Leeds United and Sheffield Wednesday last contested a Premier League derby in April 2000. A week-and-a-half later, Wednesday were relegated. It is so long ago that Howard Wilkinson – unbeknown to him – was a few months away from being named caretaker manager of England’s national team for the second time.
Leeds followed Wednesday down in 2004 and Yorkshire’s biggest clubs became lost in the wilderness. Much as football works in cycles, the length of their stints in the Football League is extraordinary. More than half of Leeds’ lifetime as a professional club been spent inside England’s top-flight. Wednesday’s next season at that level would be their 68th. There are few games outside the Premier League which expose more severe decline or hint at more inherent potential.
Wilkinson managed both clubs, leaving Hillsborough for Leeds in 1988 after a seismic flash of inspiration led the Elland Road to appoint him. “I’d like to see the situation change, for Leeds and for Wednesday,” he said. “It’s a long time since this was a Premier League game, that’s true, but my view on that has always been very simple.
“If you look at the crowds, the history of the clubs and the potential they’ve shown over the years – the things they’ve done over the years – then they’re great candidates for the Premier League but you need more than that to get there.
“In the end it’s about everything – players, finances, the way a club’s run, the way a team’s managed.
“I can’t say I’m surprised that either club’s been in the Championship for so long because the longer it goes on the more people come to expect it. But disappointed?
“Yes. I’m disappointed about it because I understand the potential.”
Wednesday – almost 16 years on from their demise under Peter Shreeves (a man who uttered the prescient phrase “you can never lose the fact that we’re relegated”) – think they have uncovered it again. A takeover by Thai businessman Dejphon Chansiri 12 months ago is translating into a concerted step forward from the mediocre position which Wednesday were used to occupying in the Championship.
The club won five times at Hillsborough last season and lost to Leeds in their final home game. Their record at present is a complete contrast and so is their place in the league: seventh, two points from the play-offs, with four wins from five.
United’s owner, Massimo Cellino, thought seriously about buying Wednesday, or at least spoke with Milan Mandaric about the possibility, before he began arranging his majority purchase of Leeds in early 2014. The two-year anniversary of that takeover will fall in April and it is hard to know if Cellino would draw any satisfaction from the months in between.
Steve Evans, Leeds’ head coach and the sixth employed under Cellino, has dangled the play-offs in front of the Italian ever since he replaced Uwe Rosler in October but 12 points adrift and 10 behind Wednesday, that target will disappear completely if United lose at Hillsborough tomorrow. There are some who think it went with Tuesday’s injury-time defeat at Ipswich Town. Others feel Leeds were never genuinely in the running.
Tomorrow, still, is the first time for a while that a derby between the clubs carries more significance than merely local rivalry.
Wednesday could move up to fifth at full-time. Evans was not joking when he described the fixture as “must-win” and an away win would at least allow him to cling to his own sense of optimism, with the bottom starting to drop out of sixth-placed Brighton’s season.
Wilkinson said Evans was right to persevere. “Leeds aren’t out of it,” he said. “If you’re realistic then 12 points is a lot to make up with half of the season gone. The statistics would say that it’s very hard from here but it’s difficult to categorise the Championship, the same as it is the Premier League this season. Is not black-and-white in terms of ruling teams in and out.
“The right attitude is to go at it for as long as you can. But I’m not saying it won’t be difficult. I think Leeds will know full well that it’s going to be difficult. They’d rather be where Wednesday are.”
Chansiri has thrown much of his wealth at Wednesday’s team, spending £1m to replace a swamp of a pitch and redrawing a playing squad managed by Portuguese head coach Carlos Carvalhal. Fernando Forestieri was wanted by Cellino in August but left Watford for Hillsborough instead. His goal in a 3-2 win over Bolton Wanderers on Tuesday was his 11th of the season.
Cellino has recruited heavily in numerical terms since his own arrival in England but his record in the transfer market, particularly in his first two windows, is mixed at best and misjudged at worst. Much of his own funding has been aimed at fighting the acute financial problems he took on from previous owner GFH. Back when the Italian bought Leeds, the club were unable – or unwilling – to pay the monthly wage bill. Cash flows more steadily at Elland Road now but Cellino’s other problems have been numerous. He entered the new year with another Football League disqualification lingering in the background, subject to an appeal which still has no date.
He and Chansiri will be at Hillsborough tomorrow for a fixture which always pulls a crowd and invariably tempts Sky to televise it. Sheffield’s major game is the Steel City derby but in the years after the conception of the Premier League, Leeds’ meetings with Wednesday were the most high-profile all-Yorkshire fixtures. It frustrates Wilkinson that the county does not have a single representative in the Premier League; that tomorrow’s televised game is a pick from the Championship.
“People in Sheffield would tell you that the Sheffield derby is their biggest game,” Wilkinson said. “My view as someone who’s been in this business all his life is that the higher you go up the leagues, the bigger the games get.
“Wednesday’s games with Leeds were massive games in the Premier League and I’d like that to be the case again. It’s Yorkshire football I feel sorry for. I want Wednesday up there, and Leeds and Sheffield United. I want clubs like that in the Premier League, punching their weight. It’s time they were.”