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Sunday, 13 May 2007

4506: An Owl cries as the Blades go

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by : Jeff Gold

So, it’s all down to the final day, and Sheffield United, with a decent home record, play host to their rivals for survival, who are hopeless away. Winner stays up. A draw and the glory is United’s, inasmuch as avoiding relegation to Division Four can ever be considered glorious for a club whose trophy cabinet holds four FA Cups and a League Championship.

For this is not 2007 but 1981, and it’s a bad time to be a Blade. Six years earlier United finished sixth in Division One, playing football with style and a swagger, missing out on Europe by a single point. But their insistence on transforming Bramall Lane from a cricket ground into a proper four-sided football stadium left them skint. A meteoric descent ensued.

Yet, as they tumbled pell-mell through the leagues, they retained a semblance of faded glamour. At a time when English football scouts rarely ventured beyond Ireland, United nabbed Alex Sabella, an Argentinian who went on to represent his country; they snaffled a procession of talented and experienced Division One veterans; strewth, they even bagged a World Cup winner.

But they were rubbish. In 1966 Martin Peters may have been ten years ahead of his time, but now he was five years behind it; Sabella was ill-suited to Division Two never mind Division Three; and the trio of Bob Hatton, Don Givens and Stewart Houston might have boasted almost a million top-level appearances between them but they were older than most continents and moved just as slowly.

Still, as the 1970s drew to a close, recovery looked likely. On Christmas Day of United’s first ever season in Division Three they were top of the league and the following day faced Sheffield Wednesday in the first local derby for 19 seasons. It was the most eagerly awaited event in Sheffield since Marti Caine played The Locarno, and 49,309 people - a record for the division - pitched up to watch a match that is still celebrated in song. By Wednesday fans. United were trounced and failed to recover, finishing the season in twelfth.

The following year they started well again, but again, like an unwanted puppy, they sank after Christmas. Promotion looked unlikely; relegation was unthinkable. Nevertheless, going into the final game, the last drop-spot awaited either United or their opponents, Walsall, whose survival depended on their winning away for the first time since October. As a 12 year old Wednesday fan with a Blade for a brother, I reckoned that sounded like fun.

My memories are unreliable. In my mind the match is tremendous (apparently it was dross), Bramall Lane is packed (actually two-thirds empty) and the longer the game remains goalless, the more relaxed those around me become (more recent experience suggests this is unlikely). Then disaster: three minutes remain and a penalty for Walsall. Is it deserved? I’ve no idea, it’s down the other end. The outcome is clear enough. One-nil down and United are doomed. Anguish abounds (more recent experience suggests this is likely).

But hang on, there’s time for a final attack. “Handball,” screams the crowd and the referee agrees. Salvation. Barely credibly, United have a penalty of their own. It will be the last kick of the season. Score and you stay up; miss and you’re relegated. An injury to the regular penalty taker, Tony Kenworthy, means the honour is bestowed on Bob Hatton (actually John Matthews, but they both had a tache to make the Village People weep so it’s an easy mistake to make).

What’s going on? Bob (that’s John) has bottled it and doesn’t want to know. In his place is Don Givens. That’s good. What’s needed here is experience. An old head who’s been around a bit and played in games more important than a Division Three relegation decider. A man with more than 50 international caps; Ireland’s record goal scorer.

I’m standing directly behind the goal. I pretend to be the keeper. Givens walks up. I prepare to dive the wrong way before marauding around the terraces, arms aloft. Here we go.

He misses, of course. That I do remember. It’s an effort so pitiful that had the real keeper guessed incorrectly he could still have got up, brushed himself down and leaned nonchalantly against the post, smoking a pipe and reading the Daily Telegraph, before sauntering along the goal line and crouching gracefully to scoop up the ball in his cap.

It’s over. Supporters roam the ground aimlessly, bewildered, not knowing whether to dump or have haircut. The emotion is overwhelming. But I’m a Wednesday fan. I don’t care. In fact it’s brilliant. Yet my 12 year old eyes still fill with tears.

Jeff Gold
12 May 2007

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