The Steel City derby is the most eagerly anticipated fixture on South Yorkshire’s sporting calendar. And, with both teams chasing automatic promotion from League One this term, there is more at stake than simply bragging rights. The Star’s James Shield discusses the talking points surrounding Sunday’s game with Sheffield United legends Tony Agana and Brian Deane.
What’s it like to play in a
Steel City derby?
Tony Agana: They’re something else. The buzz, hype and anticipation during the build-up really does give you a sense of what the match means to people in the city. The banter that flies around, the media interest and the excitement builds as the week goes on - it’s impossible to get away from. I loved it. Unfortunately I played in only one. It was in the equivalent of what is now the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy (in 1989) but there were still over 30,000 people there to watch.
Brian Deane: The first thing that really hits you is the fear. The fear of losing. You don’t want to lose because you don’t want to be thinking ‘where do I go out now for the next three, four or whatever weeks?’ But that feeling drives you on. One of the goals I scored in a derby is probably my favourite headed goal ever. I met a lovely cross from Glyn Hodges at the far post (in 1993). I really can’t describe the feeling you get when you score in a derby. It’s like nothing else. Just the wave of euphoria that comes over you and the joy you feel from the crowd.
Do you embrace the atmosphere surrounding this fixture or do you try and insulate yourself from it?
BD: It differs from individual to individual. There’s not one right way of doing things. You do whatever is best for you. I always used to try and stay away from it if I could. I left that to the supporters and the media and tried to focus on getting through the game. I was a professional and so I preferred to try and concentrate on getting myself prepared.
TA: I’d say embrace it every time. Soak it all up and take it all in. From a professional footballers’ point of view, these are the matches that you remember. These are the matches when you’re trying to make your way in the game that you want to be involved in. And, in any case, with things like Twitter and Facebook it’s impossible to get away from it all these days.
But isn’t there a danger that you could be totally consumed by nervous tension?
BD: Character, especially in situations like these, is important. But you’ve got to look at what a massive opportunity they are too. It’s a chance to be remembered forever by the fans of your club. If you score the winning goal or do something special that gets your team the points then that’s never going to be forgotten.
TA: What the players involved on Sunday have got to remember is that this is a chance for them to make history. A chance for them to write their names into the history books of Sheffield United. How can you not be excited by the prospect of doing that? Look at someone like Bobby Davison. Whatever else he does, he’ll always be remembered for those goals he scored at Hillsborough (in 1991).
BD: You’ve got to give everything. Even if you don’t get the result, the fans aren’t daft. They know when you’ve given your all. And they appreciate that.
Don’t be shy. You’re still
TA: Do you know what, it’s really humbling. And it’s something that money can’t buy. For all the other trappings that come with being a footballer, it’s when someone comes up to you and wants to talk about your career that means the most. A lot of people can buy a house. A lot of people can buy a car. But to know that you’ve affected somebody’s life, and hopefully in a positive way, even if you don’t know them, is very special. Bizarre too.
BD: I agree. Whenever I bump into fans they seem to remember my career better than I do myself.
So what does Sheffield United mean to you?
BD: For me, Sheffield United is number one. It’s my club. I’m not one of these who says things like that because I want to get something out of it. I won’t deny I’d love to come back in some capacity one day but I say they’re number one because it’s true. I had some great times elsewhere as well but Sheffield United gave me the chance to do what I did in the game and I’ll always be grateful for that. I think people associate me with Sheffield United more than any other club too.
TA: Anything I can do to help the club I will. I’m not from this area but it’s the area where I’ve spent most of my time and most of my life. It’s a big part of me and it made me who I am.
What’s impressed you the most about Sheffield United this season?
TA: Well, they’re playing great football and they’ve been getting great results. Hopefully that continues on Sunday. But, to be honest, the thing that’s impressed me the most is how they’ve bounced back after a defeat. They were on a fantastic run and then got beaten, in terms of the scoreline at least, quite heavily. But they’ve bounced back and that shows great character.
BD: Danny Wilson, the manager, has really impressed me. You’ve got to admire his character because it’s no secret there were lots of people who didn’t want him to get the job when he first came in but he took it and he’s made his mark. He’s changed the way United play and people have bought into that.
TA: The fans deserve great credit too. They’ve created an environment in which the players have felt able to express themselves. They’ve backed the team and not been critical which has been vitally important.
BD: What Danny’s done is ensure that, when he does eventually leave, whoever comes in after him is going to have to go about their business in the same manner. He’s changed the style of play and, personally, it’s something I’m delighted to see.
Does the form book really go out of the window in derby games?
TA: Not entirely. It obviously counts for something. You’d be foolish to think it didn’t. But this is a special game with special circumstances.
BD: It depends. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve been in derbies where Wednesday were expected to beat us and we got one over on them. Form is obviously important because you’d rather be going into a derby, or any other game for that matter, on the back of a good run. But I also think attitude is vitally important.
TA: That’s another aspect of United this season that’s impressed me. Their mentality. Psychology is a huge part of the game these days. I believe if you can get inside a player’s head then they’re capable of achieving the same things a Premier League player can. And that’s what Danny and his staff have done.
BD: Attitude is important. If you’ve got lots of local lads in the team they know what it means. They know exactly what’s at stake and it’s up to them to transmit that to the rest of the team.
How do you see Sunday’s game unfolding?
BD: If you look at the league positions (United are second and Wednesday third) then I think Wednesday are going to have to come out at us hard and fast. I can see them looking to lay down a marker at the start and trying to swarm all over United from the first whistle.
TA: I think it will be an open game. Sheffield Wednesday have to go for it. I can’t see any point in them sitting back. It’s probably going to be the last open game that both teams are going to be involved in this season because we’re now at the business end of the campaign.
BD: Because of how I think Wednesday will play, I think the counter-attack is going to be very important for United.
And, finally, where will it be won or lost?
TA: Being a fully paid-up member of the strikers union, I’ve got to say in front of goal. I can see both teams creating chances. It’s going to be who is the most clinical on the day. And, it goes without saying, hopefully that’s United. I can see it being quite a high-scoring game.
BD: If I’m being honest, I don’t think they’ll be much in it in terms of the score. I think it will be close and could even be a draw. That would arguably suit United better than it would Wednesday. But they’ll both be giving everything to win because it means so much if you can do it.
SUNDAY’S game at Hillsborough has not captured the imagination of television chiefs, but Nick Montgomery, the Sheffield United midfielder, is adamant that Steel City derbies remain one of the blue-ribbon events on England’s footballing calendar.
“They’re huge matches,” Montgomery said. “The atmosphere is fantastic. It really is something else.
“It’s goes without saying that we all wish it was taking place in a different division but it’s a Championship fixture at the very least.”
United travel to Hillsborough second in League One. Wednesday, who have played two games more than their arch-rivals, are third.
“For me, these are as big as anything else in the country,” Montgomery said.
The game is not being televised live.