A Premier League sized crowd will gather for a League One match on Sunday when Sheffield's two fallen clubs thrash out their local resentments in front of 36,000 anxious fans at Hillsborough. More than 6,000 tickets, a healthy gate at some League One grounds, have been sold to Sheffield United fans to watch the match beamed back live to Bramall Lane. At the Sheffield derby in October, the attendances – 28,000 at the 2-2 draw at Bramall Lane, 11,000 Wednesday fans watching back at Hillsborough – were the biggest League One crowds of the weekend.
The extraordinary crowd and life-and-death feel to a fixture vital to both clubs as they seek to maintain their challenges for the automatic promotion places illustrate the good and bad in a city of distinguished football history. The rivalry, which has a ferocity both clubs are trying to temper, speaks of how big both clubs are, although Blades fans poke fun at Wednesday's manager Gary Megson, an Owls fan and former player, whose father, Don, captained the club, constantly referring to Wednesday as "massive".
The League One derby also marks how far the clubs have dropped. Wednesday were steered to relegation from the top flight in 2000 by Dave Richards, now Sir Dave Richards, who left to become the chairman of the Premier League while the Owls, debt-laden, fell. The £20m bank debts, legacy of the overspending under Richards, were only cleared in January 2011, when Milan Mandaric took over and the Co-operative Bank bank settled for around £6m.
Mandaric, a fortnight since his acquittal for tax evasion, an experience he described as "an ugly dream", says he is exhausted, his enthusiasm football depleted. The three consecutive defeats Wednesday have suffered – including at bottom of the table Chesterfield – since Mandaric walked free from Southwark crown court, have not helped. He is determined to arrest Wednesday's slide, which has left them in third place, five points behind United who have two games in hand, in the push for promotion to the Championship which he sees as "crucial" for the club and his own spirits.
"Sheffield is a tremendous football city, Wednesday is a very big club, and in the Championship we will have more enthusiasm which comes with success," Mandaric says. Last year he paid off Wednesday's debts, including the £1.7m bill to HM Revenue and Customs, just as the club, formed in 1867, faced being wound up. Wednesday's wage bill, he says, is, with United's, the highest in the division and his total personal investment will reach £20m by the end of the season.
"I am still a little tired," he says of the comedown following his acquittal. "You realise you have been running on adrenaline and when it is done you lose a little bit of oxygen. I am trying to be positive about the football but I will come to review my own circumstances at the end of the season."
Although Mandaric will not be drawn on whether Megson's position is under pressure, all of those factors, sporting, financial and personal, are exacerbating the normal demands of an impatient club owner to reap success for his club.
Across town, Danny Wilson, the former Owl now guiding the Blades into an automatic promotion place playing attractive football, has an even deeper financial hole from which to extricate his club. United's chairman, Kevin McCabe, a property investor and Sheffield native based in Brussels, says that since he joined the board in 1995 he has spent £100m on the club, only to find it battling in League One.
"We have redeveloped the ground, the academy and the training ground but a huge proportion of the money has gone in players' wages," McCabe says. "People just do not grasp quite how much players are paid, and ticket money comes nowhere near covering it. I have been looking for investors for the last three to four years, and if we win promotion to the Championship, there will be much more chance we can attract it. Financially, we are still adjusting to relegation from the Premier League."
That was in 2007, when West Ham stayed up, after prodigious performances from Carlos Tevez, whose signing, while the player was owned by offshore investors, was found to be in breach of Premier League rules. McCabe is still sore that West Ham were fined £5.5m but not deducted points which would have seen United stay up. He puts the cost of relegation at £200m.
There are, then, high stakes in the former steel city, which seems more fiercely obsessed with its derby now than in all the 119 years since the first was played, in the then First Division of the Football League, in 1893.