This was football’s equivalent of soul food. An afternoon to feel good and be thankful for the fact that 150 years ago a group of barmy enthusiasts marked out a football pitch, split themselves into two teams and lumped a heavy bundle of leather and string around. And that people liked it.
At Sandygate Road, one of the most beautiful grounds I’ve visited, the world’s two oldest clubs played out an end-to-end game replete with chances and in doubt right until the final whistle. From the vintage souvenir programme cover to the brutal slope in the pitch which made attacking uphill treacherous, the afternoon was a great reminder of how the city of Sheffield gave birth to and nurtured the national game, ultimately giving it to every country in the world.
These two sides may have been usurped long ago in the battle for the city’s affections and both languish in non-league – Hallam had suffered relegation to the NCEL Division One a week earlier, the sixth step of the non-league game – but you could only marvel about their longevity. If you formed an institution today, what are the chances it would be around in 150 years’ time?
Chatting to the two club chairman on the field after the match, it was nice to hear the optimism that both clubs will endure another for many, many years to come yet. Hallam’s chairman is the former Premier League official Uriah Rennie and he was encouraged by the number of children at the game, indicating a potential future fanbase. Rennie was the official in the first match I ever attended – Boston United vs. Morecambe in the FA Cup first round back in November 1996 (a 3-0 Boston win if anyone remembers it) – and as a stupid seven-year-old I remember being impressed that he was a karate black belt and hoping one of the players would get karate chopped if they stepped out of line! You still wouldn’t mess with him.
Sheffield FC chairman Alan Methley was also encouraged by the day – which drew about 500 fans, including groups of intrepid travellers from Finland and the United States – and with a very rare rule book from 1858, the year after their foundation, about to go under the hammer at Sotheby’s (estimate £800,000-£1.2million) their future looks bright.
The game was a football collector’s dream – the four-page programme in 18th century style and colourful, souvenir ticket (albeit with Boxing Day’s date, when the match should have been played) were accompanied by a special, large-size brochure produced by Hallam, a more thorough historical booklet and the usual pin badges to commemorate the occasion.
I was also chatting to Karl Smout, who has written a blog post about the Youdan Cup, which was the first football trophy and won by Hallam in 1867. He opened the conversation: “Do you watch much non-league football?” I couldn’t stifle a giggle before replying: “As a Boston fan, sadly I have to!” He did mention an item in his programme collection – a friendly/testimonial (can’t remember the player’s name) between Boston United and Peterborough United from the mid-1980s – which I don’t have in my collection, or had even heard about. I bloody hate it when that happens!
Sheffield, kicking down the hill, made the brighter start, forcing a couple of saves from Hallam goalkeeper Adam Valente, but couldn’t make use of this considerable advantage and allowed the hosts back into the game. I guess Hallam are used to defending on the ‘lower’ half of the pitch and have worked out the best way to adapt their style.
The game was still scoreless deep into the second-half, before a flurry of goals brought it to life in the last 15 minutes. Craig Getliff let fly from the edge of the box to find the top corner and give Hallam the lead, before Jack Smith stalked forward unmarked from defence to level for Sheffield, or ‘Club’ as they are known.
The Evo-Stik Division One club now had all the momentum and, minutes after seeing Tom Roebuck’s close-range finish disallowed for offside, they won the match in the 89th minute through Charlie Tunnard, collecting a very impressive Alan Cooper Memorial Trophy.
Cracking day all round. And the last ground in Sheffield ticked off.