Back in Sheffield for Another Steel City Derby
Somewhere, in the streets near my hotel, a small band of lads are giving it one last “We are BLAAAADES!” The result is a kind of echoing silence. No “We are Wednesday” response, no clopping of police horse hooves, no sirens, no word from any other Blades. Still determined to give it a go, I thought, as I drifted off to sleep.
Just 10 hours before, the whole city of Sheffield had been filled with … what, exactly? Excitement. Fear. Nerves. Anticipation. Dread. A streak of pride, strangely mixed with a dash of embarrassment. In short, a swirling mass of neurotic thoughts and feelings that boils down to this: There’s about to be a war on.
A very minor and ultimately meaningless war, sure. A football war, between two clubs hardly known outside England, and hardly cared about beyond this part of it. But that just makes it even more personal. People who yesterday were, and tomorrow will be, co-workers, friends, neighbors, even loved ones, today are pigs, at best.
And like any war, everyone has their own agendas. For those fighting, goal #1 is Don’t Lose. Not to these fuckers. After that we can talk about winning. Maybe. For the rest of the town, the goal is to stay the hell out of the way — to survive. And for me, my one and only request for the evening was: Please, don’t let it be a nil-nil.
I’d been in touch with Sheffield United fans for weeks, because of a quirky combination of timing and technology, and they had been telling me all those weeks that I’d never seen anything like what I would see under the Friday night lights at “Beautiful Downtown Bramall Lane.” Others in town, like my Thursday night waiter, simply shook their heads in wonderment, baffled by a large chunk of the population about to go completely mad. Every bar downtown was hiring security to keep the hordes out, and extra police were being called in from nearby towns.
Walking over to the battlefield, one couldn’t help but size up any traveling band of lads singing and waving their arms: Are those Wednesday songs, or United? Are they looking for trouble? Is anyone else in the area offering it? Do the police nearby — and they were everywhere — look nervous at all? Several times an ambulance went by, lights and sirens going, and I thought, “My God, is it already happening somewhere?”
The cops, the media, the traffic, the singing, the blue lights, the bands of lads — all were flowing like little streams down to the sea — Bramall Lane. And the closer one got to it, the more tense it felt. Just when I got to the corner of the ground, I saw a wall of police coming down the street, with another wall of bouncing arms behind it, with suds flying in and out, fingers being pointed, obscenities and taunts shouted, cops pushing the occasional aggressor back into the crowd, and then BOOM — an explosion of some sort went off, and people started running.
There’s a moment when you think, “Shit, I’m in one of those videos you see online after an International Incident.” You naturally start to run as well, if only to not get run over. After 50 yards, you realize people are slowing down, looking back, some even laughing, and you think, Well, maybe I’ll go and have a look. The cops seem to have it under control, it’s just jumping and shouting, beer being thrown as opposed to actual bottles, and even when a second BOOM goes off, it’s almost fun for just a second. The cops have got this. Folks around me are smiling — maybe humor, maybe relief.
A sad moment: two guys near me are chesting up, tossing “cunt” and “fucker” at each other, and a third comes along and says, “Hey — he’s my friend, and he’s an Owl, so come on …” He puts out a hand for a shake. Somebody behind me yells “Wanker!” Somebody else says to the Owl, “Fuck off or I’ll fucking murder you!” I decide it’s time to head inside.
I get around to the all-United side of the ground, and it’s much more peaceful. Feels like a regular old football game, only with insane lines at the turnstiles. Here in safe territory, we can greet one another, ask how we’re feeling — that question always elicits a somewhat terrified look — and consider if we have time for something from Man Friday’s.
I get into my seat, and I have to say, it’s magnificent. What a football ground should look and feel like: 31,000 people that feel right on top of each other. The lights. The singing. The players warming up. The buzz of anticipation. Everything that’s good about the game. I dream of such things existing in America. Leave the nonsense outside, boys, and let’s do this!”
I had been waiting for The Song for weeks. I had learned the words. I had gotten my high-definition camcorder into the ground. I had a good view of the Kop. I was more than ready. The players came out to a shuddering roar. The stadium erupted into multiple songs at once, the sound rolling around like waves in a hot bathtub. The lineups were announced — a constant BOO for the “pigs,” and a piercing HEY for every boy in red. And then — it’s quite odd really, though I knew it was coming — in the midst of all the yelling and the cursing and the BOOMs and the rest of it, came the sweet, soft voice of John Denver.
Well, they belted it right out, didn’t they? Been waiting a long time for that one. Everything comes together when you do your pregame song. Right, now we’re here. Enough with the prelims — game time.
Technically, on the pitch it was No. 8 in the table hosting No. 16, the latter with a debutante manager. The players certainly feel all of this from the stands and the city, so it’s natural things start off a bit cagey down there. Still, the crowd is a howitzer of noise with a finger on the trigger — just give us one thing to fire off about! Every attack brings a roar, every missed ball a groan. Every referee decision is a disgrace. Every song spreads like a wildfire. It’s every game you’ve ever been to, at steroid-rage levels.
After half an hour, we’re truly settled into the game. United are bossing it for the most part, but Wednesday are holding firm. A looping would-be-wonder-goal lands on top of the Wednesday net. A header goes wide. A long shot is right at the keeper. A break-away falls apart. And somewhere around the 35th minute or so, a little voice spoke up in my head, and though I tried to mute it, the message still got through, and was undeniable: This feels like a fucking nil-nil.
I should have known it, really. After a 4-2 last time, after the whole country was talking about the Sheffield Derby, after a video I took got me into the local paper and taking calls from local radio, after all the talk and yelling and nonsense … of course it’s a fucking nil-nil. What the hell else would it be?
But to think it is to encourage it, right? Banish such thoughts and back the lads! At halftime, though, the crowd was already feeling just a bit spent. I think we could all feel it, though nobody wanted to say it out loud. When you set aside all the insanity, it is still a game of football, there are still tactics to consider, and a team that has a new manager and one eye over its shoulder at the relegation zone would probably go into an incredibly hostile place and just try to get a point, right? Of course they would. Fuck me.
The second half started the same way, but Wednesday had a really good chance from nothing, and my goodness, the terror that went through those around me. It was a stunned silence, pregnant with fear, like when you step into the street and a car whips right across your toes. Fuck me again, that could have been the end. Where I was sitting, a Wednesday goal would indeed be the end. And although I was still, at heart, a neutral, and I would have welcomed a damn goal by any damn body, I sure hoped it would be a United goal. It would help me achieve both primary aims — a decent game, and safe passage back to my hotel. (Also, I had been instructed by Blades at a pregame pub that I was not to film any goals “by that lot.”)
And then, in the 65th minute, hope in my corner. A nasty tackle right in front of me, an explosion of anger, and then the chant of OFF OFF OFF. Just as I was thinking, “Is that the Wednesday player on a yellow,” out came the red, and bliss erupted all around me. Grown men hugging, people dancing in the aisle, fists being shaken all over. We’ve got the fuckers now!
The poor dumb bastard in blue sulked off to a rousing “cheerio,” and now we locked in. Now there would be a goal. Now I’d get another video and make more friends. Now that Sound Cannon could be fired.
And yet another, louder, even more rational thought came to me: Wednesday are all in for a nil-nil now. While my optimist was saying United would score, my rationalist was saying a fucking nil-nil was more likely. Shit.
United certainly gave it a go, every attack towards The Kop greeted by an ever-greater roar. But as each one failed, the roar became more desperate. It was shifting, slowly but surely, from “Get the fuckers” to “We are gonna get them, right?” After that came “We HAVE to get them,” and then it arrived at “Please don’t do this.”
They did. It was a fucking nil-nil. But not without two moments that almost caused Armageddon for one side of the city or another. The first was United coming down the right, another huge roar, a looping ball in, a glancing header, everyone out of their seats, and then, from my obstructed viewpoint, a hand appeared from below the bar, tipped the ball onto the roof of the net, and disappeared. Brilliant save that. 28,000 pairs of hands went to heads, and the OHH that came out was laced with a soul-sapping realization: That was the moment. We’ll cheer any more attacks that come, but honestly, that was it. We’re not gonna fucking score.
It was four minutes of injury time, and during those four minutes — truly among the worst in life, should you care about the outcome — the world almost ended again. Wednesday had a shot go into the area, the ball disappeared into the crowd, bodies flew, and all I could do was watch their supporters behind the goal to see if they erupted. I truly didn’t care, and despite orders from the Blades Army I had my camera running. The people around were shitting their collective britches. It didn’t go in. They breathed again. The referee blew, and it was over.
It’s been a while since I saw a crowd leave so quickly. They hung around on The Kop for a bit, gave the boys a clap, and the rest gave it one more “oh yeah” Greasy Chip Butty over their shoulders. The great mass of those in red seemed to think, right, it’s a point, we didn’t lose, let’s get the fuck out of here. The only discussions I heard were how shite we actually were, and which way to go to get home safely.
I hung around, as always, took some pictures, and then headed out into the street. There was a bit of a queue at Man Friday’s, a couple of shouters still shouting, but mostly it was handshakes, shrugs, and then heads down, walks begun.
Back at the corner where there had been rowdies before, there were rowdies again.
It felt different, though. The game was settled; now we’re just playing the roles. You walk over there and call us cunts, we’ll stand over here and call you fuckers. Somebody might throw something. The younger lads will hop up and down a bit, the grim-faced cops will pull their face shields down, somebody else will toss a BOOM, I’ll feel bad for (and mighty impressed by) the horses, and then …
And then the cops will say “disengage” and back off. And then the crowd will give it a “waHEY!” and start walking again. Somebody might say let’s follow the bastards, somebody else will say this was all silly, the lady selling me a burger will say they’re all acting like children, tomorrow they’ll be arguing on Twitter about which set of bastards was happier with the result, and I’ll wander back through the city to my hotel. I’ll nod at the pair of cops every 50 yards or so, smile at somebody debating a cop about their strategy for the evening, glance at a small band of shouters across the way, wonder if maybe something is happening somewhere … but mainly, my mind is going to where it always goes after a game.
The next game.
I’d be off to Hull in the morning, to see them play Reading, and nobody anywhere — including those in Hull, I am sure — expects any of that to be any kind of fun or interesting. Which, of course, means it will probably wind up 4-3 with three red cards and a pitch invasion. Football is funny that way (1). We shuffle out to the ground to meet our mates, say hello, and we just might walk away thinking My God, we’ll be talking about that one for generations. Or maybe we get all excited, convince each other how amazing it’ll be, do our best to make it so, act the fool, hope and sing and shout, and then get reminded that it’s just a game. And you never know what it will be like. This was one of those, in the end.
But we keep showing up, and we keep hoping. If we’re a bit older, we chuckle and shrug, and try to get some sleep. And if we’re young, we stay out late shouting our names to the night, maybe keeping an eye out for some fucker in the wrong color, determined to make it memorable some damn how.
Next time, though. Next time it’s gonna be epic. That’s why we’ll be there.