BRYAN ROBSON once famously said prior to taking Sheffield United to Hillsborough “It’s just another game”.
The Blades lost 2-0 and Robbo was sacked three weeks later as the freefall of a team relegated from the Premier League by a hair’s breadth eight months earlier, continued under his management.
The former England and Manchester United captain was roundly condemned in the red and white half of the city for assuming a passionless demeanour in the build-up to his first Sheffield derby, one of the most highly-charged events in English football.
Robson, arms folded and standing poker-faced in the technical area, had a wealth of knowledge, experience and know-how as a player and then manager at Middlesbrough. Evidence of which was rarely visible during his disastrous nine-month stay at Bramall Lane which ended when he turned on his own players and then criticised fans for not getting behind them.
Factually, however, he was correct about the derby date. When the Blades and Sheffield Wednesday converge in the league, at stake is three points just like any other encounter. It is with that mindset, as hard as it is, not the emotion and bragging rights that accompany victory, which United, in my opinion, must approach Monday’s clash to be televised around the world.
Twelve Championship fixtures remain and the United are now third after Leeds leapfrogged to the top, thrashing West Brom 4-0 at Elland Road on Friday night. This after Marcelo Bielsa’s side lost their game-in-hand advantage in defeat at QPR earlier in the week to remain third behind the Blades on goal difference.
It’s so tight at the top but the consistency being displayed by Wilder’s team is increasingly aligning them with a trajectory that could return Premier League football to the Lane.
Automatic promotion is the first goal and a finely balanced one. Which is why going gung-ho and letting the blood boil at Hillsborough might make for an exciting spectacle, but is attached to too much risk.
As difficult as performing in the eye of a super-charged cauldron may be, much better for United to play with cool heads and stick patiently to a game plan which has served them so well in two-and-a-half seasons under current boss Chris Wilder.
There is absolutely no doubt which is the better team even ardent Wednesday fans must privately admit that, albeit through gritted teeth. The gap between the sides when in the same tier, has rarely been wider. To make that count in a Steel City derby, however, can often be problematical. You only have to look at the last two meetings at Bramall Lane to acknowledge that.
Both viewed with genuine apprehension by Owls. United far superior and lifted by a raucous majority in sell-out crowds, but both resulting in goalless draws. The first of which Wednesday, in managerial upheaval and bearing a long injury list, played for almost half-an-hour with ten men following the dismissal of defender Glenn Loovens.
"What I will say, in terms of us, is that we didn't do enough in both games,” said Wilder this week in the build-up to Monday’s showdown. “We didn't put them to bed and you've got to give them credit for the resilience. Whether it was enough [for Wednesday players] to be chucking shirts into the crowd at the end of the game that's another argument. But credit to them."
You can always tell how well United are doing by what is not said. When Blades and Owls are too close for comfort, the Kop regularly supplies a running commentary when Wednesday concede and are trailing. ‘Sheffield Wednesday’s xxxxxx it up again’ is rarely heard when, like this season until very recently at least, they become an irrelevance. A yawning gap 17-point gap illustrates that.
Former Blades boss Steve Bruce, similar to his ex-Manchester United teammate Robson did at the Lane, will experience his first Sheffield derby since taking charge of Wednesday at the beginning of February.
Undefeated since he sat at the tiller, the Owls are showing signs of life after being in the doldrums for so long. Back-to-back home wins against Swansea and Brentford following three draws, extended their unbeaten run to five and has lifted them to within seven points of the play-offs after the weekend programme.
Their stock appears to be rising just at the right moment as far as Sheffield issues are concerned. But as Wilder explained earlier this week, United flying high and unbeaten in six, are a better team now in than any of the three derbies he has tackled so far.
Undefeated too and few from either side of the city will forget the first of those meetings. A famous 4-2 win on the last visit to Hillsborough. Mark Duffy literally brought bouncing home fans, celebrating in their manic way having just fought back from 2-0 down, to a standstill when he immediately slotted home United’s third. Classic YouTube gold.
As a fan, I don't like Sheffield derbies. Too tense and one of those few occasions when most accept, on both sides, not losing is more important than winning.
A philosophy pursued across the reign of former Blades boss Nigel Clough. Alien to lifelong fan and former player and ball boy Wilder no matter who he is facing.
United will attack the match, no doubt about that. It's what they do best. But it is also an occasion to deploy their new-found game management skills, so effective in bringing home the points in a 1-0 win at promotion rivals West Brom.
To make that count as the season heads towards what looks like a thrilling climax, United need to let the head rule the heart and leave Hillsborough with something if not everything.
It can't be denied though. Three points in S6 and another giant stride at the top end of the table on the back of beating West Brom would be another huge a statement of intent on the back of their victory against the Baggies.
A game-changer? Maybe not if you follow the Robson school of thought but where better to take another stride towards that Premier League goal than in the noisy neighbour’s own backyard?
Sheffield derbies, don't you just love/hate ’em. In a couple of paragraphs a considered game plan has flown out of the window.
And that is the danger.