The Blood, Guts And Police Brutality Of The Steel City Derby

Ahead of tomorrow's derby, an eye witnesses account over the three decades of the irrational hatred, heavy violence and police brutality when Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday go head-to-head...
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The guts

Ahead of tomorrow's derby, an eye witnesses account of irrational hatred, heavy violence and police brutality when Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday go head-to-head...

Sheffield  Wednesday 4 Sheffield United 0

December 26th 1979

The Boxing Day Massacre is the stuff of legend; a match that had profound implications way beyond a simple derby game. Wednesday’s crushing victory changed the balance of power in the Steel City for over a decade.

Going into the game, the Blades were the clear favourites. Sheffield Wednesday had been languishing in the third tier for a few years; newly relegated United were running away with the league and looked set to bounce straight back up. This was the first time the two teams had met in eight years. While the Owls had been plumbing the depths, United had experienced something of a golden age, before rashly spunking all their money on a new stand and freefalling to join their neighbours.

The game was brought forward to 11 am to avoid trouble in the boozers and 500 coppers were on duty as the South Yorkshire police put the city on lock down. The buses were off and from early morning, the streets were full of fans walking from all points of the city.

49,309 turned up at Hillsborough, among them an expectant 13 year old me. In common with all the other Blades packing the Leppings Lane end, I was ready for the kick off. Ready to see these noisy pigs to get put in their place … but it didn’t quite work out.

The Blades got destroyed. Like an abuse victim, I don’t have an exact memory of what happened, just a series of horrific images that surface without warning and make me judder. Terry Curran scored with a diving header then dropped to his knees and skidded through the mud to taunt the Blades who were shaking the fences. The final goal was a Mark Smith penalty. Smith was a local lad and blue and white to the core. He stuck the ball in the corner then trotted a few paces to his right. I remember him looking directly at me as he directed a few words of celebratory abuse at the massed ranks of the vanquished.

After the game, I sat on the corner of Southey Green Road; watching the crowds disperse as I waited for my lift home. The Wednesdayites were strangely subdued. It was almost as if they’d beaten us too severely for it to be funny. And they had.

The rejuvenated Wednesday went on a long unbeaten run off the back of the derby win and won promotion. United fell away, winning only four of their remaining 22 games and finishing twelfth. The following season, they dropped to the Fourth Division for the first time in their history. Rock bottom. The Blades would spend the 80s bouncing around the lower divisions. Wednesday consolidated then kicked on; getting promoted to the top flight.

Psychologically, the Boxing Day Massacre ruined Blades fans. For anyone who was there, other derby games are measured by it. In recent times, United have regularly gone into the derbies as hot favourites. The chat in the pub is always the same: this could be the time we get them back. It never is. Similarly, the defeats never hurt as much. Outsiders imagine that losing a Wembley FA Cup semi-final to your cross city rival must be a low as it gets. For a Boxing Day Massacre vet- that was a walk in the park.

For a youngster, it was even worse. Ever since that slate grey day, I’ve been a staunchly glass half empty kind of guy. Life was clearly not fair. Your hopes, dreams and belief would inevitably be stomped into the dirt. Seven days after the match, the steel strike started as the ISTC sought to assert union power in the face of Thatcherism. That one didn’t work out well for the reds either. Within a week, Blades were mercilessly put to the sword and the seeds were sown for the demolition of the industrial base the area was built upon. It was clear to me that the 80s were going to be a bleak time.

Sheffield  Wednesday 1 Sheffield United 3

11th March 1992

Unlike other rivalries around the nation, the Sheffield derby has never been a friendly affair. Throughout the 80s, the two teams were in different divisions but the violence continued. On Saturday nights, the crew returning from an away match would often go up London Road (United) or West Street (Wednesday) to hunt for their opposite numbers.

After a 13 year wait, the League derby returned (there had been a two legged League Cup tie and 30,464 turned up for a ZDS Cup match in 89); with United beating Wednesday 2-0 at Bramall Lane. I was 24 years old and it was the first time I’d seen the Blades win a derby. Although satisfying, the Lane game, an early Sunday kick off, was always just going to be a mere aperitif. Due to some outrageous oversight, the Hillsborough fixture was going to be a night match. Bad lads from both sides of the divide spent months planning all day drinking sessions with malice aforethought.

On the morning of the match, I was involved in a version of a scene that was played out all across the area. The Blades and Owls went for a drink in the local pub. After an hour of pleasantries, our group left for town and told the other lot that if we saw them later we would fucking kill them. The threat was returned without a hint of good humour.

All day, the city centre was full of Blades. Rumours that Wednesday were on their way kept circulating- but they never appeared. The Blades mobbed up and headed out to S6. Once again, there was no opposition. United had sold out Leppings Lane, but that was just the start. Those of us who couldn’t get tickets by the official route were heading for the home sections.  Inside the ground, a crowd fuelled by all day drinking and the top notch speed that had flooded the city were literally bouncing.

A few minutes in Brian Deane crossed and Dane Whitehouse smacked it into the net. The away end went wild, the home sections went wilder. The bottom of the Kop resembled Rorke’s Drift as a focused but outnumbered group fought a rearguard action against the hordes pouring down the hill. The brawling fans spilled onto the pitch and the game was stopped till order was restored. After trudging through the rain, I ended up in The Gate and had a few jars with the other Blades who’d been ejected as we swapped war stories and followed the match on CeeFax. United won 3-1 thanks to two goals from on loan Bobby Davison. We all marched back to the stadium for the last ten minutes when the gates were unlocked to join the celebrations. Later, on the trip back to town, the Owls had melted away. The streets of Sheffield belonged to United.

Doing the double in 92/93 did not cause a footballing power shift in Sheffield. In fact, the opposite happened- Wednesday ended up third in the league and continued to be competitive in the Premier League era. United’s ninth place finish was a high watermark before they slid back to of being one of the better teams in the second tier.

The great cultural change happened off the pitch.  On the back page of the Sheffield Star, the headline proclaimed: A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, with a picture of guest of honour Derek Dooley on his first visit to Hillsborough since his scandalous sacking in the 70s. Below it was a sub headline: A NIGHT TO FORGET. The accompanying story told of the disgraceful scenes that had shamed the city blah, blah, blah. Luckily, my back had been facing the photographer so my face wasn’t visible in the snap they put next to it.

United fans and Wednesday fans had been fighting forever, but the dynamics were about to change. The Owls stopped being a visible presence on West Street, preferring to stay round Hillsborough corner. They had been ‘encouraged’ to do this by a sustained campaign of harassment from the South Yorkshire police who were keen to kill any future bad headlines. Another spin on this was that Wednesday were now scared to come into town. The local media was keen to give any news item a hooliganism angle. Anyone reading The Star in the 90s would have thought the Blades Business Crew were a terror organisation on a par with Al Qaeda rather than a bunch of big kids with self-esteem issues. By the same token, Wednesday supporters are portrayed as victims- poor lambs who are mercilessly picked on by their nasty neighbours, as the papers reprint pictures of soggy Owls who have had bottles of urine poured on them from the stand upstairs and of the young lass who took a glancing blow from a distress flare. Bramall Lane became a hellish Thunderdome where decent (Wednesday) fans should fear to tread.

At the time, everyone was waking up to the idea that football violence was for losers. As the public perception, underlined by the events of March 92 and supported by spurious media coverage, was that United were a lot better at hooliganism than Wednesday- the Owls support quickly distanced themselves from all things aggro related. Like the 70s Scottish wrecking crew changed to the touchy feely tartan army, the Owls faithful became the fun loving Barmy Army (coincidentally the name United's hooligan element claimed in the 70s). Some aspects of the transformation were amusing (the bouncing and the themed away days), some were annoying (the high profile of self-styled cheerleader Tango Man) and some were crimes against humanity perpetrated by the most despicable human beings on Earth (the band).

The eternal quarrel between Owls and Blades took on a new dynamic. Outsiders looking in see the Sheffield clubs as underachievers on a par with West Brom or Birmingham. Those in the Steel City see a pair of sleeping giants who will one day brush aside arrivistes like Man Utd to reclaim their place at the top table of the English game. When, for the first time in living memory thanks to Waddle et al, one of the Sheffield clubs was not rubbish at football- the delusional tendencies of Wednesdayites went into overdrive. United became characterized as jealous thugs who lashed out due to the frustration of living in the shadow of their champagne football quaffing neighbours.

This mythology held until the turn of the century, when a decade of United dominance dawned. Wednesday as a club became a laughing stock- thanks to a series of comedy chairmen and even more pathetic players. The fans had used United’s hooligan rep as a stick to beat them with, but this now back fired. The Blades could now claim to be the tough guys with street cred, the bigger club (they averaged over 30,000 in their Premier League relegation season- a feat that Wednesday had not come close to even in the 90s) and they were demonstrably a far superior football team. 92 had taught them that derbies held no threat for them. Blades would swagger down to Hillsborough in huge numbers. In contrast, prior to the return matches, Owls forums would be full of worried fans asking about how to get in and out of the Lane safely. Tickets for the beam back were more sought after than tickets for the away end and some supporters groups put on coaches so they could travel the three miles across town from Hillsborough with a police escort. The notion that United fans; their friends, workmates and family members, were violent nutters who would batter any Owl who crossed their path had become the conventional wisdom- despite the lack of supporting evidence.

Wednesday fans became more ridiculous by the day, clutching to the idea that they were a massive club. United would always be second best because the Owls were one of the great clubs of world football because of their proud history and reputation.  It would have been hilarious if it hadn’t been so sad. As Wednesday limped in and out of court trying to stay in business- a lot of Blades actually felt sorry for them.

Sheffield United v Sheffield Wednesday

16 October 2011

After a promising start to the season under former Owl Danny Wilson, the Blades are in a mini-slump.  If they can’t get a result against Wednesday, the ‘Sack the Pig’ chants will echo round the Lane and a full blown crisis will be in effect. After betting the farm on a swift return to the Prem’, United are reportedly £50 million in the hole. With a number of big earners on the pay roll, promotion is essential. With the academy finally bearing fruit, next year could be the time for the cream of last year’s FA Youth Cup finalists to step up and move the club forward- if the club is still around.

Wednesday are climbing up the league, after resisting the calls to sack Megson. Since Mandaric saved the club, the initial optimism has been tempered as the cash hasn’t flowed as freely as many would like.

A defeat for either club would push the manager towards the exit door. If United get beaten, it could be a disastrous as the Boxing Day Massacre. With crowds already down to the 16 k mark, a derby defeat and the resulting feel bad factor could push them close to oblivion. All the money Kevin McCabe has spent has so far produced a return of abuse, disappointment and a crappy hotel and you have to wonder how long it will be before the man with average taste in managers pulls the plug. Wednesday need this just as much. The doubters in the stands will outnumber the happy clappers if their much bulled up renaissance can’t provide them with the means to overtake the United basket case.

As Wednesday will get both the upper and lower tiers of the Lane End for the first time in forever, the atmosphere will be off the charts. This is the chance for the blue and white boys and girls to come out of the cupboard and assert themselves- to cast out the ghosts of 92.

This is the most significant Steel City derby for a while. If you are a fan of irrational hatred, unskilled blood and guts lower division football and police brutality; you should snap up a ticket while you can.

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