This weekend saw me take in a League One game between two former Premier League teams at Bramall Lane, Sheffield United and Charlton Athletic, who were both relegated from the top flight in 2006-07. That was the infamous season when Carlos Tevez scored at Old Trafford on the final day of the season to keep West Ham up and sink Sheffield United, condemning them to the Championship. The controversy surrounding the Tevez deal, and the registration rules it broke, still rankles with the Blades faithful. Four years after the that the club dropped into the third tier where they have competed ever since. Fortunately for them, things appear to be looking up this season, with the club eight points clear at the top of the League One table going into the game. Only a major capitulation between now and the end of the season would prevent an almost certain promotion.
The situation isn’t so rosy at The Valley, where Charlton are marooned in the no-mans-land of mid-table. The club have somewhat yo-yoed since their relegation from the Premier League in 2007, and in Roland Duchatelet have a bizarre owner that is wildly unpopular with the fan base.
I’d been threatening to see the Blades for a long while, as a family member is a Sheffield native and life long fan. At a recent family party, after a few alcoholic beverages, the subject of football inevitably cropped up and before you know it he was booking match and train tickets on his phone.
The train left Manchester Piccadilly at 11.20 and in less than an hour later we were across the Pennines and in Sheffield. The weather was gloomy and wet, making this Manchester native feel immediately at ease. We had a few pints on Division Street, which reminded me of Manchester’s Northern Quarter, before making the short walk to the ground. We just about had time for a quick one in The Cricketer’s Arms, at the back of the stadium’s Bramall Lane End, before entering at the opposite end just in time for the famous “Greasy Chip Butty” anthem which was impressive.
Charlton ripped up the proverbial form book, taking the lead after three minutes through a Ricky Holmes free-kick and dominating the opening spell of the game. At this point I was feeling slightly light-headed, having not eaten since 8am and having knocked back a few pints. A chicken balti pie and chips, smothered in Henderson’s sauce, sorted me right out.
Backed by almost 23,308 home fans, Sheffield United gradually turned the tide and began to play some good football. Mark Duffy was a pleasure to watch and superb behind the front two, controlling the game and looking like the best player on the pitch by a mile. The fair hair, diminutive stature and style of play reminded me of Paul Scholes somewhat, or perhaps that was the influence of the beer. The reward for the home team’s increasing domination came after 14 minutes when Jack O’Connell equalised.
It was a struggle to knock back a 500ml bottle of warm Carling at half-time and because of that we missed what would prove to be the winner, Daniel Lafferty scoring past Declan Rudd at the second attempt to make it 2-1. I was disappointed when Duffy was withdrew on the hour and felt like the level of football dropped after that. The home side just didn’t look as inventive but perhaps the manager wanted to try a more direct approach. At the end of the game the players did a lap of honour and you sensed the anticipation of promotion in the air both in the stands and on the pitch.
We had chance for one more pint in the ridiculously overpriced Sheffield Tap at the train station before boarding for Piccadilly. A great day was had and Bramall Lane is a cracking, old-style ground. It’s not perfect and has its quirks, but that makes it all the more appealing in the face of the ever-growing trend for soulless, out-of-town identikit stadia. The ticket price, £18, was brilliant considering the level of football on offer and only a few quid more expensive than some clubs in Non League. We’re planning to make it annual trip so I’ll definitely be back next season!