Unexpected Rivalries 8: Sheffield United and West Ham United
It is now almost seven years since Uniteds Sheffield and West Ham faced up to one another on the football pitch, the Blades gaining something of a pyrrhic victory over the Hammers with Michael Tonge described in one unmentionable daily newspaper as having turned in a performance of ‘supernova intensity’ — hard to believe given that gentleman’s typically languid style.
At that point, the match seemed little more than a battle between two famous old clubs with nothing but the natural disdain of Yorkshire folk for the capital to wedge between them. A month later, however, and all hell let loose.
A reminder of the circumstances that led to this state of affairs — West Ham were found guilty of infringing Premier League rules B13 and U18, the latter applying to the action of third party ownership following the sensational and unlikely arrivals of Javier Mascherano and Carlos Tevez at Upton Park in September 2006.
The recruitment of Tevez in particular would seem to be causally linked to the club’s subsequent successful fight to avoid relegation the following Spring, the Argentine tyro popping up to score the winner against Manchester United at Old Trafford, following on from a period where he had delivered almost equally vital strikes against Blackburn and Bolton and been directly involved in 55% of the Hammers’ goals in the final five games.
The win in Manchester, a city to which he would later be seen welcoming visitors from billboards, helped relegate Sheffield United following a cataclysmic defeat at home to Wigan, while the Latics and others predictably drifted away from the gathering of clubs threatening to voice displeasure at West Ham’s lenient treatment.
For lenient that treatment indeed was in spite of the fact that the £5.5 million fine incurred at the time amounted to 7% of West Ham’s value as a club. More curiously still, Tevez was allowed to continue in those vital games after an earlier ruling had been successfully appealed against by West Ham. After much toing and froing, United resigned themselves to their fate and finally agreed an out of court settlement of £18 million in installments, having originally wished for £12 million more.
A friend remarked to me on Saturday the curious reaction he received on encountering some West Ham supporters on the London underground a couple of years back. After questioning them in friendly fashion about the result of that particular afternoon, he declared his own allegiance to Sheffield Wednesday only to be met by snarls and glowers, a stance that only softened when he reiterated the Wednesday part of his favoured club’s name.
For the kind of mentality that seems cartoonish to outsiders — the East End boys looking after their own and closing ranks with absolute no intention to admit culpability – still dominates in the streets of Newham and Tower Hamlets. The initial wrong in what has become known as the Carlos Tevez Affair was West Ham’s plain and simple and yet the feeling within range of Bow Bells is that Sheffield United assumed the mantle of the aggressors.
That’s not helped by the media’s depiction of West Ham as pure as the driven snow — a kind of butter-wouldn’t-melt image of a cheeky barrow boy caught out robbin’ but forgiven for being ‘one of our own’ — he’s a good lad really, wouldn’t hurt a fly etc. etc.
Not that there isn’t resentment on the Blades side of the fence still of course — Sean Bean led delegations to the FA to have a points deduction imposed while a granite hard but limited bunch of fighters under Neil Warnock are deemed to have been denied a rightful second season in the Premier League after their unfair relegation.
That shows the nature of football rivalry — for despite the agreement and United Chairman Kevin McCabe declaring that ‘We are happy and satisfied with the settlement with West Ham. Throughout the finalisation of the terms for the agreement, the discussions were friendly, co-operative and in the best of spirit with both the Blades and Hammers advisory teams’, there are fans on both sides who cannot wait for a renewal of hostilities, their bitterness outlasting the end of the affair.
On the one hand, you have Yorkshiremen claiming to have had their birthright stolen by the footballing establishment — the ‘media-commercial complex’, if you will; on the other, you have Londoners resenting the bunch of ‘moaners’ who just happened to finish third bottom that year and wouldn’t have batted an eyelid had former Blade David Unsworth missed a season-defining penalty.
Odd really given that the whole argument has been twisted to be all about money. Odd in particular because of both clubs’ singular ability to waste the stuff since.
Enter Bryan Robson, flush with parachute payments, his decision to call upon a cluster of overpaid Premiership has beens such as Ugo Ehiogu, James Beattie, Gary Naysmith and Lee Hendrie as well as a failed gamble on Billy Sharp led to severe pressure on the balance sheet at Bramall Lane, exacerbated by hair brained schemes including the tie in with Chengdu Blades, the separation of stadium and club ownership and the subsequent disastrous signing of Ched Evans (a few third tier goals not really making up for the £3 million spent and the anguish caused).
That spendthrift environment was to be mirrored to a jaw dropping degree at West Ham — Freddie Ljungberg, £3 million; Kieron Dyer, £6 million; Savio Nsereko, £9 million; Pablo Barrera, £4 million and later, Matt Jarvis, £7.5 million and Andy Carroll the daddy of the lot at £15 million. Yes, significant funds were collected for the likes of Anton Ferdinand, Craig Bellamy, Matthew Etherington and others but the wages disbursed to the likes of free transfers such as Benni McCarthy and Diego Tristan will have been similar to those for whom students of the specious ‘net spend’ maxim are aware.
It’s been a torrid time for both teams since — especially for Sheffield United, now experiencing an unlikely relegation battle from the third tier, while West Ham have already spent one further year in the Championship with another a distinct possibility come August.
The irony of the story is a financial one — the monies which both clubs feel they have been denied — Blades through another season in the Premier League; Hammers through avoidance of the compensation they have been sending to the Steel City – would no doubt have been frittered away anyway based on the track record of the regimes in charge since. Nor is any portent of the dangerous slide into litigation a comfort for anyone — Sheffield United were wronged but it is perhaps Richard Scudamore and chums who they should have dragged to the Old Bailey and it is they who deserve their opprobrium next time the clubs meet.