Blades and Trees: it’s complicated

15 Feb

Sunday 16th February

Sheffield United     3.1         Nottingham Forest

(Coady, Porter 2)                   (Paterson)

The national press have been getting themselves in a bit of a tizzy all week with some even claiming that the meeting between these sides is the most interesting of the ties in the 5th round of the FA Cup. Naturally, most of the attention has been focused on the rather tempestuous relationship between Billy Davies and Nigel Clough. You know how it goes: Dad, Forest, Derby, knees in the back, East Midlands rivalry, etc. What has been of particular interest to me though is the presentation of the rivalry between the Blades and the Trees.

There is no doubt that there exists a deep enmity between the two clubs. However, to simply encapsulate this rivalry by putting it down to the Miner’s Strike of the early 80s and consequently, the Nottinghamshire/Yorkshire ‘scab’ labels is all a little convenient and simplistic. Forgive me: I am not an expert in the complex field of strike disputes and certainly don’t wish to wade into this particular debate with open toed sandals when only steel capped work boots would suffice. But it is fair to say that it’s a little more complicated than that.

Firstly, the chants of ‘scab’ towards Forest support are not the sole domain of Blades fans only. Years spent in the Championship has exposed us to numerous trips to Yorkshire heartlands such as Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham United and Sheffield Wednesday. Typically at such places, the away Forest support is serenaded early on with a few half-hearted chants of ‘scab’ before a retort of chants questioning the age of those who started it. All very childish but all is done and dusted so those involved can get on with watching the game. Is this scenario more intense at Bramall Lane? A little. Not really. Perhaps. Maybe. Not that I’ve noticed.

That’s not to play the whole thing down though. The righteous bastion of truth known as Wikipedia states that: “Sheffield United also have, along with many other sports teams across Yorkshire, a strong rivalry with Nottingham Forest.[13] This can be attributed to the miners’ strikes of the 1980s, where workers in the pits of Nottinghamshire did not join the strike (known locally as scabbing) while miners from Yorkshire did.” It is certainly true that there is needle between the two clubs but it is interesting to note that the section above entitled ‘Rivalries’ only comes after mention of all aforementioned Yorkshire clubs and also West Ham United (that Carlos Tevez has a lot to answer for).

In short, it’s not just Blades that have an axe to grind with Nottinghamshire over events in the early 1980s. There’s more to it than that. But why?

Firstly, a strange phenomenon has occurred recently: a kind of mutual respect between Sheffield Wednesday and Nottingham Forest fans. Trips to each other’s grounds seem to be a highlight of the season for each. Perhaps this is because there is a lot of common ground between the two: big clubs in the 80s fallen on hard times having spent a few years down in Dante’s inferno – otherwise known as League 1. Furthermore, both sets of fans can unite in a rivalry between Leeds United and of course, Sheffield United. Indeed, my most recent visit to Hillsborough saw Forest fans and Owls fans sharing a packed tram uniting in anti-Leeds and Blades songs. All very good humoured too. I wonder whether the atmosphere would have been filled with such bonhomie were it Blades and Trees. Probably not.

So maybe this ‘coming together’ between Owls and Trees stokes the anti-Blades thing further. But if it were simply the Miners’ Strike that fuels the Blades/Trees thing then relationships between Owls and Trees would surely not be so cordial and any fixture in Yorkshire for Forest fans would require upgrading to ‘fierce rivalry’. This is not the case. Of course, it could be that a more nuanced phenomenon is happening here and that the Miner’s Strike is more particular to Blades than Owls in terms of geography and socio-economic demographics of the fans of each Sheffield club. As I said, I am no expert regarding this.

As usual though, it’s events on the pitch that go further to explaining the rivalry. Naturally, the mind drifts back to May 2003 and that play-off semi final. If there is a ground zero for the rivalry then I suggest this is it. There is no real reason for hating United after this game: they won and they scored more goals than us. No real complaints. It’s just that losing out hurt.

It hurt bad.

There was little consolation in the fact that we played our part in an epic and memorable game. It hurt bad for many reasons: we were two up at Bramall Lane and threw it away in a collapse reminiscent of an England batting order in Australia. Forest hero David Johnson crying on the pitch at the end. Blades fans made Johnno cry! That was hard to take. This result though precipitated the collapse of a much loved Forest team. The season after saw Forest finish an unremarkable 14th and the one after that saw us relegated to League 1. We sold crown jewels like Jermaine Jenas, Andy Reid, Michael Dawson. David Johnson broke his leg a mere four months after these momentous events at Bramall Lane (incidentally at the City Ground in a welcome 3.1 defeat of the Blades) and never really found his shooting boots after this. Other quality players like Jim Brennan, Gareth Williams and Mathieu Louis-jean also moved on quickly and an exciting young team was denied its chance to fulfill its potential. And why did it have to be Des Walker’s own goal that was the nail in the coffin? Anyone but Des. (Incidentally, often forgotten is the last minute chance we fashioned right at the end of the game from a delicious Reidy cross (nothing’s changed) to Louis-jean at the far post who did everything right in heading the ball firmly down and were it 6 inches to either side of the keeper would have broken Blades hearts.) Still, if ifs and ands were pots and pans…but they’re not.

So defeat here on that May evening hurt. It arguably set the precedent for our subsequent glorious play-off semi final defeats to Yeovil Town, Blackpool and Swansea City.

Oh, and Neil Warnock was in charge of the Blades. Neil Warnock. It’s not only Forest fans who may just have an axe to grind with this gentleman and to be honest, as time has irreversibly marched on, my feelings towards him have softened a little. But my word was he a detestable chap back in those days. But it’s not his behavior on that May evening that provoked ire, rather it was an accumulation of lots of little things. There was the whole ‘Battle of Bramall Lane’ saga involving West Bromwich Albion in which, to cut a long story short, Warnock’s team either got sent off or got injured which resulted in the game being abandoned with the Baggies three goals up. At the heart of this was a horrific challenge on Andy Johnson, once of Forest and like numerous other players, now plying his trade elsewhere.  [i] This doesn’t reflect particularly well on Mr. Warnock and even goes as far as eliciting sympathy for the Baggies boss at the time, Gary Megson and rest assured, that is no mean achievement from a Forest perspective.

But perhaps it was the game between Blades and Trees on 19th October 2004 that really cemented the rivalry. It wasn’t a particularly seismic game in any other respect: a 1.1 draw with Liddell and Johnson scoring for each team but with accompanying red cards for Quinn and Impey and the sight of Warnock doing what he generally did: riling opposite managers by challenging every single innocuous decision made by the referee and generally behaving like a hyped up chimp on the sidelines. Again, not pretty.

Now I am fully aware that in many neutral fans’ eyes, we currently have a manager who is not best liked by most other supporters and as for the press goes, well, better to not even go there. In fact, some may even go as far as to say that Mr Davies is the modern equivalent of Mr Warnock. That may be true and this is no attempt to plant a flag in the moral high ground between the two managers.

What the above does illustrate though is that to put this rivalry down to the ‘Miners’ Strike’ seems to simplify it somewhat and takes it into a different realm which perhaps it has no right to go. Of course there is a rivalry which is partially geographically driven but mostly football-related. The fact that Clough and Davies will meet again certainly adds another dimension to this particular fixture too. The fact that Forest have sold their away allocation (approximately 5,000 tickets) certainly suggests that it is a biggie for us but don’t be fooled into thinking that this is our cup final: tickets were available for £10 to season ticket holders and trips to Sheffield have been particularly profitable for us in recent history with winning visits to Hillsborough. And Sheffield is quite close to Nottingham. And we haven’t got this far in the cup since…well, what seems like an age.

Let’s hope that the game takes centre stage on this occasion though, rather than sideline antics.

[i] The full details run something along these lines:  Simon Tracey sent off for the Blades, WBA 2 goals up, Georges Santos almost breaks Johnson’s legs – gets sent off, Patrick Souffo gets sent off for head-butting McInnes, Blades down to 8 men, Michael Brown and Rob Ullathorne go down injured which leaves Blades with only 6 remaining men on the pitch. Match abandoned. Apologies for any inaccuracies.


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