Perhaps the reason we go to football games is because we just might have an experience people will talk about for generations.
We sit through countless forgettable affairs because someday we’re going to see a world-class game-winner, or a stunning upset, or a penalty kick hit a season-saving post, or some seismic shift in the power balance of the game.
Such a moment occurred in the second half of the 2017 Steel City Derby. I know I’ll never forget it, nor will fans of either Sheffield club, though one set will wish they could. All I know is, I was lucky enough to be there, and also to be taking a video when the moment arrived. But we’ll get to that.
First, especially for my American readers, please try to grasp what an English football rivalry is like. To be honest, you really can’t, because nothing like it exists in the States.
We have rivalries, but a game like Sheffield Wednesday vs Sheffield United feels more like tribal warfare. It’s generational. Old men and little kids and women and girls … everybody is all in, no moment is mediocre or unimportant, the entire stadium sings and responds to everything on the pitch. Life itself seems to hang in the balance.
When things go well, it’s pure bliss, and you aim all of your happiness at the enemy across the way. When they go badly, you slam your fists into the seat, curse your own players like dogs, or just stare into space, shocked as if you’ve just seen your grandmother killed.
It’s insane, of course; it’s just football, after all. But somehow it’s a lot more than that. It’s like our self-worth is based on how the boys in our colors do, and they cannot let us down. You can’t just let those fucking wankers in that other color feel any joy. Get after them, for fuck’s sake!
Outside the ground, everything seemed calm, even when I watched United fans arrive by bus at the Leppings Lane End. Inside, once the game started, it was a different story. The Wednesday crowd was like nothing I’ve ever felt; it was truly a time when I was glad to be a neutral. But I get it. When Portland loses to Seattle I don’t even want to go outside.
Here is a pregame sample:
And then United scored, about three minutes in. Shock all around me, bouncing joy in the far end. Then a huge roar from the blue side, urging their boys on.
And then United scored again! Shock is replaced by vicious anger; in addition to making it 2-0, this was a stupid goal the defense never should have conceded. Now they’re all useless, can’t win a header or a second ball, can’t pick out a pass, and where is the fucking midfield? Fans were practically leaping out of their seats to wave their arms in disgust.
I was actually starting to worry about my neighbors finding out I’m a neutral. Already some of them were arguing with each other about standing up. It was “we can’t see” vs. “It’s the fucking derby,” and I was afraid I’d get drafted into the “sit yer ass down” army. Honestly, I didn’t care, just wanted a proper game, but it was feeling genuinely ugly in the North Stand.
Then Wednesday scored, right at the end of the half. And the roar … unreal. The place was buzzing at halftime, and the Owls came out for the second half and got right to it. They dominated, with the crowd going berserk at every pause. When 30,000 people scream “Come on!” as one voice, the energy is almost scary.
Then they scored again! Absolute madness all around me. I was thrilled — not because I had any preference in the matter, but because everything I had come to see was happening all around me — a proper game in a proper derby, a sports event like no other. The Owls fans started bouncing, and I started a video. The folks at home won’t believe this, I thought. This was a moment!
If you’re not … fucking bouncing,
If you’re not fucking bouncing you’re a Blade!
Just as I swung my phone around to the Kop end, I saw out of the corner of my eye that United had the ball and were moving down the field … and that is when an amazing moment became The Moment.
There is a second in that video when you can feel the whole Wednesday crowd think to itself, “Hang on … this could … no!” Then the net rippled, and then came the eruption in red. The slamming shut of one door and blasting open of another. Devastation and exultation switching places on a dime. Again, it’s stunned silence all around me, leaning towards anger, with chaos in the distance. Again, I’m worried they’ll pounce on me for not being angry. Good thing they have no idea how much I’m loving this!
Inevitably, came the taunting chant from beyond the barricades:
You’re not bouncing,
You’re not bouncing,
You’re not bouncing anymore!
And then, a few minutes later, they scored again, a chipped slow roller that barely made it in, leading to another precious football moment — when you realize it’s gone in, you know the away fans are going to explode, but it takes just a moment for the sound to reach you. We need a name for that silence. It was shattered by barmy Blades in the Leppings Lane End, and the blue troops began to withdraw from the field in numbers, shaking their heads in disgust and flashing middle fingers at … well, let’s face it, their fellow townsfolk.
The starch was out of the Wednesday crowd, and the rest of the afternoon was a Blades party. They sang happy birthday to their manager (who was a fan and a player before), they sang players’ names, they sang how shit Wednesday were, they sang things I honestly couldn’t even make out.
They were still singing when I left, out into the streets where little pockets of Wednesday fans were bitching about this player or that tactical decision or the complete lack of urgency and talent. I can only imagine what joy the reds were sharing as they danced off into the streets. It’ll be a long few months for the blue side of Sheffield, until their chance to get back at the fuckers at Bramall Lane.
I just might have to come back for that one, as well. After all, this is what I come for. Isn’t it what we all come for?
Postscript from the next day:
I’m flying home to the States today, but wanted to show the level of reaction the above video has gotten in just 16 hours:
Postscript from 2018:
This year’s Steel City Derby matchups are November 9 at United and March 2 at Wednesday.
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