From the Ritz to the Rubble: Sheffield United v Sheffield Wednesday
It’s that time again – this weekend, Sheffield Wednesday make the short trip across the city to face Sheffield United. How long ago it seems now that these two teams travelled down to Wembley together. This is now a meeting between two third-tier clubs, both desperate to return to the Championship.
With both the Blades and the Owls in a similar position, the outcome of Sunday’s clash at Bramall Lane will be fascinating. Let’s find out a bit more about the protagonists from Sheffield United fan Ian Rands and Sheffield Wednesday supporter Chris Ledger…
The View from the Afternoon – Sheffield United by Ian Rands
The Blades go into the Sheffield derby on Sunday in a lull. A league position of 7th may have been seen as a satisfactory position amongst the doom and gloom of Danny Wilson’s appointment in the summer, but early season form appears to have raised optimism levels above those that this squad are capable of achieving.
Although Wilson has noticeably improved the style of play to the delight of many, there are still weaknesses to address and although he talks of trying to move in the loan market, there is a commonly held cynicism that these are purely words of succour to the fans. What will ultimately be reported as his frustration is a reflection of the parlous state of the Blades’ finances as much as the inability to identify players.
While many would agree that our team is one of the strongest in the division, the squad is a much weaker proposition. As exciting as many of the young players are, they were mainly Development Squad players, or members of the team that finished runners-up to Manchester United in the FA Youth Cup final last season. Maybe we are realising now that although they show much promise, they were in a Development Squad for a reason and are not an immediate solution.
After a bright start defensively, problems are starting to occur. Neill Collins in the heart of the defence appears to have found his level this season, but the mistakes that characterised his performances after joining in January are again coming to the fore. The uncertainty is added to by having the promising, but inexperienced, Harry Maguire alongside him.
Academy graduate Maguire is certainly talented, but in this formative period of his career most Blades fans would wish he had club captain and long-term injury absentee Chris Morgan by his side. Both Collins and Maguire have struggled when up against a tall and physical forward line (Lee Novak and Alan Lee of Huddersfield being a case in point) and how they cope with Wednesday’s direct approach and the physical challenge of in-form Gary Madine will be key to the outcome of the game.
Alongside them Wilson seems to favour attacking full-backs, compensating for a lack of quality wing play in front of them. Unfortunately, this means that Matt Lowton and Lescinel Jean-Francois leave space for wingers to expose, something Wednesday wide man Ben Marshall won’t need an invitation to use. The loan extension of Marcus Williams this week gives me more hope and I would expect him to start at left-back instead of the Haitian international.
None of the defensive play is helped by an indecisive keeper – a position where we have one of our more experienced players in Steve Simonsen. A failure to command his area has led to much defensive uncertainty and whilst his shot stopping skills are not in doubt, it is his ability to deal with balls into the box that will be severely tested on Sunday. Whether it is keeper or defence at fault is open to debate, but it was interesting to see young keeper George Long playing, at times with similar uncertainty, behind the first choice defence against Rotherham last week.
Further forward, we lack a threat from the wing. In a team without pace and incision in the final third, young wingers Nathaniel Mendez-Laing and Ryan Flynn have offered little and Wilson has tended to play Lee Williamson and Stephen Quinn out wide. Both are talented footballers on their day, more than a match for many midfielders in League One. However, both would be much better deployed centrally. Therein lies the main problem. Whilst a front line of Richard Cresswell, Ched Evans and Chris Porter should have enough goals in them in League One, the supply line is too often lacking. When chances have been presented in recent games, profligacy has ruled.
The Johnstone’s Paint Trophy game against Rotherham last week was a great opportunity for a near full-strength Blades team to put right some of the failings apparent in back to back defeats away at Wycombe and at home to Charlton. The fact that they delivered an anaemic performance, without attacking verve and only coloured by defensive frailties, left the 4,000 Blades fans present with more concern than hope.
Wednesday’s form soon after the campaign kicked off, particularly away from home, gave much pleasure to the red half of Sheffield, but those problems now appear to have been put to bed. With a fervent home support in a full house at Bramall Lane, I hope the Blades players can step up. Not only in football terms, but in having the strength and organisation to deal with Wednesday’s rudimentary style of play. Danny Wilson needs to realise that artistic merit doesn’t win football matches and certainly not local derbies.
Despite early season promise, most Blades fans believed the time to really judge Wilson was the end of October, by which time we will have played Huddersfield, Preston, MK Dons, Charlton and Wednesday. Two games into those five and both have been defeats. Wilson can little afford a further slip on Sunday.
In recent years it has often been the team in the ascendancy in terms of league position that has tended to find it tougher on derby day. As a Blades fan, I hope for more of the same on Sunday.
Further reading – Why I don’t like Derby Day on A United View of Football.
Pretty visitors – Sheffield Wednesday by Chris Ledger
There’s something about Gary Megson that seems old-fashioned. His occasional rants about Sheffield Wednesday’s “blousy” and “pansy-like” defending may not come as a surprise. The same also applies to the Owls’ over-reliance on scoring from set pieces and long throw-ins. There’s no doubt that Sheffield Wednesday are, currently, a more counter-attacking version of Stoke City, but there are emerging signs of an intelligent passing side.
Megson’s revamped midfield has been the key to this season’s improved form. The new central midfield pairing of José Semedo and Chris Lines provides the balance, composure and skill that has been missing for a while; a stark contrast to the much-derided James O’Connor and Darren Potter partnership that never looked like stringing a successful forward pass together, never mind gelling. Stoke City loanee Ben Marshall has been a standout performer on the flanks, and has successfully combined natural skill and consistency in a way that hasn’t been seen at Hillsborough since the days of Jon-Paul McGovern and Chris Brunt. The fact that Marshall’s arrival has coincided with Gary Madine’s purple patch of goalscoring form is no coincidence.
The only problem concerning the midfield is which player will start on the left. Jermaine Johnson may need more match fitness to warrant a starting place and, although he has been dependable recently in the aforementioned position, O’Connor lacks the attacking instinct to help defeat one of the division’s best teams. Liam Palmer could be the most likely player to start in this position, especially as the youngster has performed beyond expectations this season.
Questions will also be raised regarding the left back position, after Réda Johnson missed the win against Chesterfield due to the international break. The Benin international has showed signs of making this position his own, despite being played out of position, after some shaky displays in the centre of defence. In a defence that looks a tad clumsy at times, it looks unlikely that Mark Reynolds will start and regular left-back Julian Bennett has quickly faded after some fine early displays.
And while the matured and more skilful-looking Gary Madine looks certain to start – his prolific form could be linked to Neil Mellor’s departure, as Mellor often played as Wednesday’s main striker last season with Madine settling for a target-man role – his striking partner remains undecided. Chris O’Grady looked short of fitness during the match against Chesterfield, but he displayed some decent touches and the former Rochdale striker might get the nod over Nottingham Forest loanee David McGoldrick, who has performed adequately for the Owls.
The biggest question mark, though, lies with the Owls’ away form. It would be an understatement to say that it has been poor during recent seasons when you look at some of the results: 5-1 defeats at Exeter City and Stevenage, a 4-0 loss at Leyton Orient and two successive 6-0 drubbings at Reading. It has taken Megson a while to instil a positive and winning mentality at the club; not surprising after over a decade of neglect at the club and previous manager Alan Irvine’s frequent praise and fear of opposing sides in his pre-match notes.
But after two successive away wins at Yeovil Town and Hartlepool United, a corner may have been turned and confidence is on the up. This derby will be a big test for the Owls’ promotion credentials as the pressure at Bramall Lane will not be seen at any other away ground. There’s certainly a lot more than pride at stake.
Visually they might look quite similar and they are equally brilliant, but Ian’s blog A United View on Football and Chris’s blog Obscure Music and Football are actually very different. Explore them both to your heart’s content. Thank you to Ian and Chris for taking the time to produce this preview. May the best team win…