We’re just hours away now from one of the most anticipated games of the season kicking off – the Steel City derby.
Sheffield United, the hosts, go into the game with Sheffield Wednesday as favourites but, being a derby, that can count for little.
Ahead of the game, then, we caught up with Martin Fox from S24SU.com to preview the game from a Blades’ perspective…
A game that needs no introduction, how big is this week’s edition of the Steel City derby for the Blades?
It’s big in that, it’s a fixture that everyone looks for at the start of the season and one that should have occurred more often in the top two divisions. I certainly wouldn’t go as far as season-defining – win, lose or draw there’s a long way to go yet. It’s important that we get back on track after a loss at Forest and essential for the visitors that they address their current form, which makes it an even more interesting one.
Last time out was a frustrating fixture, with Wednesday, their first game under Jos Luhukay, looking for and getting a draw which was almost celebrated like a win. Chris Wilder will be desperate to put that one right and will want the team and fans to show absolutely no sympathy for their current position and be at it from the off.
I’ve heard all week from Owls fans, denigrating their side’s chances and almost setting up to criticise anything other than a comfortable United win as a missed opportunity. It’s unlike them, regardless of form, the same folk (you know who you are!) are usually overly confident and crowing like they were before our last visit to Hillsborough. I’ve heard numerous times that not one of our players would get in their team, yet here we are a couple of days before and the story appears to have changed.
Make no mistake, the manager and captain will have hammered home this week just how much fixtures like this mean to the fans, they’ll certainly be up for it, let’s hope they can channel that into securing three points and bringing those ‘predictions’ to life.
The atmosphere will be crackling, how well will your players cope with the expectation of being favourites for this one?
The pressure and weight of expectation is all on the Blades at this moment in time, the statistics and analytics back up that the league table doesn’t lie when it comes to United’s qualities. Wednesday aren’t in a good place, with fans turning on each other, the manager and the owner. My paranoia is incredibly uncomfortable with that situation, we’re happy as underdogs, fighting bravely for the win, rather than waltzing out expecting it.
I’m hoping an early Blades goal will arrive to accentuate their apparent fragility and our current style, allowing us to relax into our rhythm. I think we were a little more cautious ourselves in this fixture last year and that providing the nerves and pressure the players are under allow, we’re likely to be braver and more gung-ho this time around.
A good start, boosting the enthusiasm of the Blades faithful, at the same time quietening or turning the Owls fans in their own side would go a long way to swinging the fixture our way.
Most of this group have been there and done it together in terms of needing to maintain levels of performance, a number of them succeeded in the challenge of hitting 100 points in League One, even through the taxing celebrations. Unlike the United of a few years ago, the manager and fans now expect the key components every time they step onto the pitch regardless of opponent, not in an arrogant fashion, but as a bare minimum when pulling on the red and white shirt.
After last week’s loss at Forest, are there any changes you’d like to see made for this one?
Chris Basham will be back and will set the tone with a no-nonsense, ‘body on the line’ performance, he’s signed a new contract this week and was clearly missed at Forest. I’d imagine that Wilder will be tempted to start Duffy in place of Coutts and involve McGoldrick from the start. Baldock will be pressuring for a start in place of Freeman after coming on as a substitute at the City Ground, but Wilder may favour the latter’s attacking tendencies.
I think many Blades will be excited at the prospect of Billy Sharp lining up against Wednesday at Bramall Lane for the first time since a substitute appearance in 2009. Despite the passion Wilder demands from all of his squad, I don’t think there will be anyone on the pitch more desperate to score a goal in front of the Kop in this fixture than the skipper.
I think Wednesday will look to spring the odd surprise in their lineup (Forestieri at the very least), they need a spark from somewhere and it almost seems like the kind of game that decides whether or not the manager has any hope of remaining in position longer term.
Wednesday are struggling right now but in a derby anything can happen – who do you see being their main threat?
On paper, they have a good squad, but it’s well publisised that some of the ‘bigger’ and more experienced names have been frozen out for one reason or another. The key threats I can see from the outside are Barry Bannan, Lucas Joao and Adam Reach. Bannan seems to be the most likely to make them tick when on the ball, if he can keep discipline off it (position, retaining possession, not being a passenger) then he could have an impact. Joao has a number of attributes of a good striker in this league, but seems inconsistent and Reach has shown himself lucky enough to catch an absolutely worldy from long range, some players seem to just hit on a run of that nature.
This is one scoreline you aren’t going to get me to predict due to superstition, I’ll go so far as to say that my heart says home win, my head says ‘it’s a derby game, everything goes out of the window, have an insurance bet on the underdogs just in case you need to drown your sorrows”.