Tonight, Sheffield United visit the KC Stadium, a team whom we have failed to beat at any venue in the League since October 1983, when goals from Brian Marwood (2), Steve McClaren and Les Mutrie crafted a 4-1 win at the Ark. The Blades would laugh last, however, infamously gaining promotion at City’s expense without kicking a ball as the Tigers won 2-0 at Burnley, when only 3-0 would do.
This fixture was the most frequent Yorkshire derby of those mad old, bad old days of high fencing and high police overtime rates. However, after the Blades’ promotion to the top flight in 1990 and the Tigers’ relegation to the third tier a year later, followed by the collapse of quality and sincerity that defined the rest of the 1990s, close to a whole generation of supporters were denied a re-run of those tasty, spiky occasions. Then, in 2005, City won promotion to the Championship, which Sheffield United had rejoined a decade before.
The Blades, under Neil Warnock, paid their first visit to the Circle in January 2006. City, with Peter Taylor at the helm, had enjoyed a mixed time of it in their first season at this level for 15 years, and were not favourites on a bitter winter’s night. Yet the frostiness of the evening was not matched on the pitch and it was, for a good while, the roister-doister of a battle that men in their 40s had missed greatly since the days of being penned in and covered in the purest saliva that Darnall and Ecclesall had to offer.
The Tigers took the lead when Jason Price, so often a player who flattered to deceive, bent a left-footed half-volley around the eyebrowless, ham-gloved Paddy Kenny and celebrated in typically rhythmic fashion in front of E1. He’d scored a ludicrously late – and far less spectacular – winner against Sheffield Wednesday three weeks before and was a genuine flavour of the month with both fans and manager. Inevitably, therefore, Taylor would sell him within a fortnight.
It was such a special goal, worthy of the occasion for both its beauty and its effect on the Sheffield United contingent, an admirably loud, plentiful and snarling bunch far worthier of their team than the less vocal lot dressed in blue and white from the northerly patch of their city. They initially went very quiet, as one does when such a special goal enters your net right in front of you, before responding in kind with some seriously defiant noise. The stadium, frankly, was bedlam, with the Tiger Nation loudly celebrating and the visiting fans loudly encouraging their side – a far more talented outfit, as their league position showed – to get back into it.
And so they did. Luckily, and then controversially. It is the way of things when the game is between these two.
Paul Ifill reached the edge of the City box and tried a shot that may have been on target and may not. We got only a split-second to tell before it spannered off Andy Dawson’s challenging left ankle and did a ridiculous loop the loop with pike, tuck and multiple twist that Boaz Myhill could only stare at from his entirely wrongfooted position. Beard-strokers are still trying to establish whether the shape made defied all geometrical logic. The ball, as befitting the occasion, did not land to the benefit of the Tigers. It dropped into the net.
We’ve conceded many more demoralising goals on an spiritual level, but few goals ever scored against us have been as outright jammy as that one.
The Blades, led by a manager who is both admirable and hateful in equal measure, took control. They also took the piss. Price was fouled in the Sheffield United half, sent flying in fact. The referee assumed any player with an afro must be an effete type and waved play on, allowing the lightning quick Danny Webber to race into the space vacated by the horizontal Price, cut inside and swish one beyond Myhill.
It was 2-1 to the visitors at half time, courtesy of pure fortune and then, well, more pure fortune.
City never really got moving in the second half, and the Blades had it won early on when a counter-attack gave full back Chris Armstrong a free shot at goal, which he promptly put into Myhill’s net.
In the fortnight that followed, Taylor chose not to give Price the new contract he wanted – he said it was a tough decision – and sold him to Doncaster Rovers, cancelling the array of comedy afros that some younger fans had taken to wearing. He later tried to rebrand himself as JJ Price and now, representing a pleasingly timely closure of the circle, is playing for Taylor again at Bradford City having joined on loan from parent club Carlisle United just last week. He still lives in Hull and speaks fondly of his time at the KC.
The return fixture at Bramall Lane later in the season was again to end in defeat but it represented one of those rarely enjoyable reverses that City can conjure up. That’s for a later date. Sheffield United were promoted to the Premier League as runners-up, while City avoided relegation with a modicum of comfort, despite one or two hairy moments in the spring, and Taylor bade farewell. For all his achievements, he continued the run of gaffers unable to beat Sheffield United in the League, and Colin Appleton remains the last to do so. One assumes that Nigel Pearson’s status as an ex-Wednesday skipper will have no bearing on his plotting for tonight’s game, though it does no harm to hope that he harbours breathless hatred for Sheffield United and wishes to beat them for emotional as well as professional reasons.