It’s been a tough couple years for the city of Sheffield and football. Things looked bleak at the start of the season, indeed United had just been relegated to the third tier of English football for the first time in 23 years after a miserable season that saw them rack up three different managers. Only one positive loomed on the horizon. The return of the Steel City derby.
While the Blades had been flirting with Premiership football, enjoying that one season in the top flight in 2003/04 and developing a hatred of Carlos Tevez long before the rest of the country, bitter rivals Wednesday have not enjoyed the best of times recently. The Owls are somewhat of a yo-yo team, bouncing between the Championship and League One and subsequently struggling financially during this period. It’s been tough for the fans to take, what with United mixing it with England’s big boys, but also adapting to life in England’s lower divisions after a long run as a well-established Premiership club.
Managerial changes probably haven’t helped either side, indeed Micky Adams was an absolute disaster for United last year, while Wednesday somewhat harshly relieved Gary Megson of his duties this season, despite occupying third position in the League at the time. Both sides seem settled now, United under the leadership of Danny Wilson, who has accumulated the necessary Football League experience over the years, with the Blades his seventh club at this level. Wednesday pulled off something of a coup in bringing Dave Jones to the club, indeed it was only last year that Jones narrowly failed to take Cardiff into the Premiership, having established the Bluebirds as one of the best sides in the Championship.
Things are starting to look a little rosier in South Yorkshire though. With six games to go, United are second, with Wednesday breathing down their necks in third, just two points behind. It seems the battle for automatic promotion will go right down to the wire and with Charlton six points clear of second spot and seemingly set for the title, only one club in Sheffield can claim the position.
United will expect promotion, their squad is still packed with players of Championship quality, especially Wales international striker Ched Evans, who cost the club £3 million when he originally joined from Manchester City. Despite disappointing fans in his first couple of seasons at the club, Evans has repaid the faith shown in him and bagged 31 goals in all competitions this year, making him the second top scorer in League One behind Huddersfield’s hot property Jordan Rhodes. The likes of Richard Cresswell, Stephen Quinn and goalkeeper Steve Simonsen have spent their careers playing in England’s second division and therefore with a bit of strengthening in the summer, the Blades would be well equipped to re-establish themselves as a force in the Championship. Many fans will also fancy their side to repeat the achievements of Southampton this year and Norwich the year before that and aim for a push at back-to-back promotions.
Wednesday on the other hand, will be slightly more cautious. Their inability to remain in the Championship has shorn them of their best players over the years and the squad they have built has less of a star-studded feel to it than their rivals. Striker Gary Madine has been sensational since signing from Carlisle last January, notching a decent tally of 17 goals this season so far. He will fancy a crack at the Championship, as will those ever-faithful fans at Hillsborough, who deserve a return to the big time for their unwavering support these last few years.
Wednesday hold the bragging rights so far this year, having beaten United 1-0 when the two sides clashed at Hillsborough in February. October also saw an entertaining 2-2 draw at Bramall Lane, but those bragging rights will lie well and truly in the hands of the Blades’ fans if they secure promotion above their rivals. A lot can happen in six games, indeed fourth place Huddersfield may well get their act together and overtake both sides, but watch out for the Steel City rivals’ respective promotion bids over the next couple of weeks. This season in League One has certainly helped restore pride in football in Sheffield once again.