And so my Sheffield stadium tour led inevitably to Hillsborough, which remains a striking monument to the game even in its 111th year and is surely one of the most atmospheric venues in England. The Wednesday Tango band, with its tootling brass instruments and deep, ominous drum, might be as divisive as Marmite but on nights like this, when every beat echoed off the patches of empty blue seats on the Kop, their worth in creating a booming atmosphere for what seems a mundane occasion is obvious.
Since previous visits to Bramall Lane far outnumbered trips to Hillsborough, I tried to redress the balance by joining a gaggle of friends made so far at university in attending the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy second round ‘derby’ with Chesterfield. Johnstone’s Paint Trophy? Chesterfield? Derby? Many people would turn their noses up at the mere suggestion but it turned out to be one of the most gripping matches I’ve ever seen. I also have a new hero in Nicky Weaver – who would have thought that?
Ducking and diving between a hectic schedule of lectures and seminars, we found a quiet couple of hours and darted up to the stadium in the morning, optimistic that the well-publicised concessionary seats of £2.50 and £5 would be abundantly available. Sadly, we were mistaken. “Prices went up to £10 for all tickets yesterday at 5pm, so your student card won’t be any use,” we were told by a dry-tongued Megastore employee. What a bizarre way of operating. Like they were ever going to sell out. You would think they were in some kind of financial difficulty or something. Well, we destitute students thought, we’ve come this far so let’s take a punt. Thank goodness we did.
The JP Trophy is much-maligned, usually seen as little more than a nuisance for managers already trying to juggle threadbare squads in a marathon 46-game league. It changes sponsor every two years and has weird early kick-off times so fans can get away from the scene as soon as possible. If the carrot of a Wembley appearance at the season’s end wasn’t in place, it would be a glorified reserve team cup. Boston used to field a second string in this competition, which just about says it all. Even Sky were embarrassed to be there, having noticed at short notice the small print in their Football League contrast required live coverage of a match from both regions each round.
I believe the Trophy could be spiced up by adding a Europa League place for the winners. Imagine the irrepressible smiles on the faces of folk from Macclesfield or *insert any generic lower league outpost* waiting to see which Eastern Bloc country they will be travelling to on a balmy evening in late July. Macc in Moldova, Rotherham drawn away in Riga, Stockport travelling to Skopje. Ok, ok, it was a stupid idea...
But you would have thought a place in group stages of the Champions League was at stake by the approach of these two sides to this contest. High octane and often gung-ho, the first-half was played out with a rhythm almost in tandem with the incessant Kop drumming. Wednesday’s season was all here, in a neat little vignette: confident when in possession, zipping the ball around and beyond their League Two opponents on the bowling green surface, but then looking dangerously susceptible to direct runs from midfield and all-too-often guilty of leaving acres of room for Chesterfield’s greedy attack to exploit.
Inevitably then, the visitors took the lead through Dean Morgan after ten minutes, only for Neil Mellor to restore parity with a tap-in almost instantly. Chesterfield, roared on by 4,000 fans who packed the upper tier of the away end, tested Weaver, the former Manchester City and Charlton Athletic stopper, on a couple of occasions and also reduced Wednesday to half-chances.
Remarkably, the second period continued at the same pace, with chances continuing to flow and the atmosphere, by now happily resorting to vitriol against the ‘swine’ on the other side of the city, grew and grew. The decisive action, however, didn’t arrive until the last ten: nerves had risen with the noise and when Craig Davies, who had a brilliant game, restored Chesterfield’s lead there was a palpable attitude of resignation. But Alan Irvine has introduced some measure of Scottish substance and the local hero Marcus Tudgay snatched an equaliser in the nick of time – following up his own penalty, which had been blocked by Tommy Lee.
And so to penalties. I racked my brain to see if I had ever seen a live penalty shoot-out. Certainly not at United, though I did vaguely recall a United Counties League Cup match at Boston Town when I was told off by an official for pulling distracting faces at the opposition penalty takers and forced to move to one side of the goal. It seems daft now. The shoot-out was a marathon in itself, with both teams going through their entire teams. It wasn’t exactly a masterclass in the art either, with Wednesday missing no less than three times, only to be rescued by the redoubtable Weaver. Even from 30 rows back, you could see him puffing out his cheeks after seeing his team-mate miss. ‘Oh, fine then. Leave it to me. AS USUAL. Tsk tsk.’ To cap a fine display, he then converted the decisive kick, sparking delirious scenes and that very Wednesday habit of the mini pitch invasion. Ace.
What a night. I’ll certainly be back.
Next Match: Hyde FC vs. Boston United (Saturday)