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The Steel City showdown

Sheffield Derby
Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United will contest the 122nd Sheffield derby

By Jonathan Rawcliffe

You don't see many Manchester United shirts being worn on the streets of Sheffield. Followers of Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool are even harder to come by.

In the city where the world's first football club was formed, only two sides count for anything. You either watch Sheffield United or Sheffield Wednesday - there just isn't room for other teams.

The rivalry between the Blades and the Owls is as intense as any in football. Their obsessive supporters devote more time than is healthy to arguing who is the bigger and better of the clubs.

You could turn around and say that it's just another game, but it isn't

Sheffield Wednesday manager Brian Laws

Wednesday spent most of the 1990s in the Premier League, but United have been there much more recently, and now lead their neighbours in terms of financial muscle and off-field development.

Not that any of that will make much difference when Hillsborough hosts the season's first Steel City derby on Sunday - only the winners will be able to call themselves Sheffield's top club. Make no mistake, this game matters.

"The fans look forward to this match from day one," Wednesday manager Brian Laws told BBC Sport. "They can't wait for the fixtures to come out, they build their season around it, and we have to buy into that. It means so much to everybody. You could turn around and say that it's just another game, but it isn't.

Sheffield United's Billy Sharp and Sheffield Wednesday's Mark Beevers
Blades striker Billy Sharp and Owls defender Mark Beevers could both feature on Sunday

"My players know how important it is to our supporters. It's over 90 years since Wednesday beat United home and away in a season and we nearly achieved that last time, which would have been remarkable. This year, we're as determined as ever."

Many credit Laws for ensuring Wednesday came out on top in last season's head-to-head meetings.

The game at Hillsborough in January was defined by the contrasting personalities of Laws and Bryan Robson, then manager of United.

Laws made no secret of how keen he was to put one over his arch rivals, geeing his players up and urging the fans to believe in their team. Robson's more low-key approach left him open to accusations that he did not appreciate the significance of the fixture.

So when a fired-up Wednesday side fought their way to a 2-0 win, complete with touchline goal celebrations from Laws that Jose Mourinho would have been proud of, the fury of United fans was palpable. By the time the teams met again in April to play out a thrilling 2-2 draw at Bramall Lane, Robson had departed, with former Blades assistant boss Kevin Blackwell returning to the club as manager.

Anyone who has been to a Sheffield derby will know what the atmosphere is like - you can cut it with a knife

Sheffield United manager Kevin Blackwell

"The game at Bramall Lane was an absolute corker," Blackwell told BBC Sport. "The one thing people talked about after the match was the sheer quality of the play, and if we can recreate something along those lines on Sunday I think everyone will be happy.

"The passion for football in Sheffield is extremely high. Anyone who has been to a Sheffield derby will know what the atmosphere is like - you can cut it with a knife, you can feel it, it's tangible. This is a special match, it's about being crowned the elite of Sheffield, so from that point of view, this cannot be just another game."

The national profile of the Sheffield derby has undoubtedly diminished since 1993, when United and Wednesday faced each other in a Wembley FA Cup semi-final, and were both in the Premier League. After Dave Bassett's Blades were relegated in 1994, any direct rivalry was put on hold until a disastrous season saw Wednesday drop down to the same tier as their neighbours in 2000.

Wednesday celebrate
Marcus Tudgay's strike sealed a 2-0 win for Wednesday last season

Laws does not believe that the lack of top-flight meetings has dimmed the enthusiasm of the fans. "We're in a city that has two great traditional clubs, and it's an important match for the city itself," he said.

"There are some fantastic derbies that go on around Britain, but in Sheffield, everyone believes this game is the best one in the country. They've got every right to think like that."

The 122nd meeting between the two clubs could be one of the tightest yet.

Wednesday are unbeaten at Hillsborough this season, while United appear to have hit their stride, winning their last three Championship games, and rising to fourth in the table, two points better off than the Owls.

United, still reaping the benefits of their recent season in the Premier League, can call on established names such as James Beattie and Gary Speed.

Wednesday - desperate for new investment and heavily in debt - have a squad consisting of less familiar youngsters and experienced journeymen.

606: DEBATE
Romablade

On paper it is a mismatch, but Blackwell and Laws are both claiming underdog status.

"We won't be favourites," Blackwell told BBC Sport. "Wednesday are at home, they've got a very good home record, and we know we'll have a tough game on our hands.

"We've got to go there and play as well as we can, and if we do that we're confident we can get a result.

"Brian is doing a terrific job at Hillsborough. I know only too well how hard it is to deal with clubs in turmoil and with no money - it takes a special type of lad to do it, and Brian's doing very very well."

The respect is mutual. "Kevin has turned the team around since taking over from Bryan Robson," Laws said.

"We both feel it's important to have a bond with your supporters. The two managers involved in this game are almost identical, we are both very passionate about the game, and that will probably show on the touchline.

"We do recognise that United have got a massive squad and ambitions and demands that are probably higher than ours, but they can spend as much as they like - in these kind of games we've got to show real heart and determination to beat them and show it's not all about money.

"Sheffield United are the big boys in terms of finance, there's no doubt about it. We are a smaller club financially, but we'll certainly never agree we're the smaller club overall."

Hear live commentary of the Sheffield derby on BBC Radio 5 Live, the BBC Sport website, and BBC Radio Sheffield's Football Heaven on Sunday on 88.6, 94.7 & 104.1 FM, 1035 AM and DAB.

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see also
Blades sign Sunderland's Stokes
17 Oct 08 |  Sheff Utd
Naysmith up for Steel City derby
14 Oct 08 |  Sheff Utd
Laws aims for Owls loan signing
15 Oct 08 |  Sheff Wed
Sheff Wed v Sheff Utd
13 Oct 08 |  Championship
Tudgay happy to handle pressure
14 Oct 08 |  Sheff Wed
Wednesday's Wood ready for derby
10 Oct 08 |  Sheff Wed
Sheff Utd 2-2 Sheff Wed
08 Apr 08 |  Championship
Sheff Wed 2-0 Sheff Utd
19 Jan 08 |  Championship


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