ABSENCE, it seems, does not make the heart grow fonder after all among the football fraternity in the Steel City.
Five years and seven months since bragging rights had last been up for grabs in Sheffield, Wednesday and United renewed a rivalry that can divide families as well as factories, schools and offices.
Much of the pre-match chatter may have involved an attempt to play down the significance of the derby result, but no one inside Hillsborough yesterday was fooled.
Winning – or, at the very least, not losing – was everything, as was underlined by a truly crazy 107 seconds that saw emotions on both sides of the city swing from one extreme to the other.
For Wednesdayities, this meant the pure unadulterated joy of Lucas Joao’s equaliser quickly giving way to the utter, utter despair of seeing their side fall behind once again to a sublime finish from Mark Duffy.
Some were still bouncing on the spot, chanting along in unison about not being Blades, as Duffy took aim, meaning the moment the ball hit the net was akin to the plug being pulled on a sound system as 30,000 voices suddenly fell silent.
In contrast, the wild scenes of abandon being played out across an upper tier of the Leppings Lane end that, just moments earlier, had been full of furrowed brows and concerned faces told its own story. The momentum in the latest instalment of a rivalry that is every bit as keenly-fought as more famous derbies in Glasgow, Manchester or Liverpool had switched once again and the 32,839 crowd knew the three points were heading to Bramall Lane.
The day had started so differently for the Owls. Confidence was high, as underlined by the banner draped over a bridge on the approach to Hillsborough along the A61 by a Wednesdayite in the early hours.
‘Older, Bigger, Better since 1867,’ it read, followed by the boast, ‘This city is ours’. Such confidence was fuelled by not only a decent run of recent results, but also the experience of head coach Carlos Carvalhal.
During spells in Lisbon and Istanbul, the Portuguese had experienced some of the tastiest derbies European football has to offer. Ahead of taking on either Benfica at the helm of Sporting or either Galatasaray or Fenerbahce with Besiktas, he had become used to the sight of diehard fans arriving at the stadium hours before kick-off and then working themselves up into a frenzy.
If his side were the away team, Carvalhal revealed 48 hours before his first taste of a Sheffield derby, the team’s arrival by bus would often be met with a volley of stones or worse as passions boiled over.
Thankfully, the dark days when such ugly incidents might sully English football are largely over. Supporters in these more enlightened times are happy to restrict themselves to a few shouts and the sort of pantomime booing that around Christmas time would be followed by the shout, ‘He’s behind you.’
This was largely what met the Blades on arrival at Hillsborough, United’s 40 or so yard walk from the team bus to players’ entrance being accompanied by shouts of ‘Piggie scum’ and ‘dirty red and white b*******’.
On his side’s pre-match reception, Wilder said: “We got a bit of stick coming into the ground, which I fully expect. There was also a bit of stick behind us, which we fully expect.
“But we are a tight group, as you saw when Leon came over to Billy (Sharp), Ched (Evans) and all the boys (after scoring United’s second goal); it showed the collective we are.”
The abuse certainly did not seem to faze anyone in the United camp, captain Billy Sharp even managing a smirk at the waiting home fans, some of whom had lifted youngsters on to their shoulders to gain a better view.
So it proved once play got under way, as United produced a fine all-round display to ensure those Owls fans who started to leave in their droves once Clarke had netted the fourth goal did so with faces like thunder.
They know what lays in store today at work or school as the red and white half of Sheffield basks in a first derby triumph for eight years. Wednesday fans will no doubt already be counting the days to the return in January.