Friday, 21 February 2014

Tell you why I don't want Wednesday......

On the morning after the Blades' FA Cup 5th Round victory against Forest, the local radio breakfast show opened its Sports bulletin with "Sheffield United are on course for a FA Cup Quarter Final against Wednesday". I nearly crashed the car, fellow drivers on the Sheffield Parkway had a lucky escape, as did I. The words "on course", suggested that United still had work to do to achieve it. Yet Wednesday were the team still to play, still with a match to win. Surely it was much better to credit United fully for reaching the quarter finals and then acknowledge the possibility of a match with Wednesday assuming they can beat Charlton.
This morning they introduces an interview with Wednesday's Head Coach Stuart Gray with; "The prospect (of an all Sheffield quarter final) is creating a buzz around the city". But is it? To question this notion on a football phone-in is met with disbelief and disdain. "Why wouldn't you want an all Sheffield tie? Do you not want a high profile game that showcases Sheffield? What an occasion it would be, how do you not want to be part of it?"
The incredulity of local radio presenters only serves to demonstrate that they are wrapped in their own little bubble, out of touch with what the fans are thinking. Of course an all Sheffield Quarter Final is great for them. It gives them a guaranteed high profile broadcast from Wembley for a semi-final, maybe a simul-cast of the Quarter Final on 5Live Sports Extra. It fills plenty of airtime, both that normally devoted to sports broadcasting and that which would be given over to the city's potholes, errant bin collections and a singing budgie from Darnall. But really, why should I care?
The unhealthy state of Sheffield football, largely self-inflicted in recent years, is a crying shame for a city of our size, but a cup Quarter Final is a mere sticking plaster over a gaping wound that will need much more time to heal. A non-Premier League quarter final, even if it is a two club city derby, will not create the national buzz that those with a S postcode might believe.
I never want Wednesday to win a match, so why should I now? Their fans are like niggling growing pains that have never gone away. They caused me pain and grief as a child, as the club's relative success in the 1980's garnered the majority of playground support. This superiority complex has lingered around ever since. Looking for any angle to claim superiority, however tenuous, even when on the pitch they were lagging behind United.
I hate Derby matches at the best of times. They are not comfortable viewing. Sitting, twitching, tense, agitated. The focus on not losing to "them" is a strong as wanting to win. But this is a cup game. There has to be a loser. And for the defeated, the loss is tinged with even more frustration and disappointment with a semi-final at Wembley at stake. Defeat in extra time at Wembley in the all-Sheffield semi-final of 1993 was hard to take. This would be up there with it.
Why would you want that risk when United would be the underdogs? When we wouldn't be expected to win? Yes we have done it against Villa, Fulham and Forest, but a defeat then would not be a disgrace, it would be disappointing but nothing more. This? This would be gut-wrenching.
We can cling to the fact United have triumphed so often as underdogs, both in matches against Wednesday and in the cup in recent years. Take our cup run to date as a fine example. The first league derby I remember attending saw Dave Bassett's struggling side achieve an unexpected double over Wednesday, results which, if they had gone the other way, would have seen Wednesday ahead of Manchester United and just a point behind eventual champions Leeds.
We would be the underdogs against Charlton, a side from the division above and some 20+ places better off. Yet without the tension of a local derby, without the fear of defeat but still with the vociferous home backing I believe we would have a much better chance of success. Who, in their right mind, doesn't want the easier option when it is presented?
I also worry about the impact of an unsuccessful Derby match on United's season. Our number one focus is on staying up. Let's not kid ourselves, however positive things are feeling at the minute we are far from out of the woods. Three places above the relegation spots, but only a one point gap and a fixture backlog in front of us, we could easily see our form suffer and possible mid table safety turn into a relegation dogfight.
Some have said that the cup run is a distraction we can do without, I firmly believe otherwise. A cup run is a good thing in that it has allowed us to build confidence round by round and although the league performances haven't necessarily followed, the building blocks are slowly being put together. We look a better team, much more cohesive and players who were struggling for form and out on the side-lines are now brimming with confidence. I just worry about the focus of such a big match on our season, defeat on top would only exacerbate it.
There are Blades who will be happy to meet Wednesday. Desperate to rub the smug arrogance of their fans' faces. There will also be those with the unshakeable self-belief in the team and that they will win. History and experience of watching the Blades knocked that out of me years ago.
Whilst Unitedites are split on who they would like to face, it is clear who a majority favour - an online poll shows 64% of Blades fans who have voted would prefer to play Charlton and that is representative of many forum posts and workplace conversations. Hardly a city excited at the prospect of Blades v Owls! Much of the clamour for a Derby comes from across the city, where the Owls' wings have been clipped by back to back defeats, but not enough to knock the confidence that the team from the higher division should win through.
The thing is many Wednesday fans believe they are already through. aided and abetted by local radio reports of the 5th round draw which suggested a home tie against an out of form Charlton Athletic was as good as a bye to the next round. The hubris of them talking of "tinpot" Charlton, the internet forum threads about Wembley and how they will thrash us to get there, just grate with me.
I cannot help wanting them to eat humble pie at some point. Some may say what better way than against United. Not me. Let them get a big crowd versus Charlton, all dreaming of a match at the Lane and beyond. Then let them lose. 1-0 will do. A flukey goal on a bog of a pitch. And then let us have a good competitive game with Charlton at the Lane.
Whilst I agree that Sheffield football is in need of a boost, particularly in terms of profile. If there is an exclusive 6th Round party to be had, then I want us to be the only local invitees.
It is a bit like when you went to a teenage house party and you are knocking back the Thunderbird trying to chat up the girl/boy from another school. All of a sudden your loud, boorish older brother comes barging in and bangs on, bragging about what a catch he is, how special he is, slobbering over the other guests, embarrassing you. In doing so, he blows your chances as well. "Yes he's related. No, you are right you can't choose your family". This is our party, gatecrashing older brothers are not welcome.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Football & The Working Man - An Increasingly Twisted Love

This is something I wrote last Friday (February 14th), but lost (and since recovered) due to technical issues. It is about the most manipulative, tortuous and frustrating love you can have. It was probably more relevant as a Valentine's lament to the game we love, but a few days doesn't change anything.
Given weekend events at Bramall Lane it may seem a little incongruous, but this is more about lamenting the modern game in general and not my club on it's own.
It is a relationship that is a long term commitment.

At times you can argue it is a one way relationship. You put so much in to get so little back.

You do not have a monogamous partner. Yet you look at no other.

Despite this one-eyed devotion, your share of its time rises and falls over time.
Some say love is a gift, bestowed freely, willingly and without expectation. But this is different; there is always an expectation, and if not expectation there is hope. Hope that grinds you down over time, it might diminish, but always lingers.
The moments, when they come are, magical, full of ecstacy and emotion, but they are all too rare. 

You invest time, energy and money, yet it increasingly exploits you. The meals become more expensive, the clothes they insist you buy, to demonstrate your love, increase in cost.

They say you should show your love in new and inventive ways, buying bricks in walls, onesies, assorted over-priced tat. But it brings little reward and leaves you spent out.

You recognise all of its faults - that you blithely accept - but rarely the virtues. But those virtues become harder and harder to see as time moves on.

The number of little things that niggle increase year on year.

It invites you into its arms, yet leaves you unable to see it's wares.

It can ignore what you want and like; changing the way they look, wearing red when you hate it, changing their given name to something they think will further their future development.

It can leave you stranded in another city, with no means of transport home, just because the TV companies asked for an appearance.

It can move away to another town or city without a thought as to how you will cope or keep the relationship alive.

The lure of money and power is often too much and you just cannot compete.

There are times you sense it wouldn’t miss you if you wasn't there, such is the myriad of others courting attention, offering riches that you just cannot match.

Over time you realise that it is something that actually bears little resemblance to what you first started a relationship with in the first place. 

Your devotional manner masks the bloated garish mess it has become.

It's ego has got bigger, interest in it has widened.
You share it with others who increasingly argue that they love it more, that they are more special, that they deserve more attention, that they deserve to be treated better.

It is a relationship played out in front of a feverish media, all looking to exploit any minor connection to make up a story, to try and break the relationship or any party involved. Your resolve remains strong.

It is a relationship played out against a backdrop of social media bullying, banter from people you have never met and never will do and a large yellow rolling banner telling you the latest exclusive news about your love.

The physical and emotional blows increase in severity. One kick in the balls follows another. But still you are there, unable to walk away.

It tells you that you are great, that you are important and valued, yet finds increasingly expensive ways to test you.

Drink makes it easier. It makes the day pass quicker, makes the state of play look better. But that isn't the answer.

And still you suffer painful pangs for the things you held dear - most now obliterated, never to return.

That which first attracted you in the first place.

Now just distant memories or at best fleeting moments.