Given the recent history of both Sheffield United and Huddersfield Town in the play offs you might be forgiven for expecting Wembley to be filled with 60,000 grim faced, negative Yorkshiremen on Saturday. Their demeanour forming one big grey cloud over the game; muttering, moaning and fearing the worst.
Watching United regularly over the last 24 years I have witnessed three promotions, four relegations, three FA Cup semi-final defeats (one of which was at Old Wembley versus the other lot), a League Cup semi-final defeat and all three play-off finals united have reached have ended in defeat. The last of those came against Burnley, three years ago, when Unitedites arrived in a state of mind that seemed to be anticipating inevitable defeat. Whilst Burnley fans seemed to be there for the day out, positive, upbeat and cheery, the Blades fans struck a more muted tone that only deteriorated over the course of the match.
We know that what has happened before is history, different teams, different players and different managers, but it doesn't mean that the expectation is any different this time around. Given the novelty of a visit to new Wembley wore off three years ago, considering the way United's push for promotion fell away in the dying embers of the season and reviewing the paucity of fit and available strikers, Blades fans could be forgiven for thinking another expensive day out at rip-off Wembley was a luxury and not a necessity. More so in these austere economic times. I suspect the ticket sales will confirm that many see an afternoon in the pub or armchair as a better use of time and money.
However, the lounge room at home or public house is not for me and the main reason I am looking forward to this trip is the fact I am taking my 6 year old son to Wembley; a father and son rite of passage. Yet, to do this, middle-band tickets and coach travel have set me back £157 for the pair of us and that is before drinks, food, programme, souvenirs. The cost, the hassle, the journey have all contributed to my Dad and Brother - both season ticket holders - not joining us. It's wholly understandable why many fans and families will not be there.
Now it is not like my son has not been to Wembley before; he went last year with his Mum to watch her team, Bolton Wanderers, lose to Stoke City in the FA Cup semi-final. Yet, as many readers of this blog will already know, it wasn't the crushing defeat that sticks in their memories from that day. It will be having their car attacked half a mile from the Wembley car parks. It will be the snarling Stoke fan getting in their faces and hurling abuse as they walked from car park to stadium. It will be the missiles and threats flying back and forth between Bolton fans and Stoke fans in the Club Wembley seats above them. I wrote about their experience here, if you haven't read it please do.
It is hard to remove those kinds of images from a young boy's mind. My moans and groans, my fear of the potential for another Blades' failure on the big stage, pale by comparison. He went to watch a big match, at a world famous stadium, in front of a big crowd and his experience was horrific.
Thankfully his football watching experience has been more positive since. He has continued with his season ticket at Bramall Lane and watched better performances this season, with more wins and goals to keep him interested. Bolton chairman Phil Gartside, on reading this blog, invited my wife and George to hospitality in his suite at the Bolton v Everton game earlier this season. They had a great day, being well looked after by Phil and his guests, of course Bolton lost and again the result passed him by, but for the right reasons this time.
Yet, when the potential for United playing at Wembley was realised, there was still a reticence about going back. You could see the worry behind his eyes as he tentatively agreed to join me. His mind working over-time computing everything that happened last time, alongside thoughts of being with his Dad and cheering on the Blades.
Saturday's trip to Wembley is a must win game for the Blades, failure to get promotion leaves the club in a difficult position next season, with wholesale changes likely as the club struggles to comply with FFP rules. If we lose, then realistically it could be a while before we bounce back. A Blades victory is something I want so much, yet at the same time and on a personal level, this is about giving my son the day-out at a big football match that he deserves to remember and for all the right reasons.
When I bought our tickets online, I sent a brief email to my wife. It was the excitable football fan in me; delighted to have got my tickets, despite the likelihood of it not selling out, nor my chosen price band selling out in the first afternoon! Her reply brought a little lump to my throat and dampness to my eye that, for a Yorkshireman who shows little emotion, took me back a little.
"Don't go down there with the view that you are going to see a must-win match and it will be really disappointing if you don't win - instead look at it as a big adventure with your little boy and try to have as much fun as you can - buy stupid hats and expensive sweets/drinks/food, sing loud silly songs, put him on your shoulders to walk up Wembley Way, wave your flags - let the match/result be a sideshow rather than the main event."
"Try to imagine being a 6 year old again and forget all the years of disappointment…. that way, no matter what the result, you and George will have some great memories of a shared 'Father and Son Big Day Out'"
She is right (but don't tell her I said that) and that is exactly what I am going to try and do. I can't promise to follow it to the letter - I might draw the line at one of those red and white jester hats - but I am going with a positive attitude and I hope all other Blades fans are too.
If we all go with a bit of the wonderment and excitement of a 6 year old and less of the world-weary bitterness of repetitive failure, then maybe we might enjoy ourselves. If we enjoy ourselves, we might just back the team in a positive way. And if we back the team in a positive way, United could get the result to match the day-out.
Up the Blades!