Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United dream of Wembley as FA Cup brings a welcome ray of hope back to the Steel City

United and Wednesday managers tell Simon Hart that fans on both sides of Sheffield want to stay in the competition

Winter sun shone over Sheffield’s seven hills on Thursday. A waterlogged pitch had claimed his side’s home fixture against Brentford the previous evening, but as Nigel Clough, the Sheffield United manager, turned his focus to the FA Cup at their Shirecliffe training ground, it seemed only fitting there should be a break in the clouds. For United, the lowest-ranked club still standing, the old pot has provided a shaft of light for supporters amid the gloom of a League One survival scrap. As Clough, reflecting on the scalps of Aston Villa and Fulham, noted: “It’s put a smile on their faces.”

This weekend’s fifth-round bill includes heavyweight contests at the Emirates and Etihad, with Arsenal hosting Liverpool and Manchester City facing Chelsea, but the place to be for the undiluted flavour of the FA Cup, to see its alchemical properties truly at work, is the Steel City. In a season pockmarked by awful starts, managerial sackings and relegation anxieties for both Sheffield teams, a combined 50,000 people will head down to Hillsborough and Bramall Lane with a collective spring in their step.

Today Wednesday take on Championship strugglers Charlton; tomorrow United, third bottom of League One, welcome Nottingham Forest. There is genuine hope that for the first time since 1993, when they met in the semi-finals, both teams could end the weekend in the hat for the last eight. “I think all of Sheffield is hoping for a Sheffield quarter-final,” said Clough.

The FA Cup may have been the one major honour that eluded his father Brian – and Clough Jnr was in the Forest side beaten in the 1991 final by Tottenham Hotspur – but he regards it with an old-timer’s respect. “Apart from the big boys in the early rounds, I still think this means as much as anything,” he said. “You try and get a semi-final ticket and then you’ll see what this competition means.”

Managing Sheffield hopes: United’s Nigel Clough Managing Sheffield hopes: United’s Nigel Clough (Getty Images) Survival in League One “is the biggest priority by far” but Clough welcomes the distraction of the Cup. “We don’t see it as a hindrance but a help,” he said. “Somebody said this morning that the last thing we want is a replay but I will take a replay over getting knocked out. We want to stay in the competition.”

It was a view echoed across the city by his Wednesday counterpart, Stuart Gray. “We’ve played Macclesfield, we’ve played Rochdale and I’ve played the strongest team I can, possibly because I was brought up as a child watching the FA Cup and with the excitement it generates among fans. I’ve got a few foreign boys here and I asked them if they realised what the FA Cup means. After we got the win at Rochdale, they could understand the importance of it.”

In both the blue and red halves of Sheffield, the first part of this season was the stuff of nightmares. Wednesday had to wait until 2 November for their first league victory; United won just one of their opening 11 league fixtures and responded by replacing David Weir with Clough. Wednesday gave Dave Jones more time but dismissed him eventually in December, with the club second bottom of the Championship.

United and Wednesday were founder members of the Premier League and have seven FA Cups between them. Despite their troubles, for Clough this remains a big football city. “It’s amazing that it supports two football clubs of such size,” he said. Wednesday have the Championship’s sixth-highest average attendance – 21,237 – while only Wolverhampton Wanderers surpass United’s 16,987 average in League One. And if United’s fans are known for their glass-half-empty approach, they made themselves heard at Villa Park and Craven Cottage in the previous rounds with noisy renditions of the “Greasy Chip Butty Song” – an ode to the joys of a night out in Sheffield, to the tune of John Denver’s “Annie’s Song”. “You feel on a supporter base that you are an equal,” added Clough. “It helps tremendously.”

United’s Cup feats – successive away victories at Colchester United, Cambridge United, Villa and Fulham –are remarkable when you consider that they have won just once in 14 away league fixtures. “We have ridden our luck in the Cup at times but you have to do that. We certainly haven’t had a break in the league,” Clough said.

Now for a home tie with in-form Forest, a game lent added intrigue by Clough’s City Ground connections. His last match before his sacking by Derby County in September was a 1-0 defeat by Forest and there is no love lost between him and Billy Davies. Clough is more concerned with the puzzle of translating United’s Cup form to the league. “Maybe we have the sort of team that aren’t better than League One but find it easier to deal with what Villa and Fulham throw at you than what we get week in, week out in League One.”

The Cup has brought the best out of Ryan Flynn, the Scottish winger who won two FA Youth Cups with Liverpool and scored a brilliant individual goal to beat Villa. “That was definitely my most special goal,” said Flynn, adding: “When we get the ball down, we have got good players and do create chances and we are just managing to take a few in these FA Cup games.”

While United were FA Cup semi-finalists last in 2003, Wednesday have not been to a quarter-final since 1997 or to Wembley since 1993, the year they finished runners-up in both domestic cup competitions under Trevor Francis. They have since had two spells in League One. Reflecting on their decline, Steve Walmsley, a Sheffield Star columnist, said: “You thought we were on our way to being one of the top seven or eight clubs in the country, with 30-odd thousand gates at home. It’s amazing how bad management at a football club can just ruin it. One of the daftest decisions Wednesday ever made was sacking Trevor Francis for finishing 13th in the Premier League [in 1995]. It’s been a downward path ever since.”

And unlike United, who secured fresh investment last September when owner Kevin McCabe sold a 50 per cent stake in the club to Saudi Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, Wednesday have a team of loanees and free signings as owner Milan Mandaric continues to look for a buyer.

After eight weeks in caretaker charge, Gray had his promotion from first-team coach confirmed after the fourth-round success at Rochdale and has reaped the benefits of bringing back forward Chris Maguire – frozen out by Jones – and switching Kieran Lee to a central midfield role.

“We’ve got a bit of self-belief but we haven’t achieved anything – all we’ve done is get out of the bottom three,” said the 53-year-old. That said, a victory today would provide a rare whiff of Wembley. “One thing it does is it allows the fans to dream,” he added – and in Sheffield these days that is not something to sniff at.

Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Voices
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Sport
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
football
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths
Life and Style
life
Sport
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
News
Amazon misled consumers about subscription fees, the ASA has ruled
news
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn