JUST over two decades ago, Sheffield football was in rude health and at the very heartbeat of the beautiful game in its birthplace of England.
One man entitled to know that better than most – and who has made the Steel City his home since the early nineties – is Chris Waddle, darling of one half of Sheffield during a champagne era for Sheffield Wednesday.
The Owls, with the Geordie winger as their creator supreme, wowed audiences with a scintillating brand of football, reaching its apex in 1992-93, when the Hillsborough outfit reached two finals and played at Wembley four times in 40 intoxicating days in 1993.
Life was good and while Sheffield United fans are forgiven for ruing the very mention of the name Waddle, who hit a world-class opener in the all-Steel City FA Cup semi-final of April 3, 1993 which Wednesday won 2-1, the era provided heady days all the same for Dave Bassett’s Blades.
At the end of that maiden Premier League season, the Owls finished seventh with the Blades ending 14th, above defending champions Leeds in 17th.
It’s all a far cry from the situation now in Sheffield, which has lost its footballing mojo.
This in a city which represents the cradle of the game, with many elements of the famous Sheffield Rules game incorporated into Football Association rules of football in the 19th century.
Not forgetting Hallam FC, whose Sandygate home is recognised as the oldest ground in the world, to rivals Sheffield FC the oldest football club still in existence – with both contributing to the game’s rich history along with Wednesday and Blades.
While hardly on a life-support machine, Sheffield’s two leading clubs have undeniably seen better times, with the Owls’ destined for their second successive second-tier relegation battle if things don’t buck up.
Across the city, United are at their lowest ebb – position-wise – since the early eighties.
Both Sheffield clubs were in the third tier of English football just two years ago – but unless things improve for both, a double-date at an embarrassing low level could be on the cards next season again.
If the Blades steer away from relegation trouble, that is.
On the downturn for both clubs, Waddle – speaking at a event to promote grassroots football at Hallam – said: “It’s easy to forget the early nineties. People appreciate those times now; back then I think it was just part and parcel of life.
“When you speak to fans now, they remember. Wednesdayites say stuff like: ‘I wish we could go back to the team you played in.’
“Hopefully, it will come again for both Sheffield clubs because football always comes in cycles. But at the minute, both are a million miles off.”
The plight of the Owls, where Waddle still holds an iconic status, remains closest to his heart, with the 52-year-old just keeping his fingers crossed that Dave Jones’s side can reacquaint themselves with the winning formula that pulled them away from the trapdoor when they looked doomed this time last year.
Twelve months ago, Wednesday were in the midst of a wretched seven-match losing sequence and find themselves in a strikingly similiar position now as winter bites.
But redemption was at hand in 2012-13 with a stirring pre-Christmas upturn seeing them win 12 of their last 25 games, losing just six, to stay up.
Waddle said: “At the minute, Wednesday are a million miles off the team we were and are fighting for their lives in the Championship and it’s going to be a long season again.
“The relegation battle went right to the wire last year and we don’t want another one...
“The fans give the club fantastic backing home and away and if they drop again, a lot of fans will get disillusioned. It’s very important Wednesday get away from relegation this season.
“It’s frustrating when you look at what they did to Reading the other week. But it’s about consistency; all the teams at the top are the ones where their players get seven or eight out of 10 every week. Wednesday players seem to get a seven one week and a five the next and it’s not good enough.
“Wednesday were one of the best teams in the league in the second half of last year and didn’t lose a lot of games and won a lot. They proved they could do it.
“Dave is trying to change it gradually and strengthen the team too. But if your purse strings are tight, you can only get certain players in.”
The predicament of the Blades is even more alarming and while Waddle expects them to avoid the Doomsday scenario of relegation and basement football for the first time since 1981-82, it represents something Unitedites shouldn’t take for granted.
Waddle said: “United have had a terrible start, although I felt they played lovely football under David Weir and that he was not given enough time.
“But it’s about putting the ball in the net and fans aren’t patient these days, to say the least. Pressure mounted because of results and obviously people think a team like United shouldn’t be in the bottom four.
“Although you look at other teams like Portsmouth, who have gone down the leagues. Even Plymouth, who over the years have shown they can get 17 or 18,000. It does happen, but I am sure Sheffield United have enough to get away from a relegation battle and finish in a respectable position
“Now Nigel (Clough) has come in and he had a good record at Burton and then turned around Derby and I am sure they will get away from relegation and be serious challengers next season.
“I am sure they have said to Nigel he will get time. But then again, if they don’t get off to a good start next season, they will be banging the drums again.”
Chris Waddle was at Hallam FC to launch “Grounds for Improvement” from Capital One, offering one grassroots ground the chance to win a makeover worth up to £75,000. Visit facebook.com/CapitalOneUK
Troubled times: Owls and Blades
Current position: 22nd (Championship).
Biggest win: Sheffield Wednesday 5 Reading 2; November 2, 2013.
Biggest loss: Birmingham 4 Sheffield Wednesday 1; September 21, 2013.
Current position: 23rd (League One).
Biggest win: Sheffield United 3 Crewe 1; October 26, 2013.
Biggest loss: Brentford 3 Sheffield Utd 1; August 10, 2013; Rotherham 3 Sheffield Utd 1; September 7, 2013.