James Shield’s Sheffield United Column: Don’t demonise the derby fans

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After nearly a week of self-righteous sneering and sensationalist pontificating, it is time to reclaim the Steel City derby.

To call-out the naysayers who, by choosing to highlight a few troubling incidents, have portrayed last weekend’s fixture at Hillsborough as an alcohol-fuelled orgy of ultra-violence. Confront the commentators responsible for judging football supporters by an entirely different set of standards to, for the sake of argument, students on one of those Carnage pub crawls.

Sheffield United fans during the derby at Hillsborough: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Sheffield United fans during the derby at Hillsborough: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

By perpetuating the myth that folk with a passion for the beautiful game are nothing more than snarling Neanderthals, they also encourage the authorities to treat fans with utter contempt. Banning orders are frequently issued without fair trial, recourse or independent investigation. Precious few questions have been asked why hundreds of law-abiding Sheffield United followers, who had paid up to £42 for a ticket, were refused entry to Sunday’s match until long after kick-off. (Okay, a few have been filmed swearing and gesticulating as they were being held back but, if half the audience were kept waiting outside the Royal Opera House during a gala performance, the same thing would happen. And, at no time, did any try to break the cordon).

Doubtless many of their counterparts at Sheffield Wednesday have suffered similarly unfair treatment in recent years.

No, the 128th meeting between these two clubs was a wonderful occasion which did the region proud. Admittedly, there were a few examples of unruly behaviour. But, given the sheer volume of people who either attended the fixture in person or watched the drama unfold in pubs and clubs, it is safe to describe the idiots involved as the exceptions rather than the rule. Not enough has been done, as is so often the case with events like this, to highlight the positive aspects.

The action was enthralling and the result, for United at least, excellent as strikes from John Fleck, Mark Duffy and Leon Clarke’s brace saw Chris Wilder’s side record a memorable victory. There were moments of individual brilliance, examples of sharp tactical intelligence and great team play.

Sheffield United supporters were in good voice: Joe Perch/Sportimage

Sheffield United supporters were in good voice: Joe Perch/Sportimage

For their part Wednesday, despite being beaten outplayed and out-thought for long periods, showed great determination to briefly drag themselves level after trailing 2-0.

But most of all, more than the goals, the skill or the subplots, of even greater importance than the history given Sheffield’s status as the birthplace of the modern game, what truly made the fixture such a memorable occasion was the atmosphere. Raw, visceral and unashamedly tribal. The things which, if those who dip their toes into the sport every now and again are honest enough to admit, made it the hottest ticket in town. And, amid it all, the overwhelming majority of those involved stayed on the right side of decency and the law. Be it the teenage Unitedites, decked out in their Stone Island jackets, I saw joshing with an elderly gentleman wearing a Wednesday scarf or the guy, who clearly knew his way around a boxing ring, tell his pals to mind their language when a young girl in red and white walked past with her dad.

Call out the handful of idiots by all means. But sanitise football at your peril.

The vast majority of Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday fans behaved themselves: Joe Perch/Sportimage

The vast majority of Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday fans behaved themselves: Joe Perch/Sportimage