Sheffield in suspense for revival of Steel City derby after five years
Chris Wilder was reflecting this week on the last time he bumped into his Sheffield Wednesday counterpart, Carlos Carvalhal. “He just offered me a lift back when we were in Manchester at a function one night,” the Sheffield United manager said. “I thought that was quite good of him, because I wouldn’t have offered him one!” United face Wednesday at Hillsborough on Sunday lunchtime when a crowd of at least 33,000 are expected to watch the first steel city derby for 5½ years and you can guarantee neither manager will be feeling charitable come kick-off. Wilder turns 50 on Saturday but, as he made a point of stressing, there is only one occasion worthy of his attention this weekend, and it will not be a cause for celebration if his United side come unstuck against their fiercest rivals. Wednesday have reached the Championship play-offs for the past two seasons but lost in the final to Hull City in 2015-16 and were beaten by Yorkshire rivals, Huddersfield Town, in the semi-finals last time around. United are back in the second tier for the first time in seven seasons following several agonising near misses and, wandering around Sheffield this week, it was almost possible to taste the anticipation. They love their football in these parts and this game has been sorely missed in a city where, as United defender Jake Wright acknowledged, “it’s one club or the other”. No Manchester United or Liverpool shirts on plentiful parade here. “Liverpool-Everton doesn’t do anything for me and Newcastle-Sunderland doesn’t do anything for me,” said the straight-talking Wilder, who was born and bred in Stocksbridge. “Sheff United-Sheff Wednesday does. Everybody who has lived in this city will recognise the passion for the derby.” Sheffield, as much as Leeds, has been symptomatic of Yorkshire’s footballing malaise over the past decade, but with all three clubs finally benefiting from more stable ownership after years of turmoil behind the scenes and Huddersfield already in the promised land, there are signs of the region stirring again. Leeds are currently top of the Championship, United two points behind in sixth and Wednesday another two adrift in ninth. The last home games for the three clubs drew a combined attendance of more than 81,000, and while a place in the top flight is no birthright, there are plenty who would welcome them back in the Premier League. Sixteen years ago in the Steel City derby United's Paul Devlin holds off Leigh Bromby Credit: David Davies/PA “My sole focus is making sure we’re right and that we re-establish ourselves in the Championship but, of course, you need to have your ambitions and reaching the top division of English football has to be our goal,” Wilder said. “You look at Sheff United, Sheff Wednesday and Leeds and I think all three clubs would be welcomed in the Premier League. We all have a history of being in the top division. But I’m not going to sit and shout about getting into the Premier League when we’ve only had eight games in the Championship after six years out of it.” The Sheffield Star was due to publish a special 16-page pull-out to mark the occasion on Saturday and supporters have been voicing their allegiances a little more strongly in recent days. “My window cleaner is a Sheffield Wednesday fan,” Paul Coutts, the United midfielder, said. “So he came round and said he hoped I was injured. I didn’t know he was a Wednesday fan. If I had, I would have had a new one by now.” The 20 fiercest rivalries in English football - by Jonathan Liew Wednesday have spent substantially under Thai owner, Dejphon Chansiri, turning Jordan Rhodes’s loan move from Middlesbrough into a long-term £10 million deal in the summer and bringing in defender Joost van Aken from Heerenveen for £3m, while already boasting familiar faces, such as former Sunderland striker Steven Fletcher and Aston Villa old boy Barry Bannan. Wilder has generally had to scratch around at the other end of the market and has an overwhelmingly British squad, albeit with several injury concerns up front for Sunday, most cruelly to local boy Billy Sharp, the club’s top scorer for the past two seasons who has been banging on about the significance of this game since the summer. The first ever Premier League's 22 teams... 25 years on But the United manager remains committed to playing on the front foot and has enjoyed trying to pile the pressure this week on Carvalhal, even if the Wednesday manager has not exactly appeared ruffled. “The team is smiling, we are confident,” he said. Depending on the result, neither may be sharing a car anytime soon.