The post-Taylor Report stadia are wonderful places to watch from, but for pure atmosphere, you cannot beat historic grounds. Low on confidence after a disappointing restart to the season, Sheffield United could really have done with Bramall Lane’s atmosphere against Arsenal in tomorrow’s FA Cup quarter-final.
The prize for the winners is a trip to Wembley, whose location gives it history but whose rebuilt stands offer 21st Century luxury.
United are proud to be a club more about greasy chip butties than fine dining – manager Chris Wilder bridled when asked if he watched the 2003 semi-final from “the posh seats” – and for them right now glory and history come a distant second to getting back to the earthy qualities that made them the success story of the pre-coronavirus season.
Temporary rule changes allowing bigger squads and more substitutes, fixtures delayed until the heat of summer, a shortened turnaround between games – so many of football’s new circumstances feel hostile to a club which has used a high-intensity game to punch above its weight in 2019-20. In the last eight of the FA Cup they will be deprived of another, the passion of their home support.
“It would have been some atmosphere (if fans had been allowed in) but we need to create the tempo we can play at,” says captain Billy Sharp who, like his manager, grew up on the Bramall Lane terraces.
“Arsenal have a lot of quality in their team and they’ll not fancy coming to Bramall Lane whether there’s fans in or not.
“We’ve got to pick ourselves off the floor and go again. We’re not a million miles off.”
Bramall Lane is the world’s oldest league stadium, first hosting league football in 1862, 27 years before Sheffield United came into being. It has welcomed England at football and cricket, and an FA Cup final replay when Barnsley won the trophy in 1912.
The fans and the noise are hemmed in and a season which has defied all expectations has only encouraged more of the din players feed off. Tomorrow, what shouts of encouragement there are will bounce around stands closed to fight Covid-19.
What will frustrate fans the most is the team needs their help but they are no allowed to give it. Without them we are playing different football and the game is poorer for it.
Arsenal were harassed into defeat in South Yorkshire in October, while Manchester United scrambled a frenetic 3-3 draw in November which was a million miles away from the leisurely stroll they took to a 3-0 win at Old Trafford on Wednesday.
“It’s impossible to recreate a Sunday afternoon at Bramall Lane in front of 33,000 in a Cup quarter-final against the Arsenal,” argues Wilder, who will assess centre-back Jack O’Connell’s fitness beforehand.
“I’ve spoken to a psychologist recently – that’s the way it’s gone! Steve Sylvester said it’s been fascinating looking at the intensity of the games without crowds and how the really good players are not playing under pressure at all, you saw that against Manchester United. It helped that we were quite passive and gave poor goals away.”
After three games the team had to drive to on three separate buses, there is still something to be said for being at home.
“We know every inch of the ground, don’t we?” says Wilder. “I certainly do. I have sat and stood in every part of that ground.
“It will be strange but we’re back at home and every advantage we can have at the moment, we need. The familiarity of Bramall Lane and not having to travel helps. They’ve not been the longest trips in the world but you still have to deal with them.
“I’m looking forward to my team performing.”
The schedule has left little opportunity to iron out faults in training, so Wilder has instead given his players a mental rest.
“We can’t do the intensity and the work we would definitely do,” he says.
“But I get paid to do a difficult job and I try to do it to the best of my ability. We’ve got to find a way, whether it’s video analysis and talking to the players. And players have got to really have a look at themselves. With the honesty of the players I’m sure they will have done.”
Things are not as bad as they feel, either. A top-half finish would be a magnificent achievement for a newly-promoted side but the European place their football built up hopes of is still achievable.
They are eighth in the Premier League, which could put them into Europe for the first time if Manchester City cannot get their ban lifted, and only a point behind Tottenham Hotspur, who also have to come to Bramall Lane. They could also qualify by winning the FA Cup for the first time since 1925.
“You always want to keep building those memories,” reflects Wilder. “I don’t want to be walking in Ecclesall Road in 20 years’ time and have people shouting at me you were an absolute mug manager, I want to be successful. Success is reaching the latter round of cup competitions, being consistent in your performances and leaving the club in a better position.
“If we get our act together we can produce another successful period.”
The Blades reached FA Cup semi-finals in 1993, 1998, 2003 and 2014, but as Wilder says, “they didn’t stick anything on the honours board, did they?”
Sunday’s prize is more prosaic.
“I’m not always a performance-over-result man, I’m a result man because that’s the industry we’re in but I need a performance from the players,” he says. “A chance to win a football match is still significant and it would have been the same if it was the third round of the FA Cup. I would expect a reaction if there was a chance to get to Wembley or not.”
History can wait.
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