Dry throat, heightened senses and almost overbearing levels of nervous tension; three sure-fire symptoms, Michael Tonge admits, of a Steel City derby.
“The best bit,” he admits, “For me at least, was standing in the tunnel just before the game. You can hear the noise of the crowd and you know it’s going to explode the second you walk out on to the pitch. After all the hype, after all the build-up, you know this is it. That now is the time to get down the business.”
Tonge, the former Sheffield United midfielder, wrote himself into the folklore of this fixture by scoring a superb free-kick against Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough 12 years ago. But rather than relive that strike, which left Chris Adamson rooted to the spot as it sliced through the air, he has chosen to provide a glimpse into how players prepare for the biggest date on their respective calendars ahead of Friday’s meeting between the clubs at Bramall Lane.
“The psychology of these matches is hugely important,” he says. “Everyone knows what is at stake and you’ve got to be able to cope with that. From a personal perspective, I never even thought what might happen if we lost, all I was bothered about was winning because you knew, if you did, how much it was worth to the fans and the club.”
“You’re well aware of how much it means to the supporters,” Tonge continued. “And it means exactly the same when you’re involved too. If things go well, it can make you or the rest of your season. But there’s a real focus among the lads and, at times, the dressing room isn’t as loud as it might usually be before a match like this because everyone is concentrating on making sure they do their job. They’re tuning in.
“When you do emerge, though, the levels are ear-splitting. You get-off on that.”
Tonge made 302 appearances and played in eight derbies before joining Stoke City in 2008. Now of Port Vale, he believes Chris Wilder’s presence in the home dug-out will influence United’s approach to the game.
“Chris is a United fan and that will come across loud and clear to the lads,” Tonge continues. “It was the same when Neil (Warnock) was our manager, he was a United supporter too, and that rubbed-off on everybody in the squad. It’s doesn’t decide how things go but it does come across loud and clear.”
Despite entering the match as underdogs after being promoted from League One last term, United’s entered September’s meeting at Hillsborough as underdogs but emerged as 4-2 winners. Although performances since mean they have prepared for this match as favourites - United are seventh in the Championship while Wednesday are 16th - Tonge warns past results will have no bearing on the outcome.
“Players take these matches in isolation. The Wednesday lads will be intent on getting revenge and sometimes, when I remember being expected to win, it gets a bit frustrating when the opposition come out and play well because you think ‘they’ve not being doing that all season.’ Where I think United have the edge, in my mind, is that togetherness. Wednesday have some great individuals but do they have that? I don’t know.
“I look at United and now, after a long time away, see a team that has got good players but is ready to fight for each other as well. Chris has brought that back because he knows what is required. It’s the United I recognise.”