Hillsborough or Bramall Lane? That, I suspect was the question many were asking themselves as we found ourselves in last season’s League One playoffs, writes Richard Godson.
Once that outcome was determined I, like many I suspect, marked out this weekend’s fixture as the one I particularly wanted to attend. Only a very select few would have witnessed City’s last visit to this “Grand Old Ground” as Gary so aptly described it, more of which later.
Whilst the decision to go was made months ago, my means of getting there was decided with a mere 24 hours left before kick off. The horrendous parking situation near the ground and the dirt cheap rail fare aided by my old codger’s rail card finally convinced me to take the train from Lincoln. For reasons that are not important here, I decided the 11.30 service from Lincoln was the optimum time to travel. From what I have read since, this turned out to be a lucky fluke as I managed to travel in complete comfort on a train which, whilst full, was not overcrowded. As a result I spent a pleasant 90 odd minutes chatting to a couple of lads young enough to be my grandchildren as they polished off four bottles of Corona. Each. When I was their age, Corona was a type of pop you got at your local chippy. Still, times change and the lads seemed none the worse for wear as we arrived in Sheffield having seemingly stopped at every bush along the way.
There still being a couple of hours to kick off, I had already decided I would pass part of that time over a leisurely lunch in the centre of Sheffield and courtesy of Google Earth Streetview, had recced the square in front of the Town Hall and spotted a pub by the name of Browns in one of the few buildings around there not built of concrete and therefore having some character. That will do nicely thought I and having bade farewell to my new grandsons, walked the short distance to the square known, according to Google Earth, as Peace Gardens. Precisely. On arriving inside my chosen watering hole, it turned out to be rather more sophisticated than I had bargained for. One might even say pretentious. You know, the sort of place where beautiful people in designer jeans and crop tops go to quaff ultra-chilled Chardonnay and eat baked camembert (to share), where the staff are obliged to wear starched white ankle length aprons, where beer is served in a stemmed glass and where the ‘optional’ service charge is added to the bill and requires you to take it off if you don’t feel it’s merited. That sort of place. Still, never one to pull out prematurely and having been met by the most charming Maîtress D’, I opted to remain and perused the menu. Alarm bells began to ring when an anxious look crossed my hostess’s face as I told her I had an allergic reaction to garlic. “Oh dear sir. I’m afraid pretty much everything apart from the steaks has garlic in it.”
“What, even the fish pie?”
“And the beef and Guinness pie?”
“That too I’m afraid.”
I chose the rib eye and when asked how I wanted it cooked, resisted the urge to ask her to remove the cow’s horns, wipe its arse and stick it on a plate. She was far too nice for that particular boorish demand and I requested rare. Served with a stainless steel bucket of fries and half a handful of rather limp rocket, the steak itself was cooked perfectly and very tender indeed. The beer was expensive and hoppy but I imagine the rent and rates on the building are extortionate and you have to make a profit if you are to survive or indeed thrive. Nor did I begrudge the service charge as those who served me were friendly, attentive and courteous to a fault. Were it not for the garlic laden menu I’d go back there in an instant. I made my way to the nearest bus stop. A smattering of Imps scarves and woolly hats told me I had found the right one. The atmosphere on the bus was raucous without being over boisterous; a few tuneless songs but no trouble thankfully. I saw none in the city centre either which was why I was surprised when I read of it after the event.
Gary wrote of this “Grand Old Stadium”. I wouldn’t argue with that but my impression was of faded glory, of much of the lustre having rubbed off, a tarnished silver tankard in urgent need of a good polishing. Actually, I think it is rather more serious than that. When I compare the away end with other large grounds I’ve visited recently, Ricoh Arena, Coventry; St Andrews, Birmingham; Stadium of Light, Hillsborough doesn’t come off well. I thought the Railway Stand at St Andrews was pretty grim but it was positively capacious compared with the West Stand at Hillsborough. 1,100 fans as opposed to 3,170 might be contributory factor, however. As I approached the turnstiles some cursory searches were being carried out, with a few supporters waiting patiently in line but I simply walked by. So much for security.
The upper tier concourse was a press of humanity and neither feeling the need to offload my lunchtime beer nor refuel at the bar, I made my way to my seat. The stairway from the concourse was narrow to say the least and I wouldn’t fancy getting out in a hurry in the event of an emergency. The players, in their smart looking third training tops were finishing their warm up and left the field to loud applause from those watching, returning the compliment as they did so. They could hear us which I put down as a definite positive. We may have been in the upper tier but we were half the distance from the action than at Sunderland. At half time I discovered the Gents’ lavatories are poorly designed, which I put down to the overall age and poor standard of the entire stand. It was built in the early sixties, ready for the 1966 World Cup and while there are those who sing the praises of ‘old school’ grounds I’m at that stage in life when I want my modern comforts and conveniences.
As for the game, well, it was Wednesday who looked cautious and uncertain and the Imps who played with confidence and having that extra half yard of pace. The defence looked solid enough with Lewis Montsma particularly impressing me and I was glad to see Regan Poole back. Lewis has improved game by game as the season has progressed and this was his best so far in my eyes. I also thought the midfield trio looked much more comfortable and assertive. Much as Bishop and McGrandles deserve praise for the first hour at least, I want to single out Lasse Sorensen in particular. I consider he has taken time to settle in and adjust to his new team but he grows in confidence and effectiveness as each week passes. Whereas in his first few games, I felt he was prone to lose possession, on Saturday by contrast, he was winning it and I am optimistic that he is developing into a pivotal player and potential game winner. Up front dare I say it, we miss Tom Hopper and I just hope when he does return in the new year that he acclimatises quickly and adds some much needed sharpness to our attack. Don’t get me wrong, Fiorini, Scully and Maguire (himself a former Wednesday player, I think) worked hard throughout but let’s face it, Peacock-Farrell was equal to everything they threw at him.
As for the equaliser, anyone in the away end had a bird’s eye view and having also seen the replay from a couple of angles, Darren Moore’s suggestion there might have been some blocking that allowed Montsma the freedom to make his brilliant glancing header was frankly disingenuous. Our centre back showed great presence of mind in evading his marker, first backing off and then advancing at an angle towards and beyond the near post before rising perfectly to meet Maguire’s kick. Shortly after, I noticed a smoke bomb had been let off, not realising at that point that it had been thrown. Whoever did, needs his or her head examining although I doubt there would be more than a couple of brain cells inside if anyone were to look.
By the way, I like the third kit. In particular the numbers on the back stand out far better than on either of the regular shirts, making identifying players from a distance with ageing eyes much easier.
On leaving the ground, a line of stewards and mounted police was arrayed with the possible intention of directing away fans in a particular direction away from the shortest route to the nearest bus stop. Not wearing any City colours, I was able merely to walk past the horses unchallenged. Nothing heavy handed here, but perhaps, given my advancing years, I don’t present a threat. Moreover, I felt perfectly safe walking along and standing in the bus queue with a number of home supporters. I will add that any stewards I did encounter were friendly and helpful, which when you are friendly and polite too them, most always are.
Should we have gone on to win and did we deserve to? Possibly, according to a Wednesday supporter with whom I chatted in the bus queue afterwards. He was at the corresponding game 44 years and a day before and was quick to remind me that Wednesday won 3 – 1 at Sincil Bank that same season. I suspect however, I am not unlike most Imps fans in having approached the game with low expectations and having come away relieved and pleasantly surprised with a point. Someone else remarked to me that we seem to alternate good and bad performances at the moment and on this basis, Wigan looks to be tough prospect (which given our relative positions in the table is hardly breaking news), after which we should see off Shrewsbury but need to beware of a banana skin in the FA Cup.
Make of that what you will.