Sunday, 13 April 2014

Pride in the name of our club

I'm currently sat on a coach. Somewhere in Hertfordshire. It's just coming up to 7:30 and the sun is going down out of the window to my left. The radio is playing some tinny, unrecognisable pop track. My mate Steve is jolting himself awake from his slumbers every so often. Thankfully before his head lands on my right shoulder.

I am slightly hoarse and when I do speak, the odd word comes out with a slight squeak. I have a glow on my cheeks from a few beers in the sun, but more importantly pride in my team. Pride that no bitter and twisted Wednesdayite is going to downgrade or diminish. 

I believed that United would turn up today, when so often they have gone missing at Wembley. I believed that they would play with unity, pride and no shortage of passion. For forty five minutes they more than surpassed that.

They outfought and outplayed a lifeless Hull side and scored their first goals in three visits to new Wembley. 

As Jose Baxter opened the scoring within the first twenty minutes I was in shock. I celebrated like I've never celebrated before but felt kind of shell shocked. When Stefan Scougall added the second, straight after Hull had equalised, I hugged my mates and felt tears welling up.

I thought of my Nan, who passed away last August. I wished she had seen this. United outplaying a Premier League team, two divisions above us. They are performing at Wembley Nan. I pictured her sat in an armchair, holding her scarf, kicking every ball.

I thought of my Dad, back home listening to the radio. This, one Wembley trip too many to contemplate. I wished that he was stood next to me. 

I knew it could all change. It did. But for forty five minutes I felt on top of the world. At half time I saw and hugged a Blade I know from twitter. We stood in queues, wide eyed in wonder. We deserved this. We had lost concentration once and been punished, but that aside we had performed way above any expectations. 

We will tire, got to keep it solid for ten or fifteen minutes, we said. We have a chance then. 

In the end, neither happened. Facing an onslaught after positive half time changes by Steve Bruce we found ourselves 4-2 down and seemingly down and out. Then in the final 90 seconds of normal time we scored. We had a chance and nothing to lose.

Throwing caution to the wind in injury time time, Harry Maguire burst forward. His shot was blocked and Hull broke scoring a fifth goal. 

As one, the 32,000 Blades fans started applauding and cheering their team, with the Hull fans in raptures at the opposite end having sealed victory. It's something I've never seen or experienced before. Pride in the team. Pride in the club. Acknowledgment that we had lost, but by heck we had given it a go. And Hull knew it.

Ultimately the result is tinged with disappointment. When you lead 2-1 and eventually lose there is bound to be that emotion. But the fans lifted their arms, stuck out their chests and applauded the crestfallen players in red and white shirts.

Much has changed at Sheffield United in the last 7 months, most - if not all - of it for the better. We are a couple of players, a striker in particular, away from a successful side. The cup run, allied with the upturn in league form, makes the retention and recruitment of players an easier task.

Off the pitch the club is operating more efficiently and creatively, with communication much improved and a genuine unification of fans, players, staff and board members.

People left Wembley tonight in a positive mood. A seemingly hard concept for some fans of other clubs to consider. We had conceded five they said, what is there to be happy about? How little they know.

As the sun disappears beyond the horizon and the day is ending, it is clear that United are moving in a positive direction. And today is only the beginning.  

Friday, 11 April 2014

Good old Wembley-by-the-Sea

"You got to the seaside for a day out, you go to Wembley to win." 

Nigel Clough's words in a recent interview and well shared amongst Blades fans in recent weeks.

If Nigel has that embedded in the players’ minds and they continue to play to their system and dictated by their roles then we certainly have a chance. But it's rare the bookies lose money and 4-1 in a two horse race reflects the reality of the challenge facing United. So forgive me if I focus on backing the team and enjoying the day. I will be honest with you; a goal would be good, never mind a win. 

For me, any fan can't be blamed for treating the trip to Wembley as a day out. We are the self-preservation society. Looking for a protective shield from yet more hurt on the big day. This cup run has fused club and fan-base together in a way not seen for several years, but the scars still exist and they are still tender to the touch.

In my near 40 years we have had two visits to the old Wembley, two visits to new Wembley, two visits to Old Trafford and one to Cardiff. The net result was one goal scored, four play-off final defeats and three FA Cup semi-final defeats.

For the Play Off final, where more often than not we were the favourites, the team we saw all season, the team we saw in the play-off semi finals just didn't turn up on the big day.

The Cup semi-finals have been much tighter affairs, separated by the odd goal, but the heartbreak of losing to the other lot in 1993, the sight of Shearer peeling away, fist held high above his head, in celebration back in 1998 and Graham Poll's absent minded on pitch shambling alongside Seaman's wonder save in 2003 still rankle, still hurt.

Over the last few weeks Nigel Clough has reinstated belief in players who wandered the pitch vacantly and without purpose in the Autumn. He has instilled pride in the fans, their undimmed passion allied with a belief that things can and will get better. For a change, I don't fear us not turning up. I don't fear us freezing and not competing. I don't think Clough will let it happen.

We are only the ninth third division side to reach the cup semi finals in 94 years. In the six rounds to date we have beaten five teams who sat above us in the league, four from divisions above. This has been a journey of giant killing from round three onwards. 

It has been a catalyst for the club and fan-base. Alongside boardroom change and managerial change the on-pitch overhaul has built momentum through the cup run. The club has re-discovered its identity and it is one that the fans can associate with. For many, the greatest times watching United come from cup matches at Bramall Lane.  

We can dare to dream, we can enjoy the day, the camaraderie, a shared experience with 33,000 like minded men, women and children and we sing and shout until we are hoarse. 

We don't turn our backs if things don't go to plan. We don't berate players for mistakes or look for scapegoats. It isn't a day for that. It is a day to be thankful that we have our club back. We have a team with the right attitude and aptitude. We have an honest and astute management team and a board that matches the ambition of the fans.

We have respect for Hull. They are a Premier League team and should remain so next season. They are up there with good reason and although the absence of Jelavic and Long is welcomed, that should not detract from the quality elsewhere. We are not the favourites, there is no expectation that has hung over us like a dark, sapping cloud before.

No one could have predicted this in September. Nobody would have predicted this on the first weekend of January as the team travelled to Villa Park. Be thankful, enjoy it and urge the team on. They aren't going for the day out. They have a job to do. To win.

Whatever happens on Sunday we should walk back to our planes, trains and automobiles with pride. We feel like a club United at last. And as we have been frequently reminded this season, it is the cup and in the Cup you just never know.