OH the irony. It’s infinitely more rare than a super blood wolf moon lunar eclipse but Sheffield will be united come 5.30pm on Saturday evening, willing the Owls on at Elland Road to a victory that will be good for both city rivals. The Blades in particular.
Assuming Sheffield United beat Millwall in the earlier kick-off at Bramall Lane, they will once again leapfrog Leeds United into the Championship’s second automatic promotion spot, two points ahead of Marcelo Bielsa’s side with four matches left to play.
Then it’s over to Sheffield Wednesday for the televised showdown at Leeds. Pubs around Bramall Lane will be filled with Blades fans following every ball played by Fernando Forestieri and company in the hope their bitter enemy will deliver. Failing that, holding Leeds to a draw will ensure the Blades still have advantage on goal difference.
If or when Wednesday score the sound of United supporters cheering in wild celebration will be an extraordinary spectacle. Even captain and lifelong Blades fan Billy Sharp admits he will break a habit of a lifetime to cheer the Owls on. Akin to a moment from the film ‘The day the earth stood still’. “Sheffield Wednesday have got something to play for and if we can get to the Premier League then it's been a memorable season.” said the striker.
I can’t recall a time in all of my 40 years watching United when Sheffield football fans have been as one for 90 minutes. It’s not even as if Wednesday, who beat Nottingham Forest 3-0 at Hillsborough in midweek, can adopt a half-hearted approach even if they were prepared to draw consolation by putting a spanner in the works of their neighbours. Steve Bruce and his side still harbour hopes of snatching the sixth and final play-off spot and anything less than a win would put paid to that.
“We have proved we can beat anyone on our day so we will go there full of confidence,” said Owls winger George Boyd. “We should have won on Saturday (a 3-2 defeat at home against Aston Villa). They are the form team in the league and we have demolished them second half so we took a lot of confidence from that and it showed against Forest.”
All this in a week when Wednesday coach Lee Bullen was castigated by some on both sides of the city – and how sad is that –for offering his congratulations to Sharp on receiving an EFL award in London. Sharp, of course, in January became English League football’s top scorer this century (220), a remarkable feat. He has now increased that to 227 with 24 to the 33-year-old’s name this season.
The special award at London’s Grovesnor House Hotel seemed to catch him unawares. “I thought I was just going to be here to applaud Teemu Puckki,” said a modest Sharp who was nominated for Championship Player of the Year alongside the winning Norwich City and top Championship goal-scorer (26) and former Blade Che Adams.
United boss Chris Wilder and his staff are staging their own Player of the Season awards evening immediately after the date with Millwall. But the distraction will be inevitable. “It's no good fobbing other people off saying we're not looking at what's going anywhere else or that it doesn't matter,” admitted Wilder. “But the most important thing, because nothing is going to be decided this weekend, is that we focus on ourselves as we always do and trying to get the right result.”
The Championship promotion race couldn’t be tighter, a great advert for English football’s second tier which had already established itself as the most competitive league in Europe even before this thrilling season kicked off. Norwich, six points clear at the top before the weekend programme are home and dry. The battle to join them in the Premier League is now a two-horse race.
Which is why as the final turn approaches before a dash to the finish line, United’s lacklustre midweek performance at Birmingham City was something of a surprise. True, after losing 3-2 at home to Bristol City immediately on resumption from last international break, four points from six in the following two away fixtures, a 1-0 win at Preston and a 1-1 draw at St Andrews, is a good return.
Wilder said after the disappointment against Bristol City in front of a 31,000 crowd at the Lane: “One minute we're going up as champions. The next we've got no chance. That's the emotional response but we've got to cut through all that and make sure it stays as close as it is. We shouldn't allow a bad day at the office to wreck what we've done.”
At Deepdale he described his players as “special” in producing a response but having taken the lead through a terrific strike by wing-back Enda Stevens after a bright start, there was an element of all round disappointment about what happened afterwards. Birmingham, who equalised within four minutes, whilst stubborn were no great shakes but in the end neither were United.
“One match doesn't decide anything, especially at this stage, it's all about an accumulation of points,” said Wilder. “Listen, we came here to win and we wanted to win. But this is all about how many [points] people will get over a period of games. The one thing we have shown, and I've told the boys this afterwards, is that we are going to take it right down to the wire.”
He added: “We've had two tough away days. We've taken four points from those and yes, although we'd have loved six, I think we've got to be happy with that overall. I think that’s a good return. Now we're back at our place and the boys are looking forward to playing at Bramall Lane again in front of our own fans.”
United have three remaining matches at home. Against Millwall, fighting to remain in the Championship, Nottingham Forest on Good Friday and bottom-of-the-league Ipswich Town eight days later. By that time, with a trip to Nigel Adkins’ Hull City sandwiched in between, the last automatic promotion issue might still to be decided. United fans have already prepared, buying up all available tickets for the final match of the regular season at Stoke City.
Whether the journey to the Potteries is a celebration or a precursor to the play-offs and all the unwanted angst that entails, is in the balance. But in the meantime not in doubt is that Sheffield Wednesday can play a big part in helping to decide the final outcome.
I’ll say it once and once only – COME ON YOU OWLS.