheffield Derby games can scar a young child; seeing the effect it had on my Grandad, a man not afraid to let his passions and his hurt show where football was concerned. Defeats like Boxing Day were taken like a personal affront to his support. The subsequent relegation to the Fourth Division was something he never really got over, he passed away a week or so after that game against Walsall.

The next time we were to play a league derby was some 11 years later. For one season prior we had swapped divisions, but they had come straight back up to the top division. As a 16 year old I understood more about football then. I was passionate about football then.  That first league derby in 11 years was, thanks to police advice, played on a misty November Sunday at Bramall Lane. The other lot were flying on their return to the top flight and expecting a comfortable win.

I remember the early tension vividly and then the outpouring of sheer joy of watching young Blades midfielder Dane Whitehouse breaking forward, bearing down on goal and slotting home the first goal. Then in the second half, Brian Deane squeezed the ball between Chris Woods' legs to send Blades fans into ecstasy and leave Woods facing months of mocking for his bow-legged keeping.  His situation not helped by United winning the return match across the city 3-1, although he was less culpable that night.

Much happier times indeed, although I think I enjoyed post-match celebrations as much as the day itself.  In the time since we have enjoyed what feels like a slight upper hand in Steel City encounters. Despite that, I cannot say I have enjoyed the matches per se.

Even being 3-0 up at half time, as it was in 2009 at Bramall Lane, you can never sit comfortably and enjoy the rest of the game. On that occasion the Blades were pegged back to 3-2 and clung on. I was the sole football fan in a Greek hotel bar that night, a long standing fortnight of family holiday coinciding with just one home game being played when the fixtures were announced. Yet those who joined me found it hard to sit with a man who was on holiday to relax and have fun, yet appeared to be displaying all the signs of a man on the edge of a nervous breakdown until he exploded in hysteria at the final whistle.

That really highlights my  final reason; that even when you are in front, the 90 minutes are defined by a feeling that can only be described as someone grasping hold of your guts and twisting them into a tight ball. You stand there, in a pose resembling Edvard Munch's The Scream. Your legs shake violently, banging against the people in the adjacent seats. You lean forward, twitching, before launching out of your seat to roar out your support for your team or hurl spittle laden invective at the opposition players and the their fans, amongst whom are many of your friends.

By the end, if you have won, something Blades fans have experienced more than Owls over the years, you celebrate. Well you try to. Hoarse from exhortations, legs drained of nervous energy you try to jump up and down and shout, but it doesn't quite happen. No matter what it looks and sounds like, it is the fact you are attempting to do it that matters.

I don't really enjoy experiencing such extreme behaviour and emotion. Not because of being a killjoy, not because I have a lack of passion, nor from any attempt to keep up appearances, but from seeing the effect of letting a game consume you and your health as it did my Grandad. Not letting things go, letting results rule your moods and your life.

We have been fortunate that for most of the last 20 years we have been above our city rivals; for 12 years we held the upper hand in terms of final league position until that switch 5 years ago. Despite all the incredible highs and gut wrenching lows of these matches, I am much happier to define our success over Wednesday based on the league tables. Give me a season where we are sat in a division above Wednesday, rather than playing them twice a season.

But if we have to play them, as long as we don't lose that is all that matters….and then let's set about ensuring we finish above them in the league, wherever that takes us this season. 

Up the Blades!

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Seizing the Moment

When I last wrote on A United View I looked forward to the season with a degree of optimism. Optimism that, as things stand, seems well placed, notwithstanding the recent run of results.

The football, the odd game aside, remains as expansive and as exciting as that which saw us soar to the League One title. Memorable away victories at Leeds and Hillsborough, an amazing comeback at home to Hull and the bizarrely topsy-turvy defeat to Fulham, each showcase what Wilder's Blades are all about.

The injuries to key players, something we were lucky with last season, and suspensions have hit hard. Yet within that 5 game run without a win, you could argue we were worthy of 3 points against both Birmingham and Bristol City and a point against Fulham. In some ways Wilder's pursuit of 3 points at the expense of 1 has gone against us, but the positives of his approach can be seen in the league table where the other lot across town have lost fewer games than us but still find themselves 10 points behind in the table.

The challenge of losing key players in Coutts and Fleck has yet to be overcome and replacements have either not grabbed their opportunity, or do not fit the system that the Coutts, Fleck, Duffy triumvirate excel in. Yet still we sit 6th. Our start giving us a tremendous platform to push on for a chance at promotion that few people would have thought possible back in early August.

Back at that time I posed the question, if we find ourselves in the Top 6 come January will the board invest? I said yes I believed they would. Opportunities for promotion are not guaranteed in this division. A strong finishing position one season does not necessarily lead to a similar outcome the next. Ask Reading, Derby, Middlesbrough, Norwich or Brentford in recent years, or look across the city this season. Therefore when you are up there with a platform to progress why wouldn't you take that gamble? Who knows when that opportunity presents itself again? When you have caught the division cold, playing with confidence and a successful system, seeing little to fear in the opposition we have faced, it is surely the right time to back the manager with the funds he believes necessary to compete for a Top 6 place to the end of the season.  

The owners' stated aim is Premier League football. That is the only realistic way the McCabe family achieves any sort of recompense for the millions invested and loans written off over a number of years. For the Prince, his money has been thrown at a football club with no real assets and whose losses he is propping up each season. Top tier football offers his only realistic means of financial return.

That's not to say that I am advocating spending big. When I suggested on Twitter that this is the time for the board to step up, some responses suggested that we couldn't go spending £10m on a player and that such statements are easy when it's not your money. The latter is correct, but if you don't give the manager the tools now, when will you? In 2 or 3 years after consolidation, but when the financial trickle-down from the Premier League means the sums required are even more inflated than they are now?

I certainly don't advocate spending silly sums on individual players. Our success is built on a team spirit and work ethic that I have not seen at the club since the back to back promotions under Dave Bassett in the late 80's. Wilder finding players with the hunger to grab the opportunity we have presented them with. The lower league talent needing a bigger platform, or those not gambled on by their clubs after injury or loss of form. The Premier League loanees whose clubs see a way to build their experience playing football the right way in front of a large and demanding fanbase. Why upset the wage structure? Why fracture a whole that is arguably greater than the sum of its parts?

Instead, give the manager enough money to make the signings he wants to make. Signings that enhance the starting XI, provide alternative options from the bench, but also fit a style of play that has been hugely successful but is perhaps lacking the zip of the last 12 months. Whilst there is an argument that you don’t get best value in January, August means starting again. It means hoping we get to December with 35/40 points, it means hoping summer signings gel. Bringing in the players now, gives both impetus to the current season’s objectives and beds those players into the squad to push again next season, if we were to fall short this.

Much is made of Chris Wilder being a Blade. That is great, many fans would love their manager to have the connection with the fans that we enjoy. Yet he is human and will surely be ambitious. Clubs will see his success and he moves on to radars that he was off twelve months ago. If they offer him resources to achieve further success, resources that don't exist at Bramall Lane, then I think it is fair to assume that his Blades bonds aren't unbreakable. Everyone looks for an opportunity to shine; to do the job to the best of their ability at as high a level as is attainable. If there was a time to back Wilder it is now.

The question is, will he be backed? When Simon and Scott McCabe resigned from both the SUFC board and the Blades Leisure board (the entity in which the football club is held) in September, it was said that they were busy and had their families to focus on, alongside which Prince Abdullah wanted to be more involved. This followed the appointment of the Prnce to the board of directors on the 4th August along with Yusuf Giansiracusa, who replaced Selahattin Baki as one of two representatives of the Prince on the board.

In October, Tareq Hawasli (the other representative of Prince Abdullah) appeared on Alan Biggs’ Sheffield Live show and stated that they “wanted to make a strong push to make the Premier League and that’s the direction we are heading towards”. He then stressed the importance of supporting the development of the academy products, securing the star players in the squad at that “Coach Chris is supported in anything he needs, as long as we can”. Then re-affirming that the board is active and very supportive of “Coach Chris”.

This collegiate working and leadership sounds great and would be happily accepted, but for an unusual amount of activity on both the SUFC and the Blades Leisure boards over the last 4 months. Since the 8th August there have been 6 terminations and 7 appointments to the SUFC Limited board, but this masks multiple ins and outs.

Following their departure on  7th September, Simon and Scott McCabe were re-appointed on 13th December. Football club Chief Executive Stephen Bettis has been doing the hokey-cokey; standing down as a director on 4th August, re-appointed on 9th September only to stand down again as the McCabe’s returned on the 13th December. In addition Jeremy Tutton was appointed a director in this period and Martin Green was in, then out, then back in again. Whilst this might seem like corporate manoeuvring detached from the football club, it seems to conflict with the words used elsewhere. 

What has changed such that Scott and Simon McCabe need to be back on the board and what has happened to the trust Kevin McCabe placed in Martin Green, Stephen Bettis and Jeremy Tutton just three months previously.

“They will be dependable representatives for the McCabe Family as Directors liaising with our now more active partner and his nominated colleagues in order to ensure the Club continues to progress in a stable manner.”

At the recent AGM Kevin McCabe said the intention was for the Prince to play a bigger role at United and that he had more time now he was free of government responsibilities. Yet at the same time he only thought the prince was okay as he hadn’t seen him for two months. To a fan listening in this is concerning and there is little evidence to reassure that things are as rosy as was painted just three months ago.

Nobody really expected us to be where we are and we should absolutely enjoy the ride we have been on in the last fifteen months. To paraphrase what fellow blade @ScholarRob on Twitter said, whatever the result at Villa, celebrate all we have seen, enjoyed and loved following the Blades in 2017.

But that doesn't mean we shouldn't expect more and it doesn't mean we should settle for consolidation when a much bigger prize is potentially within our reach. If we were mid-table then this clamour would not be there. Even in the position we are in some may say it is a gamble, but if the board don’t seize the moment now, when will they? We can keep holding on for tomorrow, but what if tomorrow never comes?

Up the Blades!