Result: Sheffield United 0-1 Bolton Wanderers (EFL Championship)
Venue: Bramall Lane (Saturday 30th December 2017, 3pm)
With the wet weather once again playing havoc with fixture lists the length and breadth of the country, thus it was the case that my intended game at Cheshire League outfit Billinge fell victim to the prolonged rain around the North West. This was hardly a surprise, mind you and, as such, I had a few options up my sleeve that would ensure a more successful pursuit of a ‘blog game’ than Boxing Day had turned up. Eventually, and after much umm-ing and ahh-ing about whether it was truly worth the expenditure I’d be soon paying out into the economy, I set off headed for Sheffield and the third club I’d have visited that carries the city’s name.
Unitedites may be unimpressed to hear that I’ve visited both their fierce rivals and the club that formerly called Bramall Lane home before them, however I’d hope they may be kind and be of the opinion it was a “saving the best ’til last” situation! Bramall Lane had certainly been on my list of ‘must visit’ grounds and thus I was more than happy to finally get the chance to “tick” it during the final weekend of 2017, whereas there has often been something cropping up to send me elsewhere. For today though, and as I mentioned earlier, it was roles reversed and so having headed through Manchester (where it looked as though I’d be slightly delayed by rail works, which should apparently benefit us according to those defending yet another unadulterated fare rise) I managed to make my intended train which had been delayed and we set off, packed in like sardines, around five minutes late. These “improvements” can’t come soon enough (though delays would be beneficial later in the day!).
Heading through the snow-capped Pennines, I arrived in the South Yorkshire city at just before half-past midday. Getting my bearings eventually, I decided to forgo a stop in the much visited Sheffield Tap for now and instead head more into the centre. On my way there, though, I reckoned I’d be best served stopping a little earlier and making a plan of action. As it was the Roebuck gave me the perfect opportunity to do just that, though the pint of Moretti wasn’t cheap, coming in at £4.50. The Roebuck was a nice enough establishment though and, in obviously having no colours, I had no issues at this time, despite the proclamation of “no away fans”.
From there it was onwards through the Peace Gardens and past the grand-looking town hall before finding myself approaching a large funfair carousel, which had a surprisingly large amount of adults taking advantage of it whilst a small band played at some volume alongside it. This wasn’t a distraction I was about to partake in and instead I was headed for Bungalows and Bears. No, not another type of ride but a large bar situated just a few blocks down. In here, I spotted the interestingly named Leodis lager which is brewed in Leeds and this seemed nice enough during the small taster I had. Pint purchased at £4.20, I soon discovered it had a fairly strange aftertaste, which definitely lingered and made it a difficult one (for me at least) to polish off fairly quickly. It was still a nice pint, though, so no real complaints there.
Onwards again and just a few doors is the Great Gatsby. A pub with a bit of a varied food menu it seemed (though I admittedly didn’t take too much notice), I had a quick pint of Somersby cider (£3.50) in here before heading a little further down the street and to the Devonshire. Upon entering, the waiter asked if I was ok, as I tried to locate the (as it turned out) well-signed facilities. I answered that I was, but for some reason decided to also inform them of my next move before doing some sort of awkward laugh. Don’t ask, I have no idea. For even more unexplainable reasons, I then also reckoned I should make a bit of a joke out of this with the barman, but then discovered I was having something nearing drunk conversation whilst being nowhere near drunk enough to not be finding it cringeworthy. I can only apologise for the mental scarring I left in my wake!
After polishing off my second consecutive pint of cider, which I haven’t made a note of the name but was decent for £3.80, whilst in the shadow of a bicycle hung on the wall near the doorway, I headed onwards to Bramall Lane, forgoing my plan to head to either the Brewdog outlet or the Cricketer’s Arms alongside the Lane itself in favour of leaving one of these until after the game. Following the crowds through the many underpasses (where I purchased a programme for £3) I arrived at the ground and found the away ticket office first thing. After a quick peruse of the outside of the Lane, I deduced that this would be the quickest, and easiest, way of getting in by this point and so I was soon a full £29 lighter but was into the home of the Blades and the oldest professional football ground in the world.
Bramall Lane dates from 1855 and its original usage was as a cricket ground, playing host to Sheffield United CC and Yorkshire CCC and remained as one through to 1973, with the final year including Yorkshire hosting Lancashire in the Roses clash. The ground hosted its first football match in 1862, a clash between Sheffield FC and Hallam FC. Both clubs are still competing to this day, of course, Sheffield currently playing at the Coach & Horses ground in Dronfield (but with plans to move back to the Olive Grove area of the city) and Hallam still at their original home ground, Sandygate, in the Crosspool area of the city. Bramall Lane also played host to the first ever floodlit football match, this game being played back in 1878 between two Sheffield FA representative sides. It had also hosted ‘The Wednesday’ (current day Sheffield Wednesday) prior to United’s formation and subsequent occupation of the ground following Wednesday’s departure to a ground at Olive Grove.
My first memory of the inside of Bramall Lane is that of being met by the putrid smell of a blue smoke bomb that had been let off just as I made my way through the turnstiles. By the time I had a steak pie in my grasp (£3.50), it had all but cleared. Anyway, from there it was out into the away end just behind the goal in the East Stand where we had a bit of material hanging above us, protecting from anything that may be dropped down from any badly behaved Blades fans above! Opposite us stood the Kop End, with its lesser-spotted open steps up to the rear visible. To the right stands the South Stand which is a fairly standard issue large construction and houses the tunnel and dressing rooms and features the dugouts out front, whilst the North Stand opposite is far more appealing to the eye (not in the marrying an inanimate object sort of way, though some may have these feelings), with its gable on the roof giving that traditional feel to it, despite it being far more modern than Barnsley’s, for example. This stand has also had both corners filled in, with the corner adjoining the Kop playing host to the Family Stand and the one closest to us being offices. The executive areas are also housed within this stand. So, ground description done, here’s the lengthy back story of the Blades of Sheffield United….
Sheffield United F.C. was founded in 1889 as an offshoot of the Sheffield United Cricket Club at the Adelphi Hotel which stood on the site now occupied by the Crucible Theatre, famed in snooker circles. After Wednesday had left Bramall Lane following a dispute over rent, United’s football arm was formed after a large crowd turned up for a FA Cup semi-final between Preston North End and West Bromwich Albion at the ground. Having seen the appetite for a permanent club here, it took just six days after the semi-final for the club to come into being and they became a professional entity almost immediately.
United’s first season consisted of friendly matches and local cup games, though they did also compete in the FA Cup and reached its Second Round, defeating Football League outfit Burnley in the process. However, their next game saw them meet Bolton Wanderers who recorded the club’s record defeat: 13-0. This persuaded the committee of the club that regular, competitive league games were needed for the club to progress and they duly joined the Midland Counties League for the 1890-’91 season. They had already played a club from this league during their previous season, meeting Notts Rangers at Meadow Lane.
After a sole season in the Midland Counties ended in fifth place, the club switched to the Northern League where they finished third at their first attempt in the new league. At the end of the season, the club applied for a spot in the expanding Football League First Division but failed in their attempt to take one of the two new spots available. Instead, United were allocated a place in the newly created Second Division with the Alliance Clubs, taking advantage of the demise of Birmingham St. George’s. Their start to the league was a success, securing promotion to the First Division at the end of 1892-’93, after finishing runners-up to Small Heath and defeating Accrington in a “Test Match”. The club then went on to better things, enjoying a 37-season stay in the top-flight, which apparently remains a record for a newly promoted side.
United were League runners-up in 1897 before going one better and winning the title in 1898. As a result, they played and won an unoffical two-legged tie against Scottish Champions Celtic, which was billed as a “Champions of Great Britain” game. 1899 saw United lift the FA Cup with a 4-1 victory over Derby County at the Crystal Palace before starting the new century as League runners-up of 1899-1900. Further FA Cup Final appearances at the Palace in 1901 an 1902 saw fluctuating fortunes, with United losing to Southern League Tottenham Hotspur in the ’01 final before defeating Southampton of the same league the following campaign. The next highlight for United would see them return to the Cup Final in 1915, this time defeating Chelsea at Old Trafford to lift their third Cup title.
After the end of WWI, it took the club until 1925 to reach the Cup Final again, with their first Wembley final ending in victory over Cardiff City. This would also be the club’s last win in the competition. 1934 saw United relegated to the Second Division, the first relegation the club had experienced. Coming close to promotion in both 1936 & 1938 (finishing third on both occasions), the club made it third time lucky in pipping rivals Wednesday to second place at the end of the ’38-’39 season, securing the runners-up spot in the last game. The club began the next season well, but this was curtailed after the outbreak of WWII, though United continued strongly in the wartime League North competition, winning it in 1946.
After WWII, United fell away somewhat and were relegated again in 1949 and saw roles reversed the next season as Wednesday pipped United on the last day to take promotion. After long serving manager Teddy Davison stepped down, Reg Freeman guided United to the 1953 Second Division title before tragedy struck as Freeman passed away in the summer of 1955. That coming season saw the Blades relegated to the Second Division once more. They remained here through to 1961 when they went up as runners-up and reached the FA Cup semi-finals but bowed out in a second replay to Leicester City. However, relegation wasn’t too far away and Blades suffered the drop once more in 1968.
Promotion was again achieved in 1971 to see the club return to the top-flight. Here they went on a fine run that saw them top the table after a long unbeaten run before eventually being usurped. This success brought about the move to make Bramall Lane a football-only stadium, with a fourth stand being added in 1975. This didn’t see any great success immediately, though, and after a sixth place finish and just missing out on UEFA Cup football in 1975, the club were relegated the next season. After a bit of financial trouble on the back of the drop, relegation to the Third Division for the first time followed in 1979. Despite World Cup winner Martin Peters taking the reins in 1981, the club’s fortunes only worsened and relegation followed at the end of the season with United now in the bottom rung of the Football League, with a missed last-minute penalty making all the difference between survival and the drop.
Peters was replaced by Ian Porterfield and this coincided with a return to form for the Blades. The Fourth Division title arrived in 1982 and 1984 saw promotion back to Division 2 sealed, with Hull City just failing to defeat United by the three goals they required to take the 3rd promotion spot away. Following Porterfield’s sacking in 1985-’86, a few managers followed before Dave Bassett came in shortly before the club dropped back to Division 3 in 1988. Bassett oversaw two successive promotions over the next two years which saw the Blades back in Division 1 in 1990. After a couple of seasons in the “old” Division One, the club were allocated a place in the newly formed Premiership in 1992 and Brian Deane scored the first ever goal in the new league for United in their 2-1 loss to Manchester United.
A couple of up-and-down seasons preceded relegation in 1994, the club going down on the final day, with Bassett lasting one further year before leaving the club. 1997 saw United lose out in the play-off final which was repeated in 2003 when they lost out at the Millennium Stadium to Wolves, though this season did see high points with runs to the semis of both the FA and League Cups. 2006 saw United end a twelve-year stint in the second tier, finishing runners-up in the Championship to achieve promotion to the Premiership. Alas, their return was a short-lived one, the club returning to the Championship after a single season, despite an appeal again West Ham after their controversial signings of Javier Mascherano and Carlos Tevez.
2009 saw the club again lose out in the play-off final, but worse was to come in 2011 when they dropped to the League One. Being regulars in the play-offs early on, the club lost out in both 2012 & 2013, with the first campaign seeing the Blades again pipped to automatic promotion by their city rivals. A FA Cup semi-final appearance in 2014 was the highlight of that season with 2015 seeing the club reach the League Cup semis and the play-offs, with the latter again ending in disappointment in the semi-finals. 2016 saw United finish in their lowest position since 1983, 11th in League One, before Nigel Adkins was replaced by current incumbent Chris Wilder. Wilder turned things around after a sticky start to last season and guided the Blades to automatic promotion as Champions, ahead of Bolton and in doing so became the fourth club to win a title at each of the four levels of League football and the first not to be a founding member. In finishing top, the club also broke the 100 goal barrier and are currently chasing a play-off finish this campaign.
We got underway soon after and I got talking a little to the guy next to me after I’d spotted his Hyde United tracksuit and enquired on what had brought him to the game. It transpired that their game was off and, having had ice hockey during the evening, decided to join one of their group in joining the Bolton faithful. I think that’s right, anyway! The game was something of a slow burner, with little in the way of action to get truly excited about within the first twenty minutes or so.
But the 21st minute saw the Wanderers grab the lead. A good move down the left led to a fizzed cross that Gary Madine got to first and poked home from around six yards. The in-stand battle of Madine vs Billy Sharp was being led by the Bolton man, with Sharp being less than popular with the travelling support due to some happenings during a previous clash apparently.
United soon made a tactical switch, with former Spurs man Cameron Carter-Vickers being replaced by George Baldock and the sub soon went close, forcing Bolton ‘keeper Ben Alnwick into a decent stop. The Blades continued on from there and could have levelled before the break with Leon Clarke getting clear but seeing his effort stopped by the outstretched leg of Alnwick in what was a superb stop. This ensured Bolton would head in with their lead intact against the play-off chasing Blades, half-time seeing the score remain 0-1.
Following a fairly uneventful break, the second half soon got underway following a call to arms by the PA guy to get the fans behind the hosts and drive them on to better things. The second half saw more of the same really as Bolton sat back on their lead and invited United onto them. United were, of course, only too happy to oblige and saw centre-back Jack O’Connell go close, as he nodded a cross from a free-kick just wide.
Sharp was replaced soon after much to the delight of most of those around me as the home side looked to try something different in their quest to draw themselves level. Baldock was again denied by the impressive Alnwick and the gloveman was imperative in Bolton’s efforts to hold their lead. They were helped out by some wayward shooting as well, with United’s Clayton Donaldson and Baldock firing off target. By that point I’d changed view to the back of the stand and we soon entered six minutes of injury time which largely consisted of me having to help calm down a pacing Wanderers fan who was struggling to cope with the nerves of the elusive Championship away win being within touching distance.
The dangerous Baldock continued to look most likely to rescue something for his side, but his efforts went astray, as did a late, late effort from Samir Carruthers that flew just wide as Bolton hung on to grab that win over their League 1 promotion counterparts from last season and I was grabbed by the fan during his emotional release! After a quick stay to watch the celebrations from the travelling Lancastrian support I joined the masses outside and reckoned it was probably best to forego the Cricketer’s as a stream of Blades supporters headed in to ease their disappointment.
I decided to miss out a few other watering holes en route back to the station, as I reckoned being back in the Tap and, therefore the station, was the best option. That is until I arrived back and decided to check the timings on the off-chance of a delay. Of course, delays aren’t an off-chance are they? There it was, a few minutes late and enabled me to grab the train back to Manchester an hour earlier than expected which also flew past in the company of the fine programme. By the time I’d finished up reading the “bible” the train was pulling into Piccadilly and a short walk later completed my trip.
So on the whole it had been a decent, if pretty expensive day. £29 isn’t exactly easy on the pocket (I wouldn’t like to be paying out that sort of money every week), but it was worth it, just about, as it had given me the chance to visit the historic Bramall Lane after a decision on the morning of the game, which isn’t always necessarily possible at Champo level. It was nice to actually spend some time visiting the city for once and with the game itself being a passable watch, it was just about worthwhile on the whole. Next up is the first game of 2018 and a visit to the clash of the clubs that have something Manchester United-y about them somewhere along the way….
Value For Money: 5