Voetbal International is one of the best football magazines around Europe, and their attached website follows the same standard.
One of the top sport publications in the Netherlands, they have a genuine interest in football around the world, and last week sent someone to watch Sheffield United versus Sheffield Wednesday.
Their interest lies with the away side, given Dutchman Jos Luhukay is the manager, and VI explain they got unprecedented access to the training ground ahead of the match.
In the run up to the match, the journalist who travelled to England, Geert-Jan Jakobs, listened to a local radio show which was discussing Luhukay’s future, and commented on the callers: ‘Most of them are in a tone that suggests the situation in Syria is the subject of conversation, not who is in the dug-out of Sheffield Wednesday.’
Jakobs explains the match for a Dutch audience: ‘The Steel City Derby, the fight for the honour of the cradle of football. What Rome is for archaeologists, Sheffield is for football historians. The fourth city of England is home to the oldest football club in the world (Sheffield FC, from 1857) and the oldest stadium (Sandygate Road of Hallam FC, built in 1804). And so one of the oldest and most heated derbies.
‘Wednesday vs. United, the blues against the grub, The Owls against The Steels. For each other, both supporter groups use the same nickname: Pigs. Less than 5km is between the two clubs. An outsider cannot immediately discover essential differences. Ask someone from Sheffield and it seems that both clubs play in a different galaxy. You are Wednesday or you are United, a middle way is not possible. You love one and you hate the other.’
It’s explained that VI getting access to training ahead of the derby is unusual, and assistant manager Remy Reijnierse had to explain why the security staff were so suspicious: “They are terrified that you are spying for Sheffield United. Do not pass on anything, will you?”
For the Dutch media, the calm at the training centre is unusual, because it can be very different in the Netherlands. Joey Pelupessy explained how it was at Twente and Heracles: “The run-up to those derbies was very different from here. The day before the game, thousands of fans were on the field, with fireworks and everything. Once at Heracles we had to stop training because from all corners of the stadium suddenly red smoke bombs were thrown to the field. A joke from the Twente fans. I always got a kick out of things like that. Compared to this, it is very quiet here.”
Joost van Aken told his teammate that the match would be completely different: “Wait, you’re going to experience something tomorrow.”
As the Dutch group move around the training ground, Pelupessy explained the culinary changes Luhukay has made: “I saw the players in the morning pack their plates with bacon, sausage, beans and egg. And then they made such a soup. I could not stand it, didn’t want to smell it; terrible! The trainer has also changed that. Now fruit and juice are ready when we come to the club. The English had to get used to it, but I cannot hear them complaining about it anymore.”
Luhukay then moves to take the reporters into the city for a drink, and walks towards his Golf. He prefers a modest car, and told a story about an encounter with Lucas João at traffic lights: “He was in such a high vehicle and opened his window. I thought he wanted to tell me something and did the same. He pointed to my car and looked at me with a shake. Like: Coach, that really can’t be. Ah, I do not need a car to express who or what I am.”
The manager then went on to talk about a lack of summer transfers: “I didn’t see it coming. Other clubs gained forty, fifty million in reinforcements. We have bought one player this year: Joey, for a modest amount. I am not the type that is going to complain, I am used to working with problems. At Hertha we had €45m debt. Then you cannot ask for five new players. But we became champions, with a record number of points.
“Our team really needed rejuvenation last summer, but in the transfer market we could only hire some players. We decided to get eight boys from the youth academy. Of them there are four in the base tomorrow. I think that is wonderful. Those players might never have had the chance. But you do not have stability with a young team.”
Voetbal International says the Dutchman is convinced Matt Penney and Cameron Dawson will one day make a lot of money for Sheffield Wednesday on the transfer market.
On his own future, Luhukay said that like at most Championship clubs, Sheffield Wednesday’s owners want promotion: “I think that is not possible yet, but everyone has an opinion. We do what we can and I have not yet received any indication that the club wants to get rid of me.”
This is likely to be his last job in football: “If this club had not come, I might have already stopped. I had never thought about the Championship, never even seen a match in England. But I still wanted to take the opportunity to experience another football culture. I am glad that I have been able to experience this. The atmosphere in England is beautiful. The passion of the supporters… Sheffield is not a rich city, the people are not well off, but we are supported by thousands of fans at every game.
“The match setting of the players is also unprecedented. I do not have to say anything before the kickoff. The boys do well together. At the same time, on the field, they take too little responsibility in my eyes. English players take everything the gaffer says. I think they can think more about football themselves and have to solve things on the field. We are working on that. I want to give these guys something, for when I’m gone. Whether that’s tomorrow, in a year or in three years.”