Of all the great sports rivalries — the Canadiens and the Bruins, Giants and Jets, Yankees and Mets — the one that exists between Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United F.C. (SUFC) in English soccer may be one of the most storied.
Ever since their first meeting on Dec. 15th, 1890, games between the cross-town rivals have been the source of brawls, heated exchanges between fans, tightly contested matches and some not so tightly contested ones.
It is one of the oldest rivalries in the game and it is one that runs deep through the veins of supporters from both sides, despite the fact the two teams haven’t played in the same league since 2012, with Wednesday competing in the level two Championship League while United toils in the level three League One.
It was that divide that Red Deer native Caolan Lavery decided to cross this past summer.
“It was a pretty big move to make for myself. There’s not a lot of players that have done it in the history of either club, so it was a big move, but I felt it was the right one for me from a career point of view and Shef United fans have taken to me really well,” said Lavery, who signed on with United this summer after spending four seasons as a bench player for Wednesday.
“Obviously I’ve had a bit of ‘stick’ you would say over here. Bit of stick from the Sheffield Wednesday fans, obviously, regarding me leaving from one club to another with it being in the same city and everything. But it’s been really good and I’m enjoying every minute of it.”
The move has been kind to the 24-year-old striker, who has scored three goals and four assists in 27 appearances so far this season.
Lavery said the change in scenery was more of a career move than anything else.
“I wasn’t really playing too many games in my final season at Sheffield Wednesday and I spoke to the manager. Obviously, with the size of the club — it’s a very historic club and a big club over here, big fan base they get 28,000 to 30,000 people a game — I had a better chance of being involved in a promotion league team and playing a part,” he said.
Now 36 games into the season, the Blades sit at the top of the League One table and stand a very real chance of earning a promotion into the Championship League next season and Lavery has been able to play a role in that as a regular member of the team’s bench squad.
“It’s good actually. I can’t really complain too much. I get to do what I love as a job and we’re doing really well this season; the top of the league hoping for a promotion, so I have no complaints,” said Lavery.
Soccer has always been a passion for the former Notre Dame High School student, who grew up playing the sport in the Red Deer Renegades program.
“Both my parents are Irish, so I’ve always just grown up with the game. As long as I can remember all my older brothers and sisters played, so if I wasn’t playing I was going away with my parents to tournaments and things like that,” he recalled.
As soon as he could, Lavery started playing in the Red Deer youth leagues. At the age of 10 he joined the Renegades competitive program.
“I always knew as a kid I wanted to play professionally.”
After spending four or five years with the Renegades and a couple more with Calgary Southwest United, Lavery decided to make his move.
“My cousin was also a professional footballer and he had an agent at the time. I was scouted by a few clubs and after talking to my cousin’s agent and talking to these clubs, I got some tryouts.”
For Lavery, the experience of playing soccer in Red Deer allowed him to learn the value of leadership and provided a stepping-stone to his professional career.
“The coaches gave me the responsibility of being captain, so just being a leader on the pitch and being in a team environment – it gave me the drive to go on and do better things.”
At 16, Lavery made the move over to the U.K. and eventually signed with Ipswitch Town F.C. of the Championship League and joined their development squad. Two and a half years later he signed with Sheffield Wednesday.
During his time in the development leagues, Lavery got the opportunity to go out on loan to a number of clubs in some of the lower tier leagues including Southend United, Oxford United and Plymouth Argyle, gaining some valuable first-team experience along the way.
“If I didn’t play these first-team games I don’t think I would have been where I am now because it’s a big step up from playing academy football with kids, which is under 18s. It’s a big step up to play first-team football in front of 20-30,000 people every week,” he said, noting that he’s excited to be one of the few Canadian footballers to have made the jump into the European professional leagues.
“Of course it’s difficult but like I said before it’s just hard work and dedication, really. It’s any sport you play, I think. Any athlete you speak to will tell you that dedication is the main thing.”