Scunthorpe & Sheffield: United, Yet Divided
The biggest Football League crowd of the weekend didn’t come, for once, from the Championship. An attendance of almost 28,000 people was at Bramall Lane to see the top two clubs in League One prove what the league table has been saying for a little while, now, that there’s only a hair’s breadth between the two clubs that, for now at least, remain the most likely to get promoted – although supporters of both Bolton Wanderers and Fleetwood Town may well dispute this assertion – at the end of the season. This was, unsurprisingly, a tempestuous encounter, defined by two goals in three minutes at the start of the second half which were quickly followed by a red card for Scunthorpe’s Harry Toffolo, and by full-time the top of the table looked very much as it had done at the start of the day, with Sheffield United five points clear of Scunthorpe United, but with Scunthorpe holding a game in hand on the leaders.
At the end of the 2010/11 season both of these clubs were relegated from the Football League Championship, but the five seasons since then have been very different experiences for them. Sheffield United have been beaten in the League One play-offs in three of the last five seasons – as well as reaching both an FA Cup semi-final in 2014 and a League Cup semi-final the following year – with last season’s eleventh placed finish being the club’s lowest final league position in three and a half decades. Scunthorpe, on the other hand, found that relegation from the Championship wasn’t the end of their woes. A further relegation to League Two followed in 2013, although the club’s spell there only lasted for the one season before being promoted straight back. Steady progress has been the name of the game at Glanford Park since then, however, with last season ending with the club just outside of the play-off places.
The recent travails of these two clubs aren’t the only matters that are worthy of further comparing and contrasting, either. Sheffield United joined the Football League in 1892, winning their only league title six years later. The club has only spent eleven seasons in its entire history below the top two divisions, dropping to the Fourth Division for one season in 1981. Within a decade, the club was back in top flight, and it was a founder member of the Premier League in 1992. Scunthorpe United, on the other hand, joined the Football League in 1950, and have spent just nine years breathing as rarefied air as that found in English football’s second tier since then, six between 1958 and 1964, and a further three in the years between 2007 and 2011, which included relegation in 2009 and promotion straight back the following year. There are just forty-five miles between Sheffield and Scunthorpe, but the lifetime experience of these two football clubs has been very, very different indeed.
Sheffield United’s slow-ish start to this season called – amongst the hot-headed, at least – into question the wisdom of appointing Chris Wilder as the club’s manager during the summer. Following the departure of Nigel Adkins following last season’s modest returns, Wilder felt like a natural fit for the manager’s job at Bramall Lane. Having made just over a hundred appearances for the club as a player over the course of two spells, Wilder’s managerial career so far peaked twice, the first time with returning Oxford United to the Football League in 2010 via the Football Conference play-offs, and the first in taking Northampton Town to the League Two title last season, an achievement all the more notable for the off-pitch chaos at Sixfields at the time as a result of the fallout from the shenanigans surrounding missing money from the supposed building of a new stand for the club. After a patchy start, however, his team lost just once between the end of August and the first weekend in January, although this has regressed again recently, with just two wins from their last seven league matches.
Scunthorpe’s recent form has been nothing to write home about either, though. Since Christmas they’ve played ten league matches and have won just three of them, and they didn’t manage a single league win from the whole of February. And this is the time of year at which the butterflies that reside in the stomachs of players and managers alike can start to awaken. For all the talk of both Sheffield United and Scunthorpe United, these two clubs are not League One’s form teams at the moment. That honour currently belongs to Fleetwood Town, who have gone sixteen league matches unbeaten since the middle of November, and Millwall, who are unbeaten in their last ten league matches and have already knocked three Premier League sides out of this year’s FA Cup. At various stages this season, it has felt as though the League One promotion race was just about to be considered all but over, but as we settle in for the final third of the season it feels as though both Sheffield United and Scunthorpe United have a little poise to regain if they are cross the finishing line in first or second place.
The chasing pack may well feel as though this race is far from done yet. Indeed, supporters of both of the top two might well agree with this. What is probably the most curious about these two clubs being in this position at this time, however, might just be the aspect of compare and contrast between the two clubs. The Iron and The Blades, clubs with an RSJ and two swords representing the steel industry which shaped the very identity of the areas that they represent. So much in common, but with one perhaps on hard times in recent seasons and one playing to reclaim a place in a division that they’ve only briefly tasted in the past. All divisions of English football offer stark contrasts between bigger clubs and the rest, but the presence of Sheffield United and Scunthorpe United at the top of the table perhaps says something quite profound about the third tier of English football, the level that can feel like the league system’s central meeting area, where the diverse histories that make up the tapestry of the game in this country rub against each other in frequently unlikely settings. The result at Bramall Lane on Saturday afternoon was inconclusive. The Uniteds of Sheffield and Scunthorpe head into the final straight looking both forward and over their shoulders.
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