Confessions of a Sheffield turncoat

On derby day, Wednesdayite Terry Curran says joining United was his biggest mistake, writes Simon Hart

Sunday 16 October 2011 00:00

Hark now hear the Wednesday sing..." The reworking of "Mary's Boy Child" will hold a special resonance when the voices of over 4,000 Sheffield Wednesday supporters send it echoing around Bramall Lane today.

The song, after all, recalls Wednesday's 4-0 rout of neighbours Sheffield United at Hillsborough on 26 December 1979 – a match known in Yorkshire football lore as the Boxing Day Massacre.

It was the first Steel City derby in the third tier and produced a record divisional attendance of 49,309, a crowd that, in the words of a contemporary BBC report, "must have been a happy reminder of the days when Sheffield had two First Division teams worthy of their tremendous support".

Spool forward three decades and the same sentiment applies to clubs who were founder Premier League members and have five League titles and seven FA Cups between them. For the first time since 1979-80, the Blades and Owls are together on the third rung of the ladder, and meet in a midday derby given extra spice by the presence in the home dug-out of Danny Wilson – a member of Wednesday's 1991 League Cup-winning team and the manager at Hillsborough from 1998-2000.

He is the first man to manage both clubs. One man who does not envy him is the former Wednesday favourite Terry Curran. The hero of the Boxing Day Massacre knows all about crossing Sheffield's great divide and still regards his 1982 defection to United as the "biggest regret" of his colourful career. "The fans didn't take to me," Curran recalledthis week. "It didn't work and I never felt comfortable there. Some of the players were OK [but] some weren't."

In Wilson's case, a small protest greeted his appointment in May but the Wigan-born manager oversaw a bright start, with five wins from six League games. Yet home losses to Huddersfield and Charlton have followed, and Curran insists that "it is not going to work. The fans don't want him there. It proved a point when there was a demonstration. A couple more bad results and they're going to be on Danny's back and theplayers' backs."

As an Everton player, Curran experienced the mood on Merseyside in derby week and draws a comparison with the "more aggressive" Sheffield rivalry. To use the broadest of brushstrokes, United could be Sean Bean to Wednesday's Jarvis Cocker – one a bit of rough, the other a bit whimsical, and the two just don't get on. "I was going with John Bailey to his mates' houses in Liverpool and the banter was something you wouldn't get at Wednesday-United. They don't talk. It is hatred."

In fairness to Wilson, though, he was not Public Enemy No 1 when he arrived at Bramall Lane. The Boxing Day Massacre is commemorated in a framed photo-montage on Curran's living-room wall and the lifelong Wednesdayite – he dropped down two divisions from Southamptonto join them – is only too happy remembering a match in which he scored one goal, set up another and won a penalty. "There hadn't been a derby for eight years, it was Christmas time and there were nearly 50,000 there." After netting with a diving header, he did his bit to wind up the Unitedites. "I got on my knees in front of the United fans and they were pelting me with coins."

Curran, who also hit a solo effort in that season's 1-1 draw at Bramall Lane, finished as the Third Division's top scorer as Wednesday won promotion. Such was his cult status he even recorded a version of "Singing The Blues". "They still play it to this day. I can't sing – it is amazing what they can do in the studio. I ended up with a fan club as well as making a record – not many players in the Third Division do that."

Now coaching the Under-11s at Doncaster Rovers – the first of his 13 clubs – Curran no longer has the curly mullet and moustache of yesteryear. Time has given the 56-year-old a perspective on the rash decisions of his youth. "I wanted to upset Jack," he says of the disagreements with Jack Charlton over Wednesday's long-ball game and transfer policy that prompted his cross-city switch. He also moved on from Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest and Howard Kendall's Everton because he was unhappy at being out of the team. "You need a bit of luck and I didn't get it at the right time. At Forest, I was playing out of my skin when I got a bad injury that put me out for six months; the same thing happened at Everton."

Regrets is the proposed title for the autobiography he is working on, and his beloved Wednesday have had a few too. While United were last in the top flight in 2006-07, Wednesday have not been back since 2000, when Wilson was sacked before relegation came. Their fall was the product, Curran argues, of "bad management and buying bad players", pointing to David Pleat, who broke up Wednesday's early-Nineties team, and Wilson, who signed underperforming imports.

Yet Wednesday enter today's game on a wave of optimism after their best start for 21 years. Milan Mandaric's takeover last year averted administration and Gary Megson, Mandaric's replacement for Alan Irvine, has steered them to as high as second place in League One. "Megson is a step in the right direction," says Curran of his old team-mate.

After 1980, no Sheffield League derby took place until the two clubs were back in the top division. Can both rise again? "Yes, because they are big clubs. [It's about] right management. Nobody has a divine right to be in any league, but when you look at the job [Roberto] Martinez does at Wigan and you see Wednesday and United in the third tier of football, they are big clubs." Wednesday and United have League One's top-two average attendances, and by Thursday morning Wednesday had sold 9,000 tickets for a "beam back" derby screening at Hillsborough. "Wednesday are the bigger club of the two, make no mistake," Curran adds, still not afraid to upset the neighbours.

Sheffield United v Sheffield Wednesday kicks off at 12pm today

Curran and Co: the ones who doubled up

Terry Curran is one of 26 players to have played League football for both Sheffield clubs since 1945. His combined total of 158 League appearances – 125 for Wednesday, 33 for United – has been surpassed by only five other players who have represented the two clubs in that time, among them current Blades defender Leigh Bromby.

United manager Danny Wilson made 98 League appearances for Wednesday between 1990 and '92 and was in their 1991 League Cup-winning team. He took over as manager at Hillsborough in summer 1998 but was sacked in March 2000 with the club on the brink of relegation from the Premier League.

Wednesday and United are the two best-supported clubs in League One, with average attendances this season of 18,917 and 17,677 respectively.

Simon Hart

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