Tuesday, May 22, 2007

An Owl cries as the Blades go down - allwell

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.

10 comments:

pipita said...

Lovely piece Allwell. Ive always preferred Wednesday to United myself, basically becuase of the name and the colors that are more reminiscent to Everton's, but must admit Ive had great admiration for both Tony Currie and Alex Sabella, who I saw play a lot at River. Wasnt such a flop actually, got sold to Leeds after those two successive relegations with the blades

bluedaddy said...

Top stuff allwell. Some sweetly timed gags.

I also like the childhood distortion thing. Thank god we didnt have omnipresent TV cameras back then to crush our memories to more literal dust.

offside said...

Welcome back, allwell, I thought you'd fallen off your bike or something. Excellent piece once again.

I have to admit that owls, blades, uniteds, wednesdays, Sheffields and FCs have this Frenchman utterly confused. Please don't explain, I like it that way.

duncan said...

"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."

Great line. Thanks.

file said...

aslo, 'like an unwanted puppy, they sank after Christmas'

entertaining piece allwell, cheers

allwell said...

Thanks everyone,

I always appreciate people leaving comments, espeically as I am so hopeless at it myself. At the moment, I don't seem to get chance to read everything, no matter comment on it.

pipita, Sabella was great, far too good for United, or Leeds for that matter. He played with great style, in the traditional Argentinian way, dribbling around the pitch with one sock half way up his leg and the other around his ankle. He refused to wear shinpads which was fairly brave when facing English second division defenders. United fined him for it; he paid the fine and continued to go without. Top Man.

He came over with another Argentinian, Pedro Verde, who wasn't quite so talented, but can boast a slightly better known nephew: Juan Sebastian Veron.

bluedaddy, I sometimes think it would be great to see film of some of those old games, but I reckon you're right, overall it would only go and spoil things. That 25 yard volley that's so clear in your mind would turn out to be a scruffy toe-poke from 3 yards out.

pipita said...

Remember Sabella playing without shin pads and wearing tennis socks...He was unlucky at River because he was always in the shadow of Beto Alonso, who we made reference to in the Duncan23 blog, but later shined in the great Estudiantes team of 1982-83. Marcela knows all about pedro verde aka peter green as one sheffield utd fan once told me they used to refer to him

pipita said...

Remember Sabella playing without shin pads and wearing tennis socks...He was unlucky at River because he was always in the shadow of Beto Alonso, who we made reference to in the Duncan23 blog, but later shined in the great Estudiantes team of 1982-83. Marcela knows all about pedro verde aka peter green as one sheffield utd fan once told me they used to refer to him

MotM said...

allwell - Thanks. Laughed out loud, which never happens at GU and certainly not with Big Blogger winners. Great finish too.

bluedaddy said...

Allwell, I once saw some footage of myself playing football. It wasnt pretty.

And I acquired the nickname Spazfoot for a while.

In my mind I'm quite good though.

Tweet it, digg it