Sheffield United: Folklore & Fables John Garrett 9th March 2020

Football is 60% abil­ity and 40% sur­vival”  —  Derek Dooley

 Earlier this season I tried to get tick­ets for a ‘Blades’ match to treat my eldest grand­son.  Not having the required vouch­ers, my attempt was declined.   So instead, we went to Chesterfield to watch the ‘Spirites’ play ‘my’ team Woking: a highly com­pet­it­ive 1–2 result in the National League played in front of 4000 (OAP ticket £12, child £5).  As far as I know, United have never played Woking, but they do have common bonds: by coin­cid­ence both clubs cel­eb­rate their 131st birth­days this year, both were ‘com­munity’ clubs and both share red, white and black as their team col­ours.

 Even if we rarely go to live foot­ball, it is funny how many of us retain our boy­hood interest in our ‘home’ team, even if cir­cum­stances have taken us else­where. By con­trast, our speaker this week, John Garrett, has stayed proudly put in his native city sup­port­ing ‘The Blades’ all his life.   He has worked for this famous club in vari­ous roles over 24 years and vis­ited 148 grounds in the pro­cess.  He is cur­rently work­ing as Heritage Manager , writ­ing reg­u­lar con­tri­bu­tion to match pro­grammes.  He has been the driv­ing force for set­ting up the ’Blades’ Museum.  To attract vis­it­ors, he thought the Council should be much more ima­gin­at­ive in pro­mot­ing the City’s foot­ball his­tory.  Starting on a ”low salary but with free admis­sion to matches”, John had seen the club from many angles: its downs and recent ups and these, in the form of facts, folk­lore and fables, he was to share in abund­ance.

John began his talk by recount­ing how foot­ball had been a tread in his family life over four gen­er­a­tions.  Anyone coming to Sheffield soon becomes aware of the strong rival­ries between avian owls and sharpened swords. Loyalties within work­places and fam­il­ies are often strained.  When, as a young lady, his mother’s family sup­por­ted the other city team, she hes­it­ated to fulfil a date. John’s father was kept wait­ing out­side ‘Cole’s corner’ for three hours! His family’s exper­i­ences reflect that rivalry.  But over the years there has, in fact, been much inter­change –play­ers, man­agers, nick­names and even owners -and cooper­a­tion between the clubs in such areas as shar­ing a ground and avoid­ing clashes of match dates.

Having writ­ten two books on the sub­ject, our speaker went on to out­line the City’s and Club’s foot­balling his­tory. The game has deep roots loc­ally and Sheffield can boast a number of soccer ‘firsts’.  Recognised as the oldest foot­ball club in the world Sheffield FC (who now play in Dronfield) was foun­ded in 1857, while Hallam FC, foun­ded in 1860, still play at the same ground in Crosspool.  It was sponsored by the now defunct “The Plough” Inn oppos­ite who provided chan­ging facil­it­ies.  Sheffield Wednesday began in 1867 and Sheffield United fol­lowed in 1889.   Both teams were to go on to be founder mem­bers of the Football league, United being a pion­eer in such areas as the pro­vi­sion of toi­lets, refresh­ment facil­it­ies, pneu­matic turn­stiles, fixed cross­bars, whistles and even flood­light­ing! (A ‘night’ match attrac­ted 20,000 in 1878, receipts £890).   Their record recor­ded attend­ance is 68000 in 1936 when Leeds United were the vis­it­ors. The ground has hosted cricket Test matches, the first foot­ball inter­na­tional and major non-sporting  events over the years ran­ging from  ‘ pop’ con­certs to Billy Graham. The Club was a leader in the for­mu­la­tion of the uni­ver­sally accep­ted rules of today, which had one time varied between cities and coun­tries.

As the city indus­tri­al­ised — espe­cially from about 1860 onwards- there was a grow­ing need for recre­ation and fresh air.  Both major clubs had their roots in attempts to remedy this. , As so often in Victorian times, it was Church and Temperance influ­ences, wealthy bene­fact­ors coupled with com­munity self- help that got things moving.  Another factor was the wish of the crick­et­ing fra­tern­ity to have a winter sport.  It fol­lowed that Sheffield United had its ori­gins in the Cricket club (foun­ded 1854) of the same name.  The inaug­ural meet­ing was at the Adelphi Hotel (on the site of the present Crucible Theatre) on 22nd March 1889, presided over by local soli­citor and former player Sir William Clegg (who is buried in Fulwood Churchyard). He was also President of ‘Wednesday FC’, the prefix ‘Sheffield’ being added in 1929.

In the earli­est years, United played their matches at nearby Sheaf House and Wednesday closeby at Olive Grove (now a Council Depot).  This is across the rail­way and almost oppos­ite the Earl of Arundel and Surrey pub on Queen’s Road (now a bike shop), where teams changed. The site, then on the south­ern edge of the town, was leased from the Duke of Norfolk but in the late 1890s was sold to provide space for the Midland Railway ‘widen­ings’, which quad­rupled tracks to Totley junc­tion after the tunnel was built.  For a time, the two clubs shared United’s ground at Bramhall Lane (also shared with the Cricket club) but fell out over gate receipts and rent.  Wednesday moved to their present Hillsborough ground in 1899.  ‘Derby’ matches, as now, some­times caused much fric­tion and on at least on one occa­sion troops had to be summoned to restore order!

John moved on to sketch through United’s play­ing his­tory. He reminded us that Blades, have not won a major trophy since 1925.  He thought that the club’s heyday was between 1895 and 1925 under man­ager John Nicholson.  They were League Champions 1897–8 and won the FA cup four times in 1899, 1902, 1915 and 1925, plus twice run­ners up. Since then, and des­pite pro­du­cing the likes of Tony Currie and Derek Dooley, the club had played in all four leagues and exper­i­enced a yo-yo of pro­mo­tions and releg­a­tions under vari­ous man­agers, the nadir period being 1975 to 1981.

Bringing us up to date, things began to change for the better around 2013. On September 13th of that year Saudi Prince Abdullah Bin Musa’ad bought a 50%  stake in United’s parent com­pany, Blade’s Leisure Ltd, for £1. The Prince has kept his prom­ise to provide ‘sub­stan­tial new cap­ital’ with a view to return­ing the club to the Premier League. There fol­lowed a series of legal dis­putes with past owners, now hope­fully resolved as suc­cess has begun to flow.  Since Chris Wilder was appoin­ted man­ager in 2016 the dream has been real­ised: the club has come back to life by secur­ing pro­mo­tion to the Premier League on 28th April 2019.  As I write, the ‘Blades’ sit in sixth pos­i­tion above the like of Spurs, Arsenal and Manchester United and may qual­ify for European com­pet­i­tion next  season.

In foot­ball, the last ten minutes can be fren­etic as teams fight to seal the match.  As our speaker kept to exactly 45 minutes there was no need for the Chairman’s final whistle.   We were treated to ten minutes of extra time in the form of ques­tions stim­u­lated by an excel­lent present­a­tion given without notes or visual aids.  These ranged from the future of womens’ foot­ball (excel­lent, sup­port and media interest grow­ing rap­idly), why teams were made up of eleven play­ers (even number plus goal­keeper), Derek Dooley’s leg ampu­ta­tion, and how did Kevin Macabe com­pare with Alan Sugar?  There was no pitch inva­sion but it was quite a match and mem­bers left the ground buzz­ing.

It was sug­ges­ted after­wards that a visit might be arranged ‘behind the scenes’ at Bramhall Lane and to the Sheffield United Museum which John had done so much to develop.  All fol­lowed by lunch at the Blades Restaurant. I can vouch for the excel­lent roast beef!