Football Cities: Sheffield

Posted by on Oct 15, 2015 in Football Cities | 7 Comments
Football Cities: Sheffield
Image available under Creative Commons (c) Neil Tilbrook

The fifth part of our Football Cities series sees John Leigh evoke Sheffield and it’s a post permeated by a fine sense of tradition – Sheffield is a classic two club city where the fortunes of its favourites are complicatedly intertwined. John is the author of Touchà©, a new book from Harvard University Press that, somewhat appropriately, looks at the history of duelling in literature while he has also co-authored The Football Lexicon.

Derek Dooley Way is one of the busier roads in Sheffield. The name lent to the A61, after Dooley’s death in 2008, not only commemorates a local football legend but may serve as a symbol of the central importance of football to Sheffield. It would seem to be a wise ecumenical choice. For Dooley, recognised and revered by each of the polarised football communities of Sheffield, is a rare, perhaps unique figure. It would also be tempting to laud him as a unifying force, just as the road carries traffic through depleted, humiliated post-industrial districts across the river Don between the centre of the city and its northern neighbourhoods.

The life of Derek Dooley is, however, more likely to remind Sheffield of its deep-seated footballing rivalries and resentments. A raw, prolific goalscorer for Sheffield Wednesday, and then in turn manager of the Owls, he was, infamously, sacked on Christmas Eve, 1973. To be sure, that date fell on a Monday, after a goalless draw the previous Saturday with Crystal Palace, at the foot of the old second division, but the Board should surely have known better — Slade’s Merry Xmas Everybody was riding high in the charts. Dooley, forsaking Hillsborough for decades, was to spend the rest of his career in different administrative capacities with Sheffield United. And there he remains, in the form of a statue, outside Bramall Lane.

What then would Derek Dooley have made of the fact that Derek Dooley, his grandson, not only supports the Owls but earned the distinction of being arrested and convicted as Wednesdayites rioted after relegation in 2010 (following another dismal draw with Crystal Palace)?

But something else transcends the squabbles and scandals. In 1953, at Deepdale, Dooley broke a leg. The leg was amputated after gangrene set in. Dooley’s life was saved, but of course his career was over. The injury and its aftermath are a horrific anomaly, but it is tempting, nevertheless, to see this as an emblematic part of the story of football in Sheffield — a story, since the war, largely of unfulfilled potential, of mismanagement and underachievement.

If football is demonstrably important to Sheffield, so Sheffield is — or perhaps was — important to football. Superlatives abound. Founded in 1857, Sheffield FC is the oldest club now playing association football. Bramall Lane is the oldest professional league football ground. The first football match ever played under floodlights took place there in 1878. Hallam FC play at the oldest football ground. Sheffield United were the first club to use the name United. Arthur Wharton, the first black professional, played in goal for United. Both Sheffield sides have in their time broken the transfer record, Wednesday as recently as 1951 (lavishing £34,500 on Jackie Sewell). And, pardon an especially otiose fact, it was United’s Brian Deane who in 1992 scored the first ever Premiership goal. (Even if I were to buy into the idea that football began on that day, the distinction seems unfair on players of the 4 Premiership teams that only kicked off on the following days. And I support Wednesday).

These honours matter all the more because they have been eclipsed by so few recent accomplishments, and because we like to do well at pub quizzes. Even before that contrived new terminus a quo in 1992, I was already a bit sensitive about the habit of referring to the “post-war record” of clubs and players. They inevitably diminished both Wednesday and United. These were big clubs, with big players (such as Fatty Foulke, United’s famous goalkeeper).

The past lingers almost tangibly at certain clubs. The City Ground evokes the Clough era, particularly when Forest fans launch into their dreamy renditions of Mull of Kintyre. Then there is Bloomfield Road, with its Mortensen, Matthews and Armfield stands. Is it by chance that the dialling code of Blackpool ends in 53? Everything around Blackpool seems to end in 1953. In both these cases, pride in the past may be compensating for the insufficiencies of the present and fears for the future. Anyone who has been at Hillsborough on match day will know that Wednesday fans refer with never-ending glee to the ‘Boxing Day Massacre’. This took place back in 1979. Two statistics matter. Wednesday won 4-0 that day. I think that just about qualifies as a ‘massacre’ (but 3-0 is definitely not enough). Secondly, the attendance was 49,309, a preposterous record for a match in the third flight. It’s hard to see it ever being broken. So the song harks back to a time when both clubs were in the doldrums. It is a bit curious that Wednesday fans choose to cherish this, rather than the much more recent and apparently prestigious 2-1 victory over their rivals in the FA Cup Semi-Final at Wembley, surely the most painful, visible place to lose a derby. But the margin of the victory matters more than the context of the game, and its wider importance. The derby has a logic of its own.

Besides, Wednesday had been the lesser club in the 1970s. Dooley had decamped to a more prosperous club. But now Alan Woodward and Tony Currie had gone. And Wednesday had acquired their own brilliant T.C. — Terry Curran. Whereas 1979 was the dawn of some good times, as the club twice achieved promotion and lorded it over United throughout the 80s, the semi-final victory led only to a painful defeat by Arsenal.

It is the antediluvian 1970s that United implicitly recall when they too sing their anthem. You know the words:

You Fill Up My Senses,
Like A Gallon Of Magnet,
Like A Packet Of Woodbines,
Like A Good Pinch Of Snuff,
Like A Night Out In Sheffield,
Like A Greasy Chip Butty,
Like Sheffield United,
Come Fill Me Again,

It is strange just how convincingly such American standards as You’ll never walk alone or I’m forever blowing bubbles have been naturalised by respective sets of fans in England. But, unlike those songs, where the original lyrics have remained intact in all their mawkishness, John Denver’s hit (Annie’s Song) has been deftly adjusted to the requirements of gruff, unsentimental Sheffield folk.

I think it’s fair to say that United have in recent decades styled themselves as the more virile club. The lads in The Full Monty seemed to be Blades. Sean Bean, or his persona, would seem to suit his club. How many football league grounds have staged a battle? I refer not to the bombing of Bramall Lane by the Luftwaffe in 1940, but the more recent ‘Battle of Bramall Lane’ versus West Bromwich Albion. Earlier, in the 90s, United became the northern retirement home of the Crazy Gang. Members of the gang (Simon Tracey, Glyn Hodges, Vinny Jones, Brian Gayle, Kevin Gage, John Gannon, Alan Cork) who reconvened at Bramall Lane were evidently still crazy after all those years, only rather less effective. Neil Warnock, with his outbursts against refs and overt hostility towards Wednesday, behaved gratifyingly more like a fan than a manager. Chris Morgan embodied this mentality too. “How is Chris Morgan?” Asked a concerned reporter, after a particularly nasty collision and concussion. ‘It’s only his face’, Warnock reassured us. Dave Bassett apparently had a policy of signing players unhampered by good looks. His pugnacious teams seemed to rejoice in their own ugliness. Contrast that with ‘Wendy’, and their team of pampered ‘fancy Dans’.

Yet histories of football in Sheffield suggest that the inverse used to be true. Bramall Lane, where Yorkshire played cricket until 1973 ( The Cricketers Arms still stands next to the John Street stand, splendidly indifferent to recent developments) apparently could be the setting for a rather eerie experience, home to a more genteel atmosphere and clientele. Wednesday, meanwhile, had moved from their ground in the centre out to Owlerton to be among the vast housing estates beginning to spring up at the turn of the century.

The distance between the grounds means that the distribution of respective supporters in the city is largely, boringly straightforward. A former Professor of Geography at Sheffield University once told me he had supervised a Masters thesis on this subject. It came to the revelatory conclusion that Unitedites were concentrated in the districts around BDTBL (Beautiful downtown Bramall Lane), while Wednesdayites lived around the north of city, closer to Hillsborough. I don’t know whether the thesis discussed the tendency for success to bring in not just more fans, but different fans – a more middle-class fanbase from further afield, buying more expensive tickets, expecting better toilets.

Blade and Owl, Red versus Blue (however antagonistic, local rivals seem always to co-operate in adopting complementary colours): there’s something satisfyingly timeless and stark about these confrontations. The Steel City derby, despite the slightly suspect Sky Sports branding, has always been a proper ferocious affair, in an age of spurious and transient rivalries like Wenger vs Mourinho grudge matches or the ‘Wanda Derby’. Nevertheless, I feel that, as a rule, clubs must be far enough from, as well as near enough to, one another for a proper spiteful meeting to occur. There will be fans of Newcastle who know no-one from Sunderland; Ipswich supporters who have never been to Norwich. These are ideal conditions for tribal hostility. It’s true that Sheffield is big enough to nurture some of that mutual distrust. And the hills magnify the distances between places. After getting a black eye in a brawl, Alan Quinn, a former Owl then playing for United, was admonished by Warnock for finding himself in the ‘wrong part of town’.

Histories of the Sheffield clubs speak fondly of a ‘love-hate’ relationship and some mutual, grudging regard. I suspect that we live in a coarser age. There’s nothing affectionate or bantering when fans refer to one another as ‘Pigs’, the informal nickname. There have been more than a few recent outbreaks of crowd trouble. Helicopters buzz above the ground, as if in Kosovo, so I imagine. The early kick-off leaves that strange feeling in your stomach, unless of course it’s the pint and pasty you should have left for later.

I’ve certainly never heard any sentimental stuff about a ‘friendly derby’. Yet United and Wednesday are never far apart. Did you know that Mel Sterland’s twin brother, Glyn, is a Unitedite? That Richie Humphreys is a lifelong Blade, that Howard Wilkinson began his playing career with Sheffield United. And even Wednesday’s T.C. moved on to Sheffield United.

When registering the birth of my daughter, I was asked by the registrar to specify my birthplace: ‘Sheffield’. Upon which he looked up and solemnly posed the next question: ‘Owl or Blade?’ You had to be one or the other. Not all were devout, but no-one was agnostic. Elderly aunts and godmothers, who had and would never visit either ground, nevertheless knew their allegiance and their colour. (Mine were all blue-rinse). Everyone seemed to know a player from either side who had lived down the road, or a former player who ran a local pub. Of course, now, even in the shadow of the Lane and in Hillsborough Park, Man United shirts and Barcelona shirts can be seen.

Growing up in the 70s and 80s, I became perturbed by the idea that I supported the unluckiest club in the land and that I was somehow complicit. The FA Cup was, of course, as it was for all of us then, the ruling obsession. Semi-finals, we all know, represent the worst stage at (or on) which to lose. By the late eighties, Sheffield Wednesday had won only 4 times in 15 semi-final appearances, a truly disgusting return. Wednesday’s only chance of progressing seemed to me to be if they played United, whose record was only marginally better. So it proved in 1993. It turned out there was, after all, one team unluckier than Sheffield Wednesday: Sheffield United. But Sheffield United have turned bad luck into an art form.

All supporters think their clubs serially unlucky, hard done by. It is probably integral to the obsession, an essential response to the disappointment and frustration that are part of the experience. And, as Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch shows, it’s barely relevant to the actual circumstances of the club. Nevertheless, I cannot think of a club that has so consistently bottled it, when they have not become embroiled in unfortunate controversy. United were eliminated from the FA Cup, not when Kanu scored inadvertently but after the ‘replay’ magnanimously offered by Wenger – at Highbury. Who can forget the infamous Carlos Tevez goal that kept West Ham up and relegated United? In 2010, United were 8 points clear of Wednesday with a few games to go towards the end of the season, when Ched Evans was convicted, a case that of course ramified damagingly in and around his teammates.

United have endured more play-off final defeats than any other club: 1997, 2003, 2009, 2012. In some cases, they simply came up against better opposition, but they contrived to lose the last one after leading Huddersfield 2-0 in the penalty shootout. They are, I reckon, due the next such defeat in 2 or 3 years’ time. By contrast, Wednesday were successful (and a little fortunate) in their one outing at the playoffs. Sheffield United could not manage to be relegated from the Premiership the first time round in 1994 until Mark Stein scored a cruelly late injury-time winner, after Blades had led at Chelsea. And the coup de grace was not even dealt by the older, better brother Brian Stein.

However, in 1966, no doubt to the delight of Blades, Wednesday themselves found a doubly improbable way to lose the FA Cup Final. Not only were they leading 2-0 at halftime, but perhaps the greatest non-entity to star in a Cup Final, greater even than match-winners Roger Osborne (1978) and Lee Martin (1990), Mike Trebilcock (who played for Everton only on ten other occasions) scored twice and Everton won 3-2. ‘1966 was a good year for football’, proclaimed an advertising board outside Hillsborough, with no respect for the locals. That was the caption to a picture of Eric Cantona, born that famous year.

Before he signed for Leeds, Cantona was poised to join Wednesday. Wednesday fans have long been tantalised by a famous photo of Cantona, with that unmistakable swagger of his, wearing the blue and white stripes. There is an odd echo here. You may remember that the recent manager of Argentina, Alex Sabella, signed for United. But only, apparently, because United decided they could not quite afford a young player by the name of Maradona. That story may not be fully attested, but it circulates because it seems only too plausible. It feeds into the eternal Blades story of self-inflicted failure, noble disappointment.

Amid all the glamour of failure, one great success does stand out. Wednesday won the League (or Rumbelows) Cup in 1991 after beating Manchester United in the final, deservedly. Yet that triumph has been commemorated in perhaps typical Sheffield fashion. The War of the Monster Trucks, the name of an Owls fanzine, marks the moment just after the game when Yorkshire TV impatiently switched over to its coverage of lorry racing. Shuffled out by something literally bigger, even the moment of victory became a source of resentment. Sheffield suspicions naturally fell onto Leeds, HQ of Yorkshire Television. Alan Bennett, from Leeds, sets The History Boys in Sheffield. Remember the line: ‘I’m a Jew… I’m small… I’m homosexual… and I live in Sheffield… I’m f***ed.’ Well, that’s just a typical bit of Yorkshire campanalismo. That semi-final in 1993, eventually staged at Wembley, brought the Sheffield clubs together in common resentment towards Leeds, when both clubs bitterly resisted playing at Elland Road, the originally designated venue. If Wednesday and United fans were being honest, they’d probably always want their arch-rivals to beat Leeds.

For a city of its size, Sheffield is relatively understated. It lacks an architectural landmark that, like the Tyne Bridge or the Liver Building, can stand for the place and make it famous. Its accent, though distinctive, has not been made familiar by sitcoms or soaps. A place of traditionally bolshy specialist cutlers, ‘little mesters’, working from home, it is highly introverted compared to mercantile cities and ports like Glasgow, Liverpool, Bristol and Manchester.

Yet we now stand at the frontier to a new era of unprecedented cosmopolitanism and unimagined riches, and these stories of old will (or may already) seem quaintly irrelevant. Sheffield has its first foreign manager (Carolos Carvalhal), working under a Thai businessman; United are flirting (I don’t really know what’s happening) with Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Pretensions to foreign glamour have not gone well thus far. United have made an ill-advised excursion into China with the Chengdu Blades. Wednesday have their sorry history of Paolo di Canio to try to forget, so we shall see.

Ever since The Wednesday did not deign to become founder members of the Football League, there seems to have been something proudly parochial in the city’s outlook. I’ve emphasised, perhaps unduly, that this might have something to do with the geography of Sheffield. Paradoxically, it is perhaps owing to the very history of football in the city. I was once asked by a German (with, I think, more pity than resentment) why there was not a British football team. I explained that it was not the fault of England and Scotland that they had to play one another when there were no other nations to oppose. Football in Sheffield began in this way, with fierce internecine battles before everyone else got going. It is perhaps ironic then that that distinguished early history has led to satisfaction with local pre-eminence, and success defined on rather limited terms. Derek Dooley is then a fitting figure in another way. Without kicking a ball for England, and without really moving from an axis between Hillsborough and Bramall Lane, he could nevertheless become a legend, a local legend maybe, but a legitimate one.

The Two Unfortunates
The non-partisan website with an eye on the Football League


  1. Dave
    October 16, 2015

    Blade here. A cracking read, thanks!

  2. BaldyBlade
    October 16, 2015

    Your selective amnesia made you forget to mention this mate;

  3. Neil
    October 16, 2015

    Another Blade here.
    That is an exceptionally well written and well represented piece. Sums everything up perfectly – as one who has lived through the 70s and 80s as a Blade in his formative years I can vouch for everything discussed in this article. As an exile (uk based but away from Sheffield for the past 32 years) the match day experience is always one to look forward to but it’s the pre match pub and the post match ale and the post match meal that warms the soul. The football is just the aberration in between :o

  4. Steve
    October 17, 2015

    An Owls fans here. Can’t believe I am the first one seeing as we are massive (sorry, couldn’t resist).

    This is a very interesting and well composed piece, which I feel highlights the unique nature of the relationships between the two clubs. I am proud to be an Owls fan, equally as proud as Blades fans are in their own support. This is probably why we can sit down together over a pint and talk local rivalries, as we respect the fact that we share the same common bonds of passion for our teams.

    Thanks. I very much enjoyed that read over a nice coffee on a pre-match Saturday morning.

  5. Hoot
    October 17, 2015

    Wednesday nut here, that’s a superb read. Accurate and excellently written.

  6. Jon
    October 18, 2015

    Cracking small error….We were not the first “United” though. There was two or three before us.

  7. Phil
    October 28, 2015

    Brilliant piece. A couple of things spring to mind…
    When I was a kid, the line in the Sheffield United song was “gallon of maggots”, alluding to anglers who bought maggots in pints. Maybe they’ve changed it or maybe there were variations in different districts?
    I went to the game at Sheffield Arena when Wednesday played Baltimore Blast and Cantona played.
    Wondered what you meant by the sorry history of Di Canio. He has realistic claims to be the best player who ever wore the stripes. If you mean the way the club ostracised him after the referee incident then I agree. Contrast that with the way mufc put their arms around Cantona after his kung fu kick. History shows that chairman Richards had his own ambitions. He put himself first and started the decline of the club.


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