The Signing of Artisans
Our second guest post of the day comes from John Leigh, author of a number of essential books including The Football Lexicon with David Woodhouse published by Faber & Faber (a magnificently droll exposure of footballing cliché), the Cricket Lexicon (same co-author, same publisher), The Search for Enlightenment: An Introduction to Eighteenth Century French Writing and co-editor of the Orion edition of The Figaro Plays by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. Here, Dr. Leigh takes a break from his forthcoming biography of Voltaire and turns his attention to the 2009-10 prospects of his beloved Sheffield Wednesday:
If the fortunes of football clubs in a given region are in inverse proportion to the prominence of the referees it has produced, South Yorkshire would provide a good example: Keith Hackett, Uriah Rennie and Howard Webb, household names, are free to officiate at the highest level without ever having to incur suspicions of bias, while the clubs that they could support languish in obscurity. By comparison, the region has produced an alarmingly small number of top players. David Seaman is probably the only native of South Yorkshire to play regular international football in recent years. Think of the innumerable sons of similar conurbations like Liverpool, Manchester or Newcastle. Yet Wednesday and United have, for a while now, been in a position to promote local youngsters quickly and to give them the chance of first-team football they wouldn’t get with a Premiership club. Both clubs have got talented players nurtured in the Academies. While Naughton and Walker have now seduced the Premiership clubs, over in S6 Tommy Spurr, Mark Beevers, Sean McAllister and Richard Wood are capable of attracting them. And they are getting better and better.
At present, Sheffield is perhaps the only English city in which you can legitimately speak of a red half and a blue half – the cliché does not permit any other proportions, even when it’s obvious that one club is better supported than the other. Although the balance may start to tip in Manchester and even in Nottingham, the rivalry between the Sheffield clubs is fascinatingly poised.
United get the players Wednesday want. This summer, Ryan France, very ecumenically, trained with Wednesday and signed for United. It’s a reminder of the Blades’ “hijacking” Owls’ bid for Billy Sharp a couple of years ago. The prospective English bid to host the World Cup in 2018 is providing a renewed focus for this rivalry. United seem to keen ensure that Bramall Lane will be the World Cup location in Sheffield. They have ambitious plans for hotels, training complexes, and the inevitable “state-of-the-art facilities” while, it’s become a fashionable, self-establishing fact, even among some Wednesdayites, that Hillsborough is crumbling and out-of-date. I think this just means that it’s a little further from a Frankie & Benny’s than are most other football grounds.
But it is Wednesday who currently have the upper hand in derbies (Laws is unbeaten against Blades). They seem to have the greater spirit and the will beat their local rivals, a spirit which seems to be easier to summon for the lesser team. Generally speaking, the team lower in the leagues seems to prevail in these contests. United may at last beat Wednesday this year, but the teams will finish closer to one another than last season. Wednesday have added experience to their young team – Darren Potter and Tommy Miller, never mind their artisanal names, promise to be quite neat players and Darren Purse will provide the leadership and know-how that the Owls have relied on Steve Watson for. But there are 2 big enigmas in this side: Francis Jeffers has shown that it is possible, however cruel and unfair it might be, to hate a player for constantly being injured. Maybe it’s more complicated than that. It’s not just the spasmodic appearances but an often surly, I-used-to-play-for-Arsenal attitude on the pitch, which have failed to endear him to the fans. The other is Jermaine Johnson, a wonderful talent who seems to be incapable of making the right decisions in a game. If those two can fulfil their potential, Wednesday will surely fare better this time round. Barnsley at home beckons on Saturday. Last season at this juncture, Wednesday thumped Burnley 4-1. I think that should remind us that, whereas opening day wins can set a club up in the Premiership (eg Hull beating Fulham; Sunderland v Spurs; Reading v Boro) for the season since 3 points go a little further, in the Championship with 46 games to come, less significance can be drawn from early results. I’d still predict that neither Sheffield side will finish in the top or bottom three, but equally I suspect their respective positions may be significant in defining the direction and shape of two clubs with the potential to usher Howard Webb and co off stage.