Nkosana PhiriComment


Nkosana PhiriComment

“Part of supporting a s**t team is grabbing the highs when you can,” recalls 'Tony,' our Sheffield United supporter over 20 years after his adventure to Wembley - when “going to Wembley” was a sacred and privileged journey. Before the times of end-of-season play-offs, which extended the Wembley experience to several lower league clubs, the English FA began to open up Wembley for 'lesser' occasions. And so from1991, in the light of the Hillsborough disaster (and to raise extra revenue), FA Cup semi-finals were now held at England's showpiece stadium, giving the chance of an unexpected journey for multitudes of football fans.

The pivotal moment for football fans of this generation was the inception of a brand new Premier League in August 1992, a time when the words “the English Premier League” or “the Premiership” had to be enunciated consciously and deliberately as the replacement for “the First Division”.

As players, coaching staff, ground staff, media and fans approached the stadiums, switched on the their radios, read the newspapers and turned to the teletext on TV (usually the BBC's Ceefax) throughout that Saturday afternoon in mid-August, when all but one game kicked-off at 3pm, the city of Sheffield proudly showcased two football clubs competing in this inaugural season: Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday.

On approaching the eve of the new era, the recent fortunes of the two clubs played out a scenario akin to 'Blood Brothers': twins separated at birth - Bramall Lane being the home ground for both clubs pre-1900 - and in recent years living life at near opposite ends of the success spectrum.

Sheffield Wednesday played the role of the more sophisticated and elegant sibling as they were regulars in Tier 1 of English football in the 80s through to the early 90s, culminating with an impressive 3rd place in the last season of the old First Division, 'player/managed' by Trevor Francis in an era when managing a team was easy enough to prolong a successful veteran's playing career. His list of playing achievements includes being the first million-pound footballer in the world, winning a European Cup winners' medal with Nottingham Forest, an England international and playing in the illustrious Serie A when Platini and Maradona headed a star-studded cast. The blue half of Sheffield possessed a handful of internationals in the squad including the Football Writers’ player of that season, Chris Waddle.

Sheffield United duly filled the part of the less fortunate sibling. As recently as the 1988/89 season whilst Wednesday were playing in football’s top tier, “The Blades” were ploughing their weekly furrow in Tier 3.

When the club was climbing back up the league ladder on their return to the old First Division and lacked sufficient funds to sign Glyn Hodges, which was their most expensive transfer at the time, from Crystal Palace for the '91/92 season, the benevolence and trust of its supporters was demonstrated by red buckets tied to railings throughout Bramall Lane on match days for several weeks to allow fans to make personal contributions towards the transfer fund. Glyn Hodges went on to play five seasons for United.

Under Harry Bassett's tenure, United experienced one of Harry's club resurrection miracles which saw United achieve successive promotions and return to the top tier for the first time since the '70s. His slightly more remarkable, yet more impactful, first resurrection was at Wimbledon FC which saw three promotions in five seasons earlier in the '80s.

“I wasn’t there but I was told by my mates that all the Blades were buzzing. . rushing onto the pitch on every goal . . .wish I were there,” says 'Tony' with a hint of regret. This was the match at Filbert Street which ended 5-2 to Sheffield United and confirmed promotion back to the top division. The celebrations reached fever pitch when the triumphant Harry Bassett was besieged by the over-zealous fans and, in an act which doesn’t happen so much anymore, Bassett's clothes were opportunistically shared to his adoring fans leaving Harry (and us) with a memorable and iconic image of him in just his underwear and socks.

The turbulent nature of our ‘brothers’ fortunes were depicted that bank holiday weekend. As United cheered, Wednesday jeered when they lost 3-0 at home to Nottingham Forest and were relegated from the first division. It was only momentary as Wednesday reclaimed immediate top flight status the next season.

A trademark of Harry Bassett’s style management was his ability to run a professional club on a shoe-string budget and a very pragmatic in his approach to achieve success. Plucking players from lower league football then crafting them to fit into his plan was a skill of an 'old school' manager – where the whole far exceeded the sum of its parts. This galvanized whole-hearted commitment from young men who'd been unexpectedly elevated to play on a bigger stage and thus guaranteed a strong team spirit and allegiance to the manager. Consequently in the ethos of strategy and tactics of actually playing football, Bassett's teams epitomized the gospel of direct football by getting the ball into the opposition’s penalty area as quickly and as often as possible, specialising in set-piece plays, including long throw-ins.

At around 3:05 pm on a warm and sunny afternoon in the south Yorkshire, a rehearsed long thrown-in led to the first goal in the world famous English Premier League and was scored at Bramall Lane on the south side of Sheffield and commentator Mr Barry George Davies was bestowed the privilege of announcing this trivia moment:

“The ball hasn’t seen too much of the midfield so far….Carl Bradshaw with the long throw-in Cork waiting on the edge of the six-yard area . . . and Deane scores!”

The crystal-clear recorded commentary notes a hint of surprise in Barry Davies' voice when the ball is headed in to the goal by Brian Deane from 6-yards out. Once transcribed to paper, the description of the goal by a hugely experienced commentator appears inadequate. The description of the build-up play, the list of players involved and the physical action required for attackers to outwit the opposing defenders appears absent. Well, the simple reason is there was none – no build-up, no guile or outwitting involved. This goal was a well-rehearsed “Hail Mary” play. A long throw-in by right-back Carl Bradshaw was launched around 30 yards to its primary target, Alan Cork, on the edge of the 6-yard area, and then for him to head it across the goal mouth zone towards the secondary target, Brian Deane. One long throw, two headed touches and one goal. 

In the frenzied atmosphere of the start of the season, the injection of a goal into the blood of football addicts after a mere five minutes gives some the adrenaline high fans crave and is shared with thousands of others as part of the tower of support – after all this is what football's all about, right? The added twist was this was against Manchester United, a club who at this point hadn’t won the league in 26 years, until the following May. This style of football provides the short term solution of getting immediate results but is never the nourishing staple upon which top-quality football can sustain and strengthen itself.

As the premier Premiership season elapsed into the promise of spring, the anticipation of a Sheffield derby in the FA Cup was a much more romantic affair than their hum-drum contests in the league that season, both of which ended in the minimum possible score-draw result: 1-1. One game was held on a November afternoon whilst the other fixture was programmed into a mid-week Wednesday evening slot. The prospect of a spring afternoon at Wembley would make this derby the most prestigious of all Sheffield derbies dating back to the first ever recognised official football match between Sheffield FC and Sheffield Hallam on a Boxing Day afternoon in 1860.

Only when both Sheffield teams overcame their respective sixth round replays, more commonly referred to as quarter-finals, with Sheffield United's tie running its full course to the finale of a replay penalty shoot-out, could the locals of South Yorkshire start to “bring out the flags” and plan a day to remember. This unplanned footballing event was a most fitting prelude for the city's centenary celebrations held later that summer.

The migration to Wembley had to start early for both sets of fans, whether travelling by train, on the official club buses or driving down the M1 motorway with friends and family, the near-on three hour journey is the period one's brain truly starts to consume itself with what the occasion might deliver.

For the younger fans, the grandeur of the semi-final isn't entirely grasped until reality nudges in the visual sight of flocks of supporters packed into cars handsomely decked out with scarves, flags, banners, stickers, balloons, replica shirts and then some. Some cars were partitioned serenely with half the car decorated in blue, the other half in red. The visual impact of your immediate surroundings on a journey was far more prominent without the post-millennium distractions of a smartphone or computer tablet. It was the time when the anticipation builds and fans imagine soaking up the atmosphere within the stadium. The young lambs would inevitably pick up the social signals laid down by the older rams as they flocked down to Wembley.

For Sheffield Wednesday fans, trips to Wembley had to be rationed as due to the success they achieved in the cup competitions. A fortnight after this semi-final, Wednesday were playing against Arsenal in the League Cup final (sponsored by Coca-Cola at the time giving it the most alliteratively titled cup competition). So the prospect of a third trip to Wembley to play in the FA Cup final seemed daunting but the prospect of success made it very bearable.

But travel in thousands they did. Enjoying the club's soirée with domestic success, cheerful and expectant Wednesday fans within the Wembley concourse and grounds before kick-off were seen conducting impromptu chains of the ‘Waddle-Wiggle' (which is effectively a conga of football supporters) and another Waddle- inspired dance from the 1990 World cup: the one which looks like you're doing alternative one-arm shoulder press without any weights. 

And what turns an event into a celebration? Balloons, lots of them. As Barry Davies, the most suitable commentator for such an occasion described “. . . orders of one businessman alone for over 100,000 and several others for 10,000 and 5,000; a city evacuated for the day, Sheffield comes to Wembley. As far as the city of Sheffield is concerned, it’s their cup final.”

Proudly, the most fitting tribute and sign of whole-hearted decency occurred before the game kicked-off. With the most touching introduction to a game, the city was united as both teams were led out of the dressing rooms and into the pitch arena by United's keeper Mel Rees who was diagnosed with bowel cancer the year before. As a huge mark of respect Rees went on a lap of honour and was thoroughly applauded by everyone connected to the city which marked a poignant moment among the histrionics of a sporting event. Rees would pass away the following month, aged 26.

“It was after we saw how everyone knew Mel's situation and opened up to him that we remembered how to represent us well, as a club and as a city,” recalls 'Tony' with a glint in his eye.

This moment served to remind everyone to play the game with honour, adopting a zero-tolerance policy to endemic low-level cheating which can often infect a football derby. Sheffield started off with pride. And boy, what a start to the game! And within two minutes of the kick-off, a moment of magic to remember was unveiled.

Paul Gascoigne's 1991 F.A Cup semi-final free kick for Tottenham Hotspur against Arsenal has received the blessing from the F.A Cup archive lords, repeated as often as it is, one can overlook an equally awesome moment of dead-ball exploitation by the vanguard of Wednesday's attacking talent, Chris Waddle.

It was equally awesome because both free kicks were shot from the 5th strip of grass away from the edge of the penalty arc, which measures 32 yards from goal. Both also contained the element of surprise. For Gascoigne's free-kick, Arsenal at least had a flimsy 2+1-man wall which stood about 15 yards away and it was in footballing terms 'dead centre' and so the disguise of a cross was eliminated but the audacity of attempting to score from so far out was the element of surprise.

For Waddle's, United's goalkeeper Alan Kelly only had one player as a wall as the defence anticipated a cross into the group of players on the edge of the penalty box. Instead Waddle executed a full blooded strike with his left boot and curled the ball into the top right corner of the goal evading the full reach of Alan Kelly's dive. Gascoigne and Waddle, both members of England’s  Italia '90 world cup squad, lit up their respective semi-finals.

Both moments captured our eyes, ears and imagination and Barry Davies compared the two goals and summarised them perfectly saying “Anything Paul Gascoigne can do, Chris Waddle can do”.

However, United supporters knew how to react when faced with immediate adversity.

L'esprit de corps, the spirit of one collective body is the heartbeat of the underdog – that mutual feeling of loyalty, pride and solidarity. The shared enthusiasm to sing galvanising anthems at the start of every match like (to the tune of John Denver's Annie's Song):

“You fill up my senses

Like a gallon of Magnet (cider)

Like a packet of Woodbine (cigarettes)

Like a good pinch of snuff (miner’s smelling tobacco)

Like a night out in Sheffield

Like a greasy chip butty (a chip/fries sandwich)

Like Sheffield United

Come thrill me again.”

Or when during the semi-final when United went 1-0 down, seemingly every one of the 40,000 plus Blades army stood up and sang and chanted louder and for longer to help their soldiers battling on the pitch. And just before half-time, United equalised through Alan Cork, who on his special day in his career, turned up looking more like a weather-worn Scottish fisherman from the outer Hebrides than a Premiership footballer: Balding, with a dense, long grey beard and not a tattoo in-sight. Under Harry Bassett's tenure, a proper north London man harnessed the 'all for one attitude' of this south Yorkshire club.

Or when you do have those fleeting moments of glory, to collectively acknowledge these moments are why you continue to endure and to grab the highs with both hands and savour it. As full-time concluded with score 1-1, the same as the league encounters funnily enough, the prospect of extra-time heightens the feeling of potential ecstasy or dejection.

A nugget of footage of Harry Bassett's extra-time pep talk provides insight into his footballing ethos as he gave instruction to his team at a time of tension and anxiety: “Everyfing (sic) into the box. All free-kicks long into the box.”  Long and into the box. Everything. Enough said. 

Into extra-time and Kelly pulled off a further two stupendous saves, increasing the uncertainty of the fate of a game which Wednesday thoroughly deserved to have already won in the regulated 90 minutes. Alas, United's resistance finally elapsed when ‘Owls’ striker Mark Bright scored the winner with a header from a corner to end the game 2-1. Sheffield Wednesday would go on to suffer the ominous distinction of losing two cup finals in the same season, both to George Graham's Arsenal.

Unbelievably, this day won’t be remembered by most for the occasion when the city that hosted the first football match played its solitary derby in the ‘home of football’s’ national stadium. The match day coincided with the fiasco of the only Grand National in its 169 year history that was declared void because of a false start, causing a media storm. Consequently on the drive back up north disappointingly “there were nowt 'bout us,” said 'Tony,' grudgingly referring to the lack of media coverage on the radio stations about Sheffield's footballing twilight. But on that afternoon in Wembley, the city of Sheffield was the winner and the event is more likely to be cherished by those whose dreams came true by just being there, albeit only once.