THE IMPORTANCE of derby football to supporters is brought home to Sheffield Wednesday striker Steven Fletcher every time he returns to the North East.
During four years at Sunderland, the Scottish international was never on the losing side against bitter rivals Newcastle United.
That would be reason enough to earn hero status among supporters of the Black Cats but Fletcher also managed a couple of goals against the Magpies in those five meetings to ensure he will never be without friends on Wearside. Such a special place in Sunderland affection is why the 30-year-old knows just how much is at stake tomorrow when the 128th instalment of the Steel City derby is played out at Hillsborough.
“Scoring in a derby is a great feeling,” said Fletcher, who netted in the wins over Newcastle at the Stadium of Light in 2013 and again two years later. “I still get Sunderland fans come up to me now whenever I am in the north east and mentioning them.
“They don’t mention any other goals I got, just the derbies. That says a lot. It seems similar here. Sunday is all the fans are really talking about, saying it was the first fixture they looked for (in the summer).
“Our fans have been coming up to me and saying, ‘Good luck for the game – and make sure we win’. The players know exactly how much it matters to the fans, especially this season with Sheffield United having just come up. To be fair, we are all looking forward to it.”
We have the experienced players to handle things and how to control our emotions. It is a big occasion for the city and the two clubs.Sheffield Wednesday’s Steven Fletcher
Neither side will want for experience of derby football with Blades manager Chris Wilder and captain Billy Sharp both lifelong fans of the club, meaning both men are well versed in just what tomorrow’s clash means in the Steel City.
Wednesday may not be able to compete with that schooling but plenty of derby experience can be found within the home ranks, be it Gary Hooper’s Old Firm tussles with Celtic or Carlos Carvalhal’s stint coaching in Lisbon and Istanbul with Sporting and Besiktas respectively. And then there is Fletcher.
Having featured in 18 Edinburgh derbies for Hibernian, the Scot moved to Burnley in 2009 and played in two particularly fiery all-East Lancashire affairs against Blackburn Rovers.
Then came two years with Wolverhampton Wanderers and three goals in two appearances against neighbours West Bromwich Albion before then being thrust into the powderkeg atmosphere that can be the Tyne-Wear derby following his £12m move to the Stadium of Light in 2012.
“Derbies are exciting,” said the Owls striker. “They are always the games we look forward to playing in and I have some good memories over the years. Probably the best were with Sunderland, mainly because I never lost one.
“I have played in a lot and most derbies are similar. I won’t say they are as bad as each other, more as fierce as each other. The one that surprised me was Burnley against Blackburn, that was quite tense stuff with the fans.
“The main thing is keeping your head. Don’t let the emotions get the better of you. Just do what you have been doing all season and stay level-headed.”
This talk of keeping emotions in check brings us neatly on to Fletcher’s one red card in derby football. It came in January, 2009, at Easter Road during a tempestuous Scottish Cup tie that went the way of the visitors courtesy of a first-half goal from Christian Nade and teenage substitute Gary Glen’s stoppage time strike.
Fletcher was dismissed on the half-hour for a challenge on Hearts captain Christophe Berra that left Hibs manager Mixu Paatelainen incandescent with the officials, the Finn later claiming that Berra “jumped like a brown trout” to get his player sent off.
A little under nine years on, the Owls striker still feels an injustice was done.
“It was a dive,” he protested yesterday when the red card was brought up by The Yorkshire Post. “The experience, though, was one I learned from. Each game you play gives you experience to take on to the next one.
“As for derbies, the atmosphere can affect you as well as lift you. We can’t let that happen, as the atmosphere can lead you to do something stupid.
“We have spoken about this already (as a squad). We have the experienced players to handle things and how to control our emotions.
“It is a big occasion for the city and the two clubs. That experience can help because the lads know how to handle the atmosphere and the occasion. You can’t let that affect you.
“There are a few young lads in the team as well but the older heads will keep everyone grounded.”
The two Steel City combatants will go into tomorrow’s derby on the back of encouraging starts to the season. Sixth placed United sit higher in the table but a home victory will be enough for the Owls, unbeaten since the opening day, to leapfrog their rivals.
Both clubs have had a full eight days to prepare, though in United’s case an injury crisis for their frontline has dominated the build-up.
Billy Sharp, Leon Clarke and Clayton Donaldson all missed last weekend’s defeat to Norwich City along with injured duo James Hanson and Caolan Lavery. That left Ched Evans as United’s only fit striker, and even then Wilder estimates the Welshman is operating at “50 to 60 per cent” as he puts on hold an ankle operation.
Fletcher, like all Wednesdayites, has followed the injury woes from Bramall Lane over the past week but he added: “Their strikers will be fit, no one wants to miss this game. If there is a little niggle, it goes out the window on Sunday.”
As for how the first derby since February, 2012, will pan out, Fletcher added: “In derbies, form and all that goes out the window. It is a big game and we know if we can do what we need on the pitch then, hopefully, that will take care of things.
“Sheffield United have carried on their form from last season. They have had a good start. The gaffer has told us what he thinks they will do. I can’t tell you that, of course.
“We have worked on that plan all week. Hopefully, that will stand us in good stead.”