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Steel City Derby: The return only adds significance

Friday 22nd September 2017
For the first time in five years, Sheffield United will take the coach 3.7 miles, per Google Maps, to face their most bitter rivals. The Steel City Derby returns on Sunday. But, unlike years gone by where the Premier League has been but a distant dream of the future or faint memory of the past, this time around, it is an attainable goal for both teams. There is more to this game than just the pride of the city.
Sheffield, for those that are not so accustomed with the city, is the fourth largest City in England. It is, allegedly, though quite how there is a measure for this, I am not so sure, the greenest city in Europe, littered with trees and parks, on the corner of the Peak District. It is known as the Steel City for its steeped history in the making of the metal during the industrial revolution, yet there is actually more steel made now than there ever has been, though machines, not man, are responsible for its production.

But for all of its nuances, its details, and its characteristics, there has been one lacking element to the city, one unfillable hole, one detriment to its stature and recognition: A Premier League team.

Football, like with every city in Britain, is an entrenched aspect of Sheffield's identity. From the great Wednesday teams of the ‘90s to the oldest football club in the world in Sheffield FC, it is difficult to consider the South Yorkshire city without also considering the beautiful game. The two towers on which the sport in the city is built, Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday, are, as the term is often and cheesily coined, ‘sleeping giants'. Neither has been in the top flight since 2007, when United was controversially consigned to relegation thanks to a Carlos Tevez-led West Ham United, and both have struggled to establish themselves in the choppy waters of the Championship.

But now, after five years of absence thanks to the toils of United in League One and the startling improvement of Wednesday, the Steel City Derby, as it is affectionately known, returns to the forefront of the footballing landscape. This time, though, instead of languishing in the lower reaches, the derby carries a far greater significance: the fight for promotion is on and, rightly or wrongly, both these teams have aspirations of achieving it.

United, while only just overcoming the hump of League One last season, have started the season with surprising grace and control. With Chris Wilder still implementing a neat and tidy style, something that Blades' fans of the past will be shocked to see given their historically and notoriously ugly play, United have won four of their last five games, and have only lost three all season to teams all currently sitting in the top half of the Championship. That is not a record to be scoffed at.

Now, there should be trepidation and hesitance in mentioning a newly promoted club as even playoff contenders. And rightly so. Although Bournemouth and Southampton have succeeded in the double-promotion quest in recent years, it is extremely uncommon and uniquely challenging. For now, United are simply playing it by ear; if by Christmas, they are still in the upper tier of the division, then new goals can be set. But for now, the target is safety.

Wednesday, on the other hand, have far grander and outspoken targets. Such is their substantial budget, even for a Premier League club, never mind a Championship club, that the expectation of Carlos Carvalhal, who has led his side to two consecutive playoff appearances, only to fall to the eventual promoted-team on both occasions – Hull City in the final in 2016 and Huddersfield Town in 2017 -, is nothing less than promotion. There are few squads that match up with Wednesday's, position for position, name for name. Jordan Rhodes currently sits on the bench, for example.

A team of such illustrious riches should be, and are, chasing the top flight. It would be cruel if they were denied by their local enemy number one.

United are the underdogs for Sunday's tie. They should be. Hillsborough is an intimidating place to go; United haven't won in their last four visits, even if they did come in different eras with different players, different managers, and different regimes. In their last 20 home games, Wednesday have lost just three times, winning 10. That is an unquestionably formidable record. It is this home supremacy that will be the foundation of their promotion challenge; they have always relied on their home advantage thanks to a raucous crowd and familiarity with a stadium of great size, especially at that level, that can shellshock the less established and experienced players.

Sunday will be a wonderfully intense and impassioned affair. Steel City derbies always are. But this one carries a greater significance. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. That is certainly the case here. But more than its missing, the return of the derby comes with both teams flourishing. That only adds to its importance.

Promotion is the dream and the derby is just a part of the process. It's a process that is long and arduous, with peaks of great drama and conflict along the way. This is one of those peaks and it is sure to be a truly riveting encounter.
Andrew Dowdeswell

A sport obsessed 20 something who just really wants Arsenal to finally win the league. Please Wenger, what the hell happened to you?!


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