I chose to get a coach to Sheffield for this match, rearranged to a Tuesday night due to Millwall’s exploits in the FA Cup. I chose coach over train as it always takes me back to my schooldays, you know the ones when a school trip was looming and the excitement would build the closer you got to the destination. I still get a little buzz the closer I edge to the Stadium. For me at least, the coach provides an edge that a train cannot.
Anyway, the journey to Sheffield was pleasant enough. I was in awe of the small part of the Peak District my coach meandered through. Rolling hills, a palette of colours twisting through multiple seasons fascinating my gaze for a period of time. The most poignant part of my journey however was passing Hillsborough Stadium, belonging to Sheffield United’s city rivals Wednesday. As we passed, I couldn’t help but stare and feel real pain and raw emotion for the 96 Liverpool fans who went to a football match on 15th April 1989 and never came home. An unthinkable tragedy and one that should never have occurred. I realise that I still have that Stadium to tick off this list and that for sure will be an emotional day.
I arrived at Sheffield Interchange and had around a 20 minute walk to Bramall Lane, I arrived 4 hours before kick off and had arranged a stay in the Copthorne Hotel for the night, so that’s where I headed. After a shower, a change and some wonderful room service to stem the hunger. I headed out into the evening and completed my customary lap of the ground, soaking up the atmosphere. Taking a few photos along the way. My ticket for the game was in the South Stand, as I left the gangway for the steps up towards my seat, I was surprised by the enormity of the Stadium. Let’s not forget this is a club playing in League One, but my first feeling was that Sheffield United was a whole lot bigger and belonged further up the football ladder.
Fitting then, that they sit atop the League One table. On current form the blades look destined for a return to the Championship, putting a welcome end to a prolonged stay in League One. Their opponents tonight though also harbour aspirations of a higher league and Millwall certainly would not be here to make up the numbers. As kick off neared and the stadium filled up, the atmosphere was brilliant and the mentality of the fans in the stand infinitely positive.
The match kicked off at 7.45pm and the blades asserted their dominance from the first whistle, controlling the midfield well with John Fleck and Paul Coutts looking calm and composed in possession. The blades were mixing up their play, sending in troublesome diagonal balls from either side but also spraying some lovely passes around the well kept playing surface at the Lane. The home sides pressure told when after a succession of well taken corners going close, Jack O’Connell met a John Fleck corner with his head and nestled the ball in the back of the net to put the league leaders ahead. Millwall by now were well and truly under the cosh, goalkeeper Jordan Archer forced to make a magnificent save after a long range effort from the blades. Unfortunately for him it was to be one of his last acts of the evening as he was replaced minutes later by reserve keeper Tom King. The slight delay in play gave me a chance to take in the banter and atmosphere from the fans around me, all in good spirits and laughing at every opportunity in their steely Sheffield accents. For those who aren’t sure what a Sheffield accent sounds like, think Sean Bean and you’re not far away. As half time approached the Blades continued their domination as Millwall struggled to get hold of possession and create anything meaningful. A Shane Ferguson break down the left was brought to an abrupt end after a deliberate foul from Jake Wright. The resulting free kick coming to nothing. The half petered out with a few tasty challenges from either side but nothing else to note.
At half time, IBF boxing champion Kell Brook was presented to the crowd, welcomed with a raucous reception. He was promoting his fight in May incidentally at Bramall Lane. Once Brook had completed a lap of the pitch throwing signed boxing gloves to adoring fans, the second half commenced.
The second half began in the same vein as the first, with the blades commanding more of the ball and looking to prise open the Millwall defence for a second time. That breakthrough did eventually come from Kieron Freeman who curled a right footed effort from the edge of the area in to the bottom corner after a fantastic run from centre half Jack O’Connell was thwarted by the Millwall defence. Freeman impressive throughout the game in his right wing back position and grabbing his 10th goal of the season here. The match continued in the same pattern of Blades possession and probing until the 75 minute mark when they took their foot of the gas and allowed Millwall some leeway to pull themselves back into the game. They very nearly did that when a smart move allowed Lee Gregory to bear down on Simon Moore one on one, he couldn’t finish however, firing wide as the onrushing Moore done enough to protect his clean sheet. As the game drew to a close, Millwall had the better of proceedings but were unable to force an opening, restricted to hopeful balls into the box and shots from distance as Sheffield United held on for a valuable 3 points on their march towards the League One title. Final score Sheffield United 2-0 Millwall, man of the match for me was goalscoring centre half Jack O’Connell who done everything asked of him defensively and provided an aerial threat offensively from set pieces. Closely followed by centre midfielder John Fleck, who possesses a great left foot, could pick a pass with ease and was instrumental to everything the blades did well.
All in all my trip to Sheffield was a huge success. Great Stadium, great fans, great hotel. Really do wish Sheffield United the best of luck for the rest of the current season and beyond. They certainly seem to be a club heading in the right direction. As for my personal vendetta ‘doing the 92’, 4 down 88 to go.