The Last Word: Sheffield steeled for high-tensile struggle

The chances are that one Sheffield club will be promoted, the other doomed to the play-offs

So now we enter the final rounds, when the spent pugilists have so tenuous a toehold on the escarpment of belief and perseverance that they resort to that strangely amorous clinch, bound together by a glimpse of the oblivion below. This is the time when managers want character, not characters. They emphatically do not want the sort of player who invites the administration of "every day maybe one punch to your head".

In some cases, the closing weeks of the season are all about vertigo. Down at the other end, it is sooner a case of fighting claustrophobia. In one city, however, it is a sickening blend of the two. If they think the stakes are high in Manchester, they should pop over the Pennines – pausing briefly to help clear the snow at Headingley, and so encourage an experimental January start for the County Championship next season – and sample the tension in Sheffield.

For few sleeping giants have endured quite the nightmares that have united Wednesday and United in the third tier of British football. The gilded, canopied silk bedding of their great days has been reduced to a fetid, flea-infested mattress upon which the snoring titans clasp each other, muttering and drooling. Both have now awoken to the smell of burning, however, and perceived that there may only be time for one of them to prise their way through a narrow aperture to safety.

Now you should always be a little wary about yielding to an instinct of affection, for any team, purely on grounds of history. For one thing, in many cases it is precisely their sense of entitlement that has caused owners to bring down great clubs through foolish, flimsy ambition. Moreover, the distasteful corollary is that Wigan, say, have no place in the Premier League – when each and every right-thinking football fan will surely be wishing their dauntless young manager the very best in trying to outplay Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal in his next three fixtures.

Having said all that, you can only grieve for a city that manifestly warrants a return to the game's elite. Between them, the Sheffield clubs have won seven FA Cups and five times been champions of England. Given the burden of that history, and the intensity of their rivalry, it is hard to believe that the stress median in Manchester just now can remotely approach that of the Steel City.

In February, Wednesday beat United in front of 36,364 at Hillsborough. With Charlton gone beyond recall, United were now denying their neighbours the second automatic promotion spot by just two points. Even so, Milan Mandaric promptly sacked the Wednesday manager, Gary Megson. Dave Jones has since won five, drawn two, and lost none – and just been named manager of the month – but the clubs are still slugging it out, still divided by two points. Huddersfield could yet intrude, but the chances are that one Sheffield club will be promoted automatically, and the other doomed to a barely retrievable psychological deficit in the play-offs.

The Blades were in the Premier League as recently as 2007, and remain bitterly aggrieved about the Carlos Tevez business at West Ham. But it is nobody else's fault that they have since continued to live beyond their means. After squandering their "parachute" money on Bryan Robson, who duly proved incompetent to pull the cord, they did get as far as the play-off final the following season but lost to Burnley. Kevin McCabe kept piling up the chips on red, however, taking a brazen punt on promotion by underwriting a wage bill apparently predicated on the revenues of Real Madrid.

He ended up reporting the biggest losses in the whole Championship, and last season came the final ignominy in relegation. McCabe then hired a former Wednesday man, Danny Wilson, as his fourth manager in 10 months – and he is making a decent fist of getting them back into the Championship at the first attempt.

As for Wednesday, they were relegated from the Premier League in 2000. Crippled with debt, the Owls dropped again on the last day of the 2009-10 season. A club founded in 1867 stood on the brink of extinction before Mandaric stepped in. You could see his thinking, all right, but he expects – demands – the club to be punching its weight sooner rather than later.

So it is, during a run-in that starts with a critical showdown with Huddersfield today, that Jones must exorcise a previous club's serial failures to see out the season. To be fair, whatever the reasons for his various anticlimaxes there, Jones unmistakably transformed Cardiff, and did so on a shoestring budget. He looks a very good bet.

The derby could yet take place in the Championship next season. Dignity is not always about formal status, of course. On Boxing Day 1979, a crowd of 49,309 saw Wednesday beat their neighbours 4-0 at Hillsborough – a record attendance for the Third Division. The past should always fortify these clubs, not oppress them. Here and now, all they need is nerves of steel.

Jeremy Clarkson
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