x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

United they fall as Sheffield Wednesday's future looks black

It is 18 years since Sheffield's two clubs played in the first Premier League season and met in an FA Cup semi-final. England's third tier now awaits them. Where did it all go wrong?

Sheffield Wednesday, in blue, could be playing city rivals United in the third tier of English football next season, a far cry from when the two clubs tussled in the Premier League. Anna Gowthorpe / PA
Sheffield Wednesday, in blue, could be playing city rivals United in the third tier of English football next season, a far cry from when the two clubs tussled in the Premier League. Anna Gowthorpe / PA
The city of Sheffield is a political power base in the United Kingdom. Its members of parliament include Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, and David Blunkett, the former Home and Education Secretary.
One of the four pillars of the Industrial Revolution in the north of England - along with Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds - it has become a city of cultural significance. The film The Full Monty was based there while bands such as Def Leppard, the Human League and Pulp to the Arctic Monkeys, the current darlings of the British indie scene, hail from it.
This is a place with an enviable sporting pedigree. It produced Gordon Banks, England's 1966 World Cup-winning goalkeeper, Michael Vaughan, who became statistically England's most successful captain in Test cricket, and Jessica Ennis, the reigning world heptathlon champion.
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It feels more fitting, however, that the Crucible Theatre stages the World Snooker Championships. It is snookers, as much as goals, that the city's two footballing representatives require. Between them, they have won five league titles, seven FA Cups and spent 127 years in the top flight. But Sheffield Wednesday are already in League One and Sheffield United are likely to join them there.
Two clubs who became members of the Football League together in 1892 could meet in English football's third tier for only the second season in their history. And if not, it might be because Wednesday, the city's traditional aristocrats, may be in uncharted territory: the fourth division.
"We are in a relegation battle," Gary Megson, the Sheffield Wednesday manager, admitted last week. "I know that might be a shocking statement but it needs to be made."
Pronouncing United are also in a struggle to survive is no shock; it is a statement of the obvious.
Yet, as Mel Sterland, who played more than 300 times for Wednesday, said: "Sheffield is a big city. It is disappointing we haven't got a team in the Premier League."
Sheffield, population 534,000 is England's fourth biggest city behind London, Birmingham and Leeds, and ahead of Manchester and Liverpool, which both have two Premier League clubs.
There was a time when they had two. Both were founder members - indeed Wednesday finished third in the top flight in its previous season - and the league's inaugural campaign was a famous year in South Yorkshire. While 2011 sees Wembley stage a Manchester derby in the FA Cup semi-finals, the Sheffield clubs beat their Manchester counterparts to the national stadium by 18 years.
"It was a great place to be," said Brian Deane, who scored 120 goals during three spells in the Sheffield United attack. "The fans were happy. Sheffield Wednesday had seven internationals and we were more than holding our own in the top flight."
Wednesday emerged triumphant to reinforce the impression they were the city's dominant force.
While United were relegated the following year, Wednesday were more established among the elite. They finished seventh three times before demotion in 2000. What followed was an unprecedented slide: among the bigger clubs to end up in the third tier in recent times - Leeds United, Leicester City, Nottingham Forest, Manchester City - Wednesday have spent two spells there.
Financial problems were a constant for the subsequent years. Wednesday went down with an expensive squad, as Sterland recalls. "Players were on big wages and we got relegated," said the former England defender. "Not many teams recover from that."
Wednesday didn't. The legacy of those costly contracts lasted a decade until they became effectively debt free when Milan Mandaric, the former Portsmouth owner, completed his takeover in November.
By then, however, the rot had set in. "Football is always liable to kick you where it hurts," Sterland said. "I expected Wednesday to be right up there this season."
Instead, they are just four points above the relegation zone after Saturday's draw at Dagenham & Redbridge. Arguably the smallest club in the Football League held one of the grandest in the country and, to further the sense of ignominy, Megson was sent to the stands by the referee.
A division higher, United's plight is still starker. Four points from safety with eight games to go, half of them against teams in the top seven, their decline is swifter.
They were a Premier League club in 2006/07, relegated cruelly and controversially on the final day when Wigan Athletic beat them at Bramall Lane and West Ham United defeated Manchester United with a goal from Carlos Tevez. Part owned by a third party, his participation breached Premier League rules.
West Ham eventually compensated United - to the tune of £20 million (Dh117m) - but the Hammers retained Premier League status.
It has become a constant reference point at Bramall Lane since then. However, a one-dimensional narrative ignores United's Wembley defeat to Burnley in 2009.
"The play-off final was the turning point," Deane said. "It was a great opportunity to get back in the Premier League. Then reality bites you."
Reality has included an ever-changing cast of characters. A mirror can be held up between the red half of the city and the blue.
"We've had a hell of a lot of managers," Sterland said. Indeed, Megson is the 13th occupant of the Wednesday hot seat in 14 years.
At United's Bramall Lane, Deane said, problems can be attributed to "the instability of having four managers in a season".
Kevin Blackwell was followed by Gary Speed, then John Carver as a caretaker manager and finally Micky Adams.
In troubled times, both clubs have turned to their own.
"I played with Micky Adams for Sheffield boys," Sterland said. "He is a great guy, and he has had a hard job. He is a big Sheffield United fan and Meggo [Megson] is a Wednesdayite."
"Micky and Gary both have appeal," Deane said. "It's a bit of a rallying call. They are two managers trying to put in a lasting legacy: they have the clubs' interests at heart and they are not using it as a stepping stone."
That may be just as well. They have had awkward starts. Adams has won two of his 16 games at the helm and, after failing to win in his first 13 attempts, publicly admitted he would question his own position. Megson, a former Wednesday player whose father, Don, captained the club in the 1966 FA Cup final, has won twice in 12 matches.
Hillsborough has been a hindrance for a big club that dwarfs its immediate rivals. Wednesday have not won at home for three months and Megson has suggested his players are failing a trial of temperament.
"When you play for Sheffield Wednesday, there are big crowds and big expectations and that should make us perform better," he said. "Teams that come to Hillsborough raise their game but that's part of playing for a big club."
That has been reflected by the loyalty of the supporters. Yet there are signs some of them have had enough: season-ticket renewals are down by 25 per cent and the average attendance, though an impressive 17,253, is being reduced with each home game.
It is an ominous portent for United. "For me, relegation would be devastating," Deane said. "You are going to be looking at crowds of 15 or 20,000 for the derby. Apart from that, they would be much smaller and you can say the clubs would be in decline."
There is a warning from the past, too. "I came straight from school," said Sterland, who debuted in 1979 before helping his hometown club to two promotions.
"Sheffield Wednesday were in the third division, playing in front of gates of nine, 10, 11,000."
Then there was more scope for the upwardly mobile in football and, as he said, "[Managers] Jack Charlton and Howard Wilkinson turned things around."
Now it is harder without the financial muscle that only outside investment can provide. For Deane, who numbers Leeds and Middlesbrough - two clubs who have also fallen from the top flight in recent seasons - among his eight other former teams: "It is sad for the whole of Yorkshire what has happened over the last five years."
That the north-west of England has eight Premier League teams, but Yorkshire, which makes up most of the north eastern side of the country, has none suggests Sheffield's difficulties are part of a wider malaise in the region.
Yet memories of the golden days in the Steel City persist. The potential remains.
"It is massive," Deane said. "When you think that when both clubs were in the Premier League you might have 65,000 or 70,000 fans attending the games, it gives you some idea."
sports@thenational.ae