In the last few seasons, Manchester City have spent over £100m on players from Yorkshire. John Stones, Kyle Walker and Fabian Delph have joined up with the Etihad Stadium outfit and all have played a part this season for a City side who are currently top of the Premier League table.
But their home county itself seems to be enjoying something of a revival: at the top of the Championship sit Leeds United, whilst the League One champions from last season, Sheffield United sit just two points behind the Whites in fourth place and are looking for back-to-back promotions.
Indeed, as English regions go, Yorkshire is a real hotbed of sport: at the London 2012 Olympic Games, had Yorkshire been considered an independent country competing against other nations, their athletes’ haul of seven gold, two silver and three bronze medals would have placed it 12th in the medals table, ahead of Ukraine, Spain and Brazil.
With Huddersfield making waves in the Premier League this season, most teams in the Championship will surely think that anything is possible, and Leeds United especially are surely looking on in the hope of promotion back to the big time themselves. And the transformation in the club over the last two seasons has emphasised the hope, especially in the last few months since the club changed owners.
Sam Rourke, Editor in Chief of Football League World, tells me that Leeds have been transformed since the arrival of Andrea Radrizzani and the departure of Massimo Cellino, who garnered a toxic air around the club in his time at the helm.
“Leeds are finally stable, and Radrizzani has assisted Monk/Christiansen excellently in terms of transfers,” says Rourke, and it’s propelled them into a position where they are now serious candidates for promotion.”
“Christiansen’s transfers this summer have in particular helped elevate Leeds to the next level. He has utilised the foreign market and brought in the likes of Samu Saiz and Ezgjan Alioski, who are both proving to be incredibly shrewd acquisitions.”
Despite the size of the club and the fact that we’re still talking about one of English football’s most successful teams, who have won almost everything there is to win apart from the European Cup, where they lost in controversial circumstances in 1975, the fact they have been away from the Premier League for so long now means the thought of the Whites in the Premier League is a strange thought. Perhaps it shouldn’t be, but after more than 13 years out of the top division, there are teenage Leeds fans who weren’t even alive when their club had one of the most feared teams in the land.
It’s far too early to be putting too much pressure on the current crop of players and throwing around predictions of league wins and even promotion, but a spot in the Premier League is clearly the aim, and if their start is anything to go by, it’s certainly looking an achievable possibility.
“Of course it’s early days,” says Rourke, “but Whites fans have every right to be optimistic.”
“The team are playing a fantastic brand of attacking football, and there is a balance to the starting eleven at Leeds. There is now a spine to the side, with Wiedwald, Jansson, Phillips and Lasogga all comprising that spine. The attacking options Leeds now have at their disposal are arguably the best in league, with Saiz, Hernandez and Alioski playing behind Lasogga, and when they are on their A-game, they can genuinely be unplayable at times.”
Most importantly, though, this isn’t just a team who are performing well. The phrase ‘form is temporary’ is usually followed by ‘class is permanent’. But it also implies that the opposite is true. And whatever adjectives were stuck onto Massimo Cellino’s Leeds, ‘classy’ was never one of them.
“Leeds United undoubtedly feel like a normal club for the first time in years,” adds Rourke. “The foundations that Radrizzani has built, along with buying Elland Road back has made it feel like normal order has resumed at Leeds. The circus of Massimo Cellino’s reign in charge is now a distant memory for Leeds – the only way is up now for Leeds.”
Normal is the word.
Because in Leeds United, there undoubtedly a massive club. If you include Bradford and surrounding areas often counted as one urban area, Leeds is the fourth largest city in Britain. If you don’t, you still get a town in the top ten. Among all that, there isn’t a club who can compete with the size of Leeds United.
South Yorkshire, though, has always competed. Sheffield is a city not much smaller in size, but one that contains two of Britain’s biggest clubs, themselves fallen on hard times. This season, though, things are looking up for Sheffield United, newly-promoted as League One champions, a good showing in the second tier this time around would be a good showing, before perhaps aiming at Premier League football over the next few years. Their start to the season, though, might well allow them to dream bigger.
“Chris Wilder has made a sensational start to life in the Sky Bet Championship,” says Rourke, “and it’s the togetherness of the team that is the standout reason behind their impressive start.”
“Wilder did not go mental in the summer transfer window, and is near enough utilising the same XI that stormed to the League One title last season. The players know each other inside out, they are a cohesive unit comprised of 11 hard-working individuals who strive to play as a team. The win over Sheffield Wednesday on Sunday proved that it’s not all about expensive individuals, and that a united, close-knit team will prevail.”
“It remains to be seen whether the Blades can maintain this impressive early season form, but if they can keep this togetherness intact amongst the squad, then there is no reason why not. United will need to ensure their talismanic striker Billy Sharp remains fit, as he is a focal point in their attack.”
Like Leeds – and unlike other sides in the division who have spent millions in the summer in the hope of recouping that money next season in the Premier League – the Blades are improving through coaching, improvement and heart. In a league where most teams are much of a muchness in terms of quality, that’s no bad thing.
In essence, you can’t cheat. Newcastle United may have won the Championship last season, but they didn’t do it just because they spent more money than anyone else. They didn’t buy big-name players and attempt to blow the league away. Instead, they bought players who you might consider top Championship quality, rather than bottom Premier League quality. And that made a difference as they didn’t rely on individuals.
They weren’t the only side whose insistence on good coaching and a close team spirit led to success and, ultimately, promotion. “The Blades sort of remind me of Huddersfield from last season,” says Rourke, “they’re a group of players who play for one another, and are devoid of any ‘big-time Charlies’.”
Fans of both Yorkshire Uniteds, in Sheffield and Leeds, may not be overly comfortable looking to Huddersfield for inspiration. But last season, David Wagner’s side proved that you don’t have to have big-name players to go from Championship relegation fodder to Wembley play-off winners. But at a time when Manchester City are spending millions of pounds on talent from Yorkshire, the clubs of the region could be undergoing a bit of a revival, too.