Steel City Derby: Sheffield United heroes recall double triumph over arch-rivals Owls

Double triumph: Sheffield United manager Neil Warnock celebrates at full time with scorers Ade Akinbiyi and Michael Tonge.
Double triumph: Sheffield United manager Neil Warnock celebrates at full time with scorers Ade Akinbiyi and Michael Tonge.
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YOU may have to go back 4,345 days for the last occasion that Sheffield United recorded a Steel City derby double over Sheffield Wednesday, but the memories remain vivid for Michael Tonge and Rob Kozluk.

It was on February 18, 2006 that the Blades previously achieved that sweet milestone, downing their rivals 2-1 at Hillsborough, thanks to wonder strikes from Tonge and Ade Akinbiyi.

There was Akinbiyi’s finish as well. It was the first shot he had ever got on target since joining us!

Rob Kozluk on Ade Akinbiyi’s goal

Another raucous winter occasion, this time across the city at Bramall Lane tomorrow evening, will see United, managed by a home-town boy and lifelong fan as they also were in 2005-06, strive to emulate that feat against their bitter foes.

The similarities do not begin and end at two dyed-in-the-wool Unitedites in Chris Wilder and Neil Warnock being resident in the Blades’ dug-out either.

Just as Warnock was leading a side pushing for promotion just under 12 years ago, so Wilder is now overseeing what he hopes will be a similarly successful mission in 2017-18.

Now, as then, the Blades are seeking a boost, after a slight sticky patch, against city rivals, who are nervously looking over their shoulders towards the second-tier drop zone, although Wednesday’s predicament under Paul Sturrock was rather more parlous in 2005-06.

The hosts’ gloom intensified on a late winter’s day nearly 12 years ago when a exquisitely-struck free-kick from a narrow angle from Tonge gave the Blades first blood on 38 minutes.

Things got worse for the Owls when an instinctive first-time volley from £1.75m striker Ade Akinbiyi flew past goalkeeper Chris Adamson to double the visitors’ lead on the stroke of half-time.

Wednesday pulled one back when Steven MacLean netted from the spot 10 minutes from time after Chris Morgan was penalised for a foul on him, with a late goalline clearance from Kozluk denying them an unlikely point.

But it proved United’s day and how they would relish something resembling a re-run of that result tomorrow and a piece of history.

Now at Port Vale, Tonge, who will be glued to tonight’s TV action, having missed the Blades’ electrifying 4-2 televised win at S6 in September because of his father’s birthday celebrations, told The Yorkshire Post: “I do remember scoring, but then having a panic up at the end as we gave a penalty away. It was dead soft!

“It was a game when we should have been out of sight and we had so many chances. We were 2-0 up and thinking: ‘Just get the third and it will be comfortable.’

“I remember my goal in front of their Kop and it was right up with one of the best ones for me. The free-kick was quite wide of the box and it was one of those situations where you are thinking: ‘Just shoot to the far stick.’ I just hit it and caught it so sweetly and I think it just caught the keeper off guard completely. It was great to score.

“It was the year we went up and we had a strong side. I remember that game as we were struggling at centre-half and Morgs played though he was really struggling. Neill Collins played for us as well and he was on loan.

“After the game, I remember it well as everyone was delighted and buzzing. Not only because we had beaten Wednesday, but we needed to win as we were trying to get promoted. I fancied us to win that day and it is quite nice going into a game thinking that you will win if you perform.

“You can see the similarities now. Chris has got that Sheffield United identity back in the club and that is really important. With him and Neil both being Blades fans, that almost transfers onto the players for them to realise how important it is.

“They would have taken this position after Christmas. They were always going to have a bit of a lull, but it is how you come out of it that matters. A win on Friday could give them a lift for the rest of the season.”

Kozluk, now scouting for Derby County, will also never forget that Hillsborough win, which secured a first double over the Owls in 14 years for the Blades, for several reasons, too.

The full-back, a regular during Warnock’s tenure at Bramall Lane, said: “Things like Tongey’s celebration live in your memory forever. They were great days and there was Akinbiyi’s finish as well. It was the first shot he had ever got on target since joining us!

“I did enjoy the Hillsborough derbies with the atmosphere when you got off the bus. You have a little bit of a walk through their fans.

“At Sheffield United, I do think they are a little bit kind on the away teams in just dropping them off at the door and getting them in. You should drop them off at the top of the car park and let them walk through a whole barrage. It used to add to the day in them all calling for Warnock when he got off the bus.”

Like many others, Kozluk also believes that comparisons between the Blades’ current side under Wilder and Warnock’s class of 2005-06 are valid ones.

“Having gone away from Sheffield United and coming back and almost implementing the old structure and team spirit, it needed Chris to probably go away and do his apprenticeship. He has come back as the perfect man for the job, added Kozluk.

“I am scouting at Derby now and have done all their home games and I would say that they (Blades) are the best team to have come to Pride Park this season.

“Everyone wants to run through fire for each other and that is what we also had.”