'We’re now returning to Sheffield. It’s like a fairytale'

Your double weekend read, featuring the return of fans to the Crucible, and what to expect from this week's local elections in the city

Good morning readers — and welcome to our weekend newsletter.

Today we have two very different stories for you: one about the local elections on Thursday, and the other about the return of snooker to Sheffield.

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Finally, thank you for your many emails wishing us luck and sending us your ideas. We have a more than 100 messages to reply to, and we are working our way through them. Apologies if we have been slow getting back to you, but it’s amazing to see so much enthusiasm for this venture so early on.

Election 2021: Sheffield goes to the polls

In the elections for Sheffield Council, more than 140 candidates are standing in 28 seats across the city — a third of the 84 seats on the council. Labour currently controls the council with 45 seats, while there are 26 Liberal Democrats, eight Greens and one independent. Four seats are vacant.

The seats up for grabs this Thursday were meant to be decided last May but were postponed for a year due to the pandemic. A full list of all the candidates standing for election this time can be found at the Sheffield Council website.

Also taking place on May 6 will be a one-off governance referendum on the way Sheffield Council is structured (covered by The Tribune here) and elections for the role of Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire, which happen every four years.

We asked local elections expert Jason Leman to brief us on which races are particularly significant on Thursday and where we might see some upsets across the city. Jason is studying for a PhD in local parties and participatory governance in English local councils at the University of Sheffield and is a Green Party candidate in Ecclesall.

Which are the key seats to watch on election night?

The one I’ll really be watching is Hillsborough. The Labour council leader, Bob Johnson, is up for election. In 2019 Labour had their majority in Hillsborough cut by half after people turned away from the main parties. The Green Party have been the main challengers in Hillsborough for a few years and are pushing hard to win the ward. If local results go the way of national trends then Labour could win the seat, as they did in 2018. But, it's another strange election in a lot of ways, and if the Green campaign strengthens their vote then a major upset could be on the cards.

Unusually for Sheffield, Stocksbridge and Upper Don is a three way split between Labour, Conservatives, and the incumbent independent (former Lib Dem and then UKIP) Jack Clarkson. Stocksbridge used to be solid Lib Dem, then went Labour, then went UKIP after the Council threatened to close their swimming pool. It's gone back to Labour for the last couple of elections, but with UKIP out of the picture the Conservatives are pushing hard with candidate Lewis Chinchen, whose dad is standing for Police and Crime Commissioner. The Conservatives may also have an outside chance in East Ecclesfield, but that's more likely to be a Lib Dem win over the current Labour councillor.

I’ll also be watching City Ward. It’s a finely balanced ward with a low turnout and often one of the first to declare. If the Green group leader Douglas Johnson wins handily then it’s likely to be a bumpy night for Labour.

Which are the most likely to change hands?

Mosborough is a ward that seems to have gone Liberal Democrat, they've won the last two elections. The current Labour Lord Mayor, Tony Downing, is up for election in Mosborough but could well lose the seat. The Lib Dems are also very likely to take Crookes & Croospool and West Ecclesfield from Labour. Another weather-vane is Beighton, which moved from Labour to Liberal Democrat in 2019. If the Liberal Democrat vote holds up then they could take the seat. Gleadless Valley was a shock win for the Greens in 2019, but the Greens have been getting stronger in the ward over a few years now, so that might be a victory for them. The Greens are very likely to take Nether-Edge & Sharrow and Broomhill & Sharrow-Vale from Labour. Walkley is another ward where the Greens could win on a good night for them.

What would a good result look like for the main parties?

Labour will be very happy coming out evens. Three or more gains for the Lib Dems would make an excellent night for them. Two or more gains for the Greens would make them very happy. If the Conservatives win Stocksbridge and Upper Don, there will be jubilation in Number 10. The last Conservative councillor in Sheffield was the well regarded Anne Smith who won Dore and Totley for the last time in 2004 — that's now the safest Lib Dem seat in the city.

What would a bad result look like?

Anything more than five losses and Labour will be in trouble, with the nightmare scenario being a loss in Hillsborough. If their poor performance in 2019 wasn’t a one-off then the Labour majority will really be at risk next year. For the opposition parties, they are looking at the 2019 results and hoping for big wins again. But, it’s possible they won’t see much change.

Do you have a prediction for overall gains and losses?

So, the problem with making predictions for this election is there are some really big unknowns. A lot more people will have voted by post, that’s going to have an impact, as will the really short election campaign. We’ve no idea if turnout on the day might be low due to lockdown, or maybe people will be working at home and more likely to make the trip to the polling station.

UKIP are no longer an electoral force and their voters are going to go somewhere. But where? Plus, we don’t know how the referendum campaign will affect the turnout and voting. And the election in 2019 gave us some extraordinary results, but we might be back to normal. Or are we seeing a new normal, as they say. It’s all in the voters hands and predicting the outcome is fairly foolish. 

Overall, I think Labour could lose a handful of seats, with the Lib Dems and the Greens gaining. But, I also think Labour will ultimately take Stocksbridge and Upper Don, which would be a consolation for them.

What impact have the tree protests had on local politics in Sheffield?

There’s a lot more talk in all the parties about democracy and how it works. How is Sheffield run and who gets to make the decisions? How do the citizens of Sheffield have a say over what happens on their doorstep? That has come out of the tree protests, and it has created the It’s Our City campaign, to change how the Council is run. I think there’s a real awareness in the current Labour administration that something went very wrong. Whether the Labour administration can fix people’s perceptions of it, is another matter.

What impact has the governance referendum had on this cycle?

That’s really hard to say. It’s meant another leaflet through the door for a lot of people! It feeds into the wider conversation about how the council is run and what say people have. The Labour party are split on the issue, and the Lib Dems and Greens are backing change. So it looks like the referendum vote should go the way of the It’s Our City campaign. The campaign has also been credited with the Labour administration creating seven Local Area Committees across the city to devolve power. Really, the biggest impact of the referendum is likely to come in the future.

Is there any chance the PCC election could produce a surprise?

It would be nice to say the PCC election will be an exciting one, but it’s not likely! The real question seems to be whether Alan Billings can get over 50% of the vote in the first round again, to make it three times in a row. The second placed candidate in the previous election was from UKIP, but the likely second place for 2021 looks to be David Chinchen, who’s a retired superintendent from the London Met. Which used to be a plus. If Joe Otten from the Lib Dems gets second place then that would be a big win for them, so that would be interesting.

To find out more about what the councillors standing in you ward think about the key issues affecting Sheffield, visit www.whoismycouncillor.co.uk.

Excitement and relief as the snooker returns to Sheffield

By Andrew Dowdeswell

I got to the Winter Garden at around 8.15 am. We had been advised to arrive at the Crucible no earlier than one hour and 30 minutes before the session was set to start. But just like all the times I came with my grandad, I was early.

Going to the Winter Garden is the perfect build-up to watching the snooker in Sheffield. There is the buzz of the ‘cue zone’, a full-sized table which hosts games for the professionals and one-off frames for members of the public. The BBC’s television set is on your right as you wander through, the green of the plants only matched by that of the baize.

This was the World Snooker Championship, and it was back in Sheffield, but it wasn’t quite the same as before. Where before there was the hustle and bustle of TV crews, famous players milling around and the sound of long reds slamming into the backs of pockets, this time there was an eerie quiet.

Normally there would be hundreds of people in Tudor Square, excitedly waiting to enter a venue which over the last 44 years has become the sport’s spiritual home. However, Covid-19 restrictions meant that strict protocols governed how many were allowed in the Crucible at any one time.

Two of the lucky ones were Brian White and Kevin Booth, who between them have clocked up 58 World Championships at the Crucible. For Brian, 50, this was his 30th consecutive year attending snooker’s Sheffield showcase. Brian even met his wife, Lisa, at the event, and later proposed to her here too. They were married last year.

For Kevin, 48, who was attending only his 28th championship, it was “special” that Sheffield was playing host to the first event anywhere in the UK to welcome fans back. “This is the home of snooker, after all,” he said. 

Even the ticket officer seemed giddy to be welcoming spectators back in, nodding vigorously and grinning as people swept by. And the sense of excitement extended to the players, too. “It’s the best place to play, the Crucible is like a dream,” world number 14 Jack Lisowski told The Tribune, fresh from his 10-9 win against two-time finalist Ali Carter. “We’ve had the whole year and not played in front of one person bar the referee, the cameraman, and the opponent,” he said. “We’re now returning to Sheffield. It’s like a fairytale.”

Snooker first came to the Crucible in 1977. The story goes that the then snooker promoter Mike Watterson’s wife, Carole, went to see a play at the theatre. So enamoured was she with the stuffy, claustrophobic set-up she believed it would be the ideal place to host snooker.

The World Championships never had a home before Sheffield. London, Manchester, Bolton and Birmingham had all hosted the tournament in the decade preceding its arrival in the Steel City. Even Melbourne, 10,500 miles away, played host two years previously. Now, any suggestion of the World Championship being played outside the Crucible walls seems crazy. 

Inside the arena, a little over 300 people were lucky enough to take part in just the second event of the government’s pilot scheme out of lockdown. People were sat in their separate bubbles. I settled in on the back row. You might think it would be difficult to see from high in the gods but not at the Crucible. Wherever you sit, you are hemmed in, close to the action. Those at the front could reach and touch the butts of the players’ cues if they stretched far enough. It’s part of what makes it so special.

On table one, I watched defending champion Ronnie O’Sullivan open his campaign against first-time Crucible victim Mark Joyce. Both looked nervous and played nervously, miscuing simple pots.

At the mid-session interval, I spoke to Ben, who travelled up from Weston-Super-Mare the night before. He stayed in a hotel, lying about his motives, saying he was attending a funeral when they asked him for the reason for his stay. 

Researchers at Sheffield Hallam University have calculated that the championship generates £2.6 million for the city every year. Around 1.2 million spectators have visited the Crucible over the 40-plus years it has hosted the tournament, with around three-quarters of these coming from outside Sheffield specifically to attend the snooker. The championships also provide the city with £3.2 million in free marketing, it is estimated.

The real monetary value of having the snooker in the city might not be captured by those numbers, however. Much of the sport’s following now comes from China, where snooker is hugely popular, and it is thought that having the World Championships at the Crucible has helped Sheffield to burnish its growing appeal to Chinese students and investors.

The Chinese star Ding Junhui relocated to Sheffield and has opened The Ding Junhui Snooker Academy in the city centre, which trains up other young players. In 2016, 210 million people watched Ding’s run to the final, despite the majority of the sessions being played in the middle of the night.

According to data from The Sunday Times, 16% of students attending the University of Sheffield are from China, bringing in approximately £85 million to university coffers every year. This is 26% of the total tuition fee income, the third-highest proportion in the UK.

And it hasn’t gone unnoticed that the city has also received substantial Chinese investment in recent years. The £65 million New Era development, which will create Sheffield’s very own ‘Chinatown’ by St Mary’s Gate, has already ‘attracted several multi-million-pound investors from China’, according to its website.

As I pondered the geopolitics of it all, Ronnie battled his way through a difficult session, eventually eking out a 6-3 advantage that he would later convert into a 10-4 victory. A missed black off the spot from Joyce, a critical error for any professional player, presented the six-time World Champion with a prime opportunity to tighten his grip on the match.

Professional snooker is normally played in a library-like quiet, the intense concentration of the players matched by that of the audience. But every so often that silence is broken by applause, laughter or — as on this occasion — a cry of ‘come on, Ronnie!’

As well as being a dramatic, unscripted moment, the outburst underscored just what we have all been missing this last year as sport has excluded fans. And for a brief moment, even while wearing a mask, having conducted all the protocols and sitting distanced from those around me, it felt like Sheffield was returning to its usual self.


Mark Selby will play Shaun Murphy in the World Championship final today and tomorrow. Watch live on BBC One.