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Bad times in the Steel City: why Sheffield United vs Sheffield Wednesday is more than a game

In late 2011, the Blades met the Owls in the third tier for only the third time in the 121 years of the Sheffield derby. FourFourTwo's Neil Billingham was there to watch...

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19 years is a long time in football. For fans of Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday it must feel like a lifetime. In 1992, English football was on the brink of a new era. The Premier League was launched amid much fanfare and hype. Both Sheffield clubs were guests at the top table.

The timing was perfect for Wednesday. The previous year, the Owls had earned promotion back to top flight and defeated Manchester United in the final of the League Cup – their first piece of silverware in over 50 years. The following term, they finished third in the league, and the next season saw four visits to Wembley in the League Cup final, FA Cup semi-final, final and replay. “We thought it would last forever”, says Roy Hattersley, former deputy Labour Party leader and lifelong Wednesday fan. 

1991: Wednesday celebrate their cup success after beating Manchester United

United weren’t doing too badly, either. In 1990 they returned to Division One after a 14-year exile, and three years later had their own trip to the Twin Towers by reaching the all-Sheffield FA Cup semi-final. “They were great times for the city,” says Hattersley. “But we’ve always dwelled on the past too much. Even when I went to my first match in 1944, the fans were harping on about the team that won the league in 1903 and 1904. You should never look back.”

But the present day is a far grimmer reality. Fast-forward to October 16, 2011 and the 126th Steel City derby sees both teams languishing in League One. How did it come to this?

The lost millions of Richards… and Tevez

He ostracised Paolo Di Canio and we sold him for around £2 million when he was worth £10 million.

- Lee Strafford, Sheffield Wednesday chairman

In January 2009, Lee Strafford was appointed as chairman of Sheffield Wednesday. “When I took a close look at the accounts, I could see how badly the club had been run for 20 years,” he says. “Dave Richards has got a lot to answer for.” Richards, currently chairman of the Premier League, ran the Owls from 1990 to 2000. “He wasted millions overpaying for players,” believes Strafford. “His biggest error was when he ostracised Paolo Di Canio. We sold him for around £2 million when he was worth £10 million. Look at how Sir Alex Ferguson dealt with Eric Cantona’s indiscretion. He stood by Cantona and was richly rewarded.”

2003 saw Wednesday’s second relegation in four years as they dropped into the third tier for just the second time in their history. The Owls have hovered around there ever since.

If you were to list three things a Championship side shouldn’t do, United did all three: too many managers, too many loan players, too much in wages for certain players

- James Shield, reporter for Sheffield’s The Star

United have had an equally bumpy ride. The Blades were relegated from the Premier League in 1994 and, despite a revival under Neil Warnock that saw them reach the semi-finals of both domestic cups in 2003 and a return to the top flight three years later, United have toiled since then. Last season they were relegated to League One.

“A lot of people point to the Carlos Tevez affair as a turning point in the club’s recent history,” says James Shield, Blades reporter for Sheffield’s newspaper, The Star. When United were relegated on the final day of the 2006-07 season, the club appealed to the Premier League to be reinstated after West Ham (who finished 15th) were fined for fielding Tevez, who was partially owned by a third party. Warnock left as the saga dragged on for two years, ending with the Yorkshire club receiving £20m from the Hammers. “The affair overshadowed everything and left a sour taste,” says Shield.

Tevez: Not the most popular of people among Sheffield United fans

With the Tevez money, the club still looked set for a top-flight return – instead they struggled. Last season, the Blades hired four different managers in a futile attempt to stave off relegation. It was a textbook lesson in how not to run a club. “If you were to list three things a Championship side shouldn’t do,” says James Shield. “United did all three. They went through too many managers, all of whom had a completely different philosophy, so the players didn’t know if they were coming or going.

"Secondly, they were over-reliant on loan players. Kevin Blackwell often had to reshape the team because he had more loan players than he was allowed to use. Thirdly, they invested too heavily in the wages of certain players.” James Beattie was reputed to be earning £40,000-a-week when he joined United in 2007.

“Football is in Sheffield’s DNA”

The Lane was Wednesday's home from 1880 to 1887; two years later United moved in. It's the oldest major arena still hosting professional matches

The demise of both clubs has been hard to take for the city’s loyalists. Sheffield oozes with football history. Sheffield FC was formed in 1857 and is acknowledged by FIFA to be the world’s first club. The second was Hallam FC, also based here – and the first ever derby took place between the two in 1860. Two years later, the clubs played at Bramall Lane which also hosted the first ever football tournament, the Youdan Cup, in 1867. 

The Lane became the home of Wednesday from 1880 to 1887, but two years later United moved in. The stadium is the oldest major arena on the planet still hosting professional matches. “Football is in our DNA,” says Richard Caborn, former Minister for Sport, MP for Sheffield Central and United fan. “Football was born here and the passion is no less than in Glasgow, Liverpool or Manchester.” 

Sheffield United's Brian Deane scores the first goal in the re-branded Premier League

Sheffield’s demographic make-up also contributes to football being embedded into the city’s fabric. With a population of more than 600,000, it is described in many quarters as the most working class city in the UK. Despite a decline in the steel and coal industries, Sheffield still boasts a higher than average percentage of workers in the manufacturing sector. United can certainly claim to have the most working class of chants: The Greasy Chip Butty Song, sang to the tune of John Denver’s Annie’s Song, which glorifies of a night on the town with particular reference to beer, cigarettes and, of course, spud sarnies.

NEXT: "We shouldn't be playing second fiddle to towns like Blackburn"