The city built on 7 hills – Sheffield. That does oblige to strive for greatness – and although not quite in the caliber of Rome, Sheffield can stake a claim for that. Not just for its rise as the “steel city”. It is one of the footballing pioneering cities. Sheffield FC is the oldest football club, Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United were among the first league clubs, and Bramall Lane was the first ground to host a floodlit football match back in 1878 (!) and fittingly became the first one to have floodlights permanently installed in 1953.
So what better place to start a tour round English football grounds than Bramall Lane in Sheffield? Home of United, the Blades. A ground that was originally a cricket ground and hosted cricket matches right until 1973 – and therefore only had stands on three sides of the football pitch! A fourth stand was finally added in 1975, but it was followed by a quick demise in fortunes for the Blades, who slid from the first to the fourth division by the start of the 1980’es. They managed to claw their way back in time to be part of the new premier league in 1992 – but their stay was short, and although they returned in the early 2000’s, they are currently in League One, that is the third tier of English football.
Still, they have quite a loyal following, 19.005 turned out in the cold Easter weather that even saw a drizzle of snow – with snow still lying around the ground after last week’s match had to be called off.
Sheffield United is said to have the more partisan support in Sheffield compared to Sheffield Wednesday. And when you look at their celebrity fans, Sean Bean of United and Sebastian Coe of Sheffield Wednesday, you can’t help feeling that there must be something to it.
In the foreword to “Sheffield United – a biography”, Sean Bean writes: “As a teenager in the 70s I became a regular on the Kop. I loved the pushing and swaying the terraces provided. I was never frightened or alarmed; why should I be? Surrounded by family, friends and Bladesmen any unwelcome visitors would soon be cleared off. When United scored, a young man could end up tossed around in the frenzy, finding himself miles from his original spot. When the joy died down we all looked around to se where we’d come from. Sometimes it was yards and yards away – but what a beautiful journey…. A new correctness around the game allied with Thatcherite legislation has ended some of the rivalry between Sheffield’s two great clubs.”
So arriving in Sheffield, I decided to que up to buy a ticket for the Kop. There were tickets to be bought – but only just, as every Sheffield United supporter chose the Kop over the newly named Jessica Ennis stand, which only hosted a small contingent of Carlisle Supporters. But the Kop has been turned into an all-seater stand; and there were no goals to celebrate…
Still, the Kop was an impressive sight. Certainly in Denmark, many people think that the Kop at Anfield is the only one. But several grounds had huge terraces named after the Spion Kop battle in the Boer War, where the British suffered heavy casualties on a steep hillside. Steep terraces with loyal supporters were named after the battlefield to honour the victims and send a signal of determination. And although the present Kop at Sheffield is an all-seater construction, you can see and sense the steep hill, it is erected on. Whereas you go inside for half-time snacks in modern football grounds, you go outside on the hill – with catering at the top as well as at the foot, creating a room for meeting up and chatting.
And you really get a sense of the Kop being a local meeting up. Inevitable, there was a banner from the Scandinavian supporters club, but otherwise the crowd seemed very local. And alarmingly etnichally almost 100 % white, and 85 % male. Compared to other grounds, the corporate visitors seemed to be relatively few, whereas there were quite a few teenage boys and girls.
After a full voice performance of “The Greasy chip Butty Song” at kick-off (in the first as well as the second half), there was a fair bit of chanting, but you sensed that everybody were rather laid-back, waiting for Sheffield United to steamroll Carlisle. That just didn’t happen. In fact, Carlisle put together the best footballing moves (for the warm-up, the Sheffield United back four were put in a line. At first they were thrown high balls that they just had to head away. Then hard shots were aimed at them, and they just had to whack the ball to the halfway line! Amazing. Who said the good old centre back is dead?), and by the time Sheffield United finally applied some pressure in the second half, the anxiety had grabbed hold of the crowd, with ooohs and aaaahs, moans and groans – willing the ball to cross the Carlisle line, but in vain. You really felt the passion by then. But it ended in a disappointing scoreless draw.
Passionate and friendly – and with a pride in their history. They had an exhibition “Legends of the Lane” which unfortunately only was open to prebooked tours. But around the ground, their were red heritage signs telling about major events, engraved stones, statues – and a memorial lawn for ashes of fans.
The football being played by two all-british teams (no foreigners judging from the names), the surroundings, the steep Kop with stalls selling Bovril, fish ‘n chips and steak ‘n kidney pies, the classic red, white and black colours, the singing and passionate atmosphere, the all white, predominantly male crowd made you think that this match could have been played 40 years ago – except for the all-seating and the the brandishing of sponsornames all around.